Three St. Lucie County girls beat odds to graduate with dual-enrollment credit and a clear path to the future

ST. LUCIE COUNTY – Keeping your focus during your final year of high-school can be tough, as senioritis begins to spread, friends become a distraction and end of school celebrations begin to take place. Compound those issues with less than perfect home conditions and the stricter grade requirements of dual-enrollment classes and stress levels on students can begin to soar. Three area students, Marissa Garcia, Shanieya Harris and Ce'Coya Paulk, each overcame specific obstacles on their pathway to a successful high school graduation.

Marissa, who turned 18 on June 5, graduated from Port St. Lucie High School May 23 and served as her class valedictorian. A resident of Fort Pierce and a dual-enrollment student at Indian River State College, she says her biggest challenge was managing her time in order to keep her grades up on all fronts and still enjoy her favorite sport.

“There were a couple of courses, such as my IB classes that required me to work harder and study more,” she said. “I’m not going to lie – it was hard at first adjusting to finding enough time to complete all my assignments for both high school and college, especially during my volleyball season. There would be times where I would stay up till three in the morning trying to finish my work.”

One of those college courses proved to be more difficult than she had expected.

“When I took Biology 2 at Indian River State College, I struggled with that class,” she said. “My tests scores were not where I wanted them to be at the beginning. Through perseverance, I was able to pull off a grade I was happy with.”

Marissa, born in Port St. Lucie born to parents of Mexican descent, credited her teachers, friends and family with helping her succeed.

“If it was not for their continuous support and encouragement, I would not be where I am right now,” she emphasized.

Linda Tapia, the head of the St. Lucie County School District’s Title l & Migrant Education Program, served as one of Marissa’s mentors and highlighted the sacrifices her parents made to ensure their daughter’s success.

“Her mother Lucy Garcia drove Marissa twice a week to Stuart for classes for an entire semester,” she said. “Her mother patiently waited for her in the parking lot while she was in class. Her father, after working long hours out on the farm, would come home and cook dinner to help out.”

Marissa, who plans on majoring in psychology on a Pre-Med track at the University of Florida this fall, admitted her announcement as class valedictorian amazed her family.

“When I first told my family that I was going to be the valedictorian, they were overjoyed,” she said. “I think they kind of had an idea as I kept updating them on my grades and rank every day, but when we go the official word, they were all proud.”

Ms. Tapia said she’s worked with Marissa for the last five years and has known her family for more than two decades. She sat with them during what she called an “extremely emotional” graduation ceremony.

“Yes, I was in tears as were her proud parents,” she said. “Her father – who primarily speaks Spanish – yelled that's my girl in English as Marissa was being introduced as Class of 2019 Port St. Lucie High School Valedictorian. I desperately wanted this day to arrive but, at the same time I was extremely nervous and trying not to think of why I was there. We witnessed graduation history of only the third migrant valedictorian since the inception of St. Lucie Public Schools in 1900 and the Migrant Education Program in 1966.”

Another area student, Shanieya Harris, graduated from Treasure Coast High School on May 22. Now 19, she said she was held back a grade when she had to repeat kindergarten, a fact her friends never let her forget.

“I never understood why it was something my peers would take as a joke, but I am glad they did because it gave me something to laugh at too,” she said. “Taking one step back had prepared me to take a dozen forward and instill discipline.”

Shanieya not only learned discipline over the years but also how to face challenges head-on. In fact, she even began to seek them out during her final years in high school.

“It took a lot out of me to ensure that I graduated the way I wanted to this year,” she explained. “It wasn’t that it was impossible, but I wanted to make sure I achieved beyond the bare minimum. I spent endless hours in front of my computer screen, and I wish I could say it was spent playing a cool video game, but I dedicated myself to my studies. Greatness doesn’t come overnight, so I applied the pressure, got out of my comfort zone and went after my goals in ways I had never tried before such as taking more challenging classes and devoting to self-studies.”

Shanieya, who plans on majoring in Spanish language and literature with a minor in French at Barry University, says she never felt like she was lagging but admits she did need encouragement along the way. She got that support from nearly a dozen individuals who included her Spanish teachers, JROTC instructors, guidance counselors and others. She also credited her faith in God and the love of her family.

“I needed someone to remind me of why I started and what my capabilities were as a student,” she said. “As we constantly go through the same process of waking up and going to school, that same drive you started with can get lost in the chaos. My staff and teachers helped me keep sane and rekindle my fire to learn daily. I wasn’t just a number but a part of an outstanding family. All credit goes to these amazing mentors for allowing me to know my worth.”

Her guidance counselor at Treasure Coast High School, Kayleigh Nemo, said she saw Shanieya as a strong, passionate, inquisitive and personable student, all characteristics that helped her overcome the barriers of a large, single-parent household with limited resources.

“When she wants something, she goes for it,” Ms. Nemo said. “She is so well-rounded, which is so trite to say, but she really is. A top leader in JROTC, she is fluent in Spanish, led the prayer circle and even brought in mentees to take it over now that she and her twin sister are graduated. Her smile is infectious, she speaks and writes passionately, she is unbelievably responsible and wants feedback for growth purposes.”

Fort Pierce Central High School graduate Ce'Coya Paulk overcame her own unique set of obstacles to successfully walk down the isle of the Havert L Fenn Center and receive her diploma May 23. One of those could have easily caused her to admit defeat and nobody would have blamed her: Her family lost their home, and she was forced to drive daily from West Palm Beach to Fort Pierce to finish the last several months of her senior year. For that reason, the afternoon graduation ceremony became even more special to her.

“It felt nerve wrecking but yet a relief to walk down and receive my diploma,” she said. “I had a huge smile on my face.”

Indeed, Ce'Coya, 18, admitted to feeling overwhelmed at times and tempted “to throw in the towel” during those long days of driving back and forth to both Fort Pierce Central and IRSC where she also took dual-enrollment classes. It was then that she relied on the strength of her mentors and grandmother, specifically after one particularly difficult Biology 2 college class and an introductory psychology class that she had to retake to raise the grade from a D to an A.

“My mentors helped me regain focus and encouraged me to ask my professor for help to catch up,” she explained. “People who helped me besides my teachers had to be my guidance counselor Ms. [Stacy] Sommer and her assistant Ms. [Angela] Hale, My grandmother for her endless support and encouraging me to try my best in everything and my Godmother Nicole Williams.”

Ce'Coya also included her father in the list, although he couldn’t encourage her in person due to being incarcerated.

“Although my dad is in prison, he's gone out his way to be as involved in my life as much he can,” she added. “I appreciate him for always making sure I know he loves me and is overly proud of me and my accomplishments.”

She also acknowledged two particular mentors for their support, who she says have formed part of her life since she was five years old and helped her survive her first two English composition classes at IRSC.

“I manage to get through these courses with the help from my beloved mentors Marsha Wiggins and Pam Cahoon,” she insisted. “Plenty of nights that they helped me correct a bunch of papers or helped me expand an idea into an eight-page research paper.”

Ce'Coya plans on continuing her education as a Biological Sciences major at Florida Atlantic University where she’ll have 30 of her college credit hours completed thanks do dual enrollment.

Ms. Sommer said the recent graduate’s success is particular meaningful because she also had to work part-time to help pay living expenses while still in school. The student quickly found solace with understanding faculty and those who were perhaps even less fortunate.

“She formed relationships with many of the adult staff here and even became a mentor to a group of disabled students on campus,” Ms. Sommer said. “We always made sure she had someone here to talk with and work through any difficulties she was having at the time. She had a mentor assigned to her through a cross-mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents who has stuck by her and has been an amazing support and advocate for her.”

Ms. Sommer personally watched as Ce'Coya walked down the isle smiling and emphasized the determination that it took her to get to that point.

“Despite it all, even though many times she felt defeated, she would persevere,” she added. “She graduated with high honors and will be attending FAU to study pre-med in the fall. I am always proud of my kids, as I know how hard they work to attain this achievement. I was especially proud of Ce'Coya – her perseverance and grit. I know that is one student who will beat the odds and find a way to succeed regardless of the cards she is dealt.”#ways making sure I know he loves me and is overly proud of me and my accomplishments.”

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