TAMPA — Valerie Perez was an 18-year-old high school student, living on her own in public housing when the Tampa Bay Times told her story of perseverance.
At one point, she had lived in a car for a few months and studied by candlelight to get through the International Baccalaureate program at Hillsborough High School. Her father lived in Texas, and her mother was in jail on and off.
Her peers didn't know about her home life, but teachers and administrators helped, along with the district's Homeless Education and Literacy Project. She graduated with the class of 2008.
Four years later, Perez, now 22, speaks with a softness in her tone that wasn't there before. She has changed "so much," she said recently, when the Times caught up with her to talk about her most recent graduation — from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies — and where she goes from here.
How exactly have you changed?
Here, I'm fully independent. The mentality changes. You're forced to take care of yourself. Life forces you. I've had to step up.
With everything that was happening to me during high school, I wasn't able to appreciate my friends. They keep you grounded. I've learned to grow from an internal perspective. I've realized that just because I'm going through one thing, doesn't mean someone else isn't going through something as difficult for them to handle. Everyone deserves the same amount of respect and courtesy.
What was it like living with roommates?
I've had 13 in the past four years. I think people forget, especially freshmen, that they don't have someone there to clean up after them. There's a right way and wrong way to handle things. I try to handle things the right way.
Having lived on your own, did you find you were more mature than them?
I think it depends on the individual. I remember when I first came to UCF, I wasn't that organized. When I was a freshman, I had a roommate who was focused and wanted to go to Los Angeles. She's there now. Last year, I had three roommates who left piles of dishes. I would just look and be disgusted. Flies flew over them. We used to get into fights. I would be like: How old are you? They were not respectful. They would go through my stuff when I wasn't there. One was smoking weed one day when I was home. The next day, I told her the next time I see or smell it, I'm calling the cops. This year I had three roommates I love so much. When we first got here, we set rules: no smoking, no drugs, take care of your own stuff.
What helped you get through college?
I got a mix of scholarships and financial aid. I was continuously applying for scholarships. You can apply for 20 and only get one. I got $500 and a MacBook laptop from Hillsborough High School alumni. That really helped me out. It was the best scholarship I got for sure. I was in the high school scholarship office every day or every other applying and trying to find ways to pay for college. I started with a budget. I think it's not so much what you do in your house as outside — entertainment. Pay your bills and everything else comes after. I would cook one thing and break it down into servings for several days. Then I could come home and pop it in the microwave.
What did you do outside of school?
With my sorority, Gamma Sigma Sigma National Service Sorority we volunteered with A Gift For Teaching, packing boxes of school supplies for teachers, served breakfast at Ronald McDonald House and handed out T-shirts and water to walkers raising money for juvenile diabetes.
Every summer I took classes and worked internships. I just got my first paying job since high school. I'm a fundraiser for Grassroots Campaigns, raising money for (the American Civil Liberties Union). It took persistence. Just keep on applying. I applied for about 20 jobs. This is the only one that called me back.
How was college different than high school?
It's up to you to make sure you pay your own bills, get your grades. If you can't get all that done, you need to learn to ask for help. You have to learn to solve problems. Relationship issues. Underage drinking.
I've kept myself focused. Cut out distractions. I don't date. I'm not the only person who doesn't date during college. I'm one of those people that if my friends are underage, they don't drink. . . .
Everything is different, really. Every class you meet different people, gain new friends. College was more about the interpersonal connections with people around you. I've met people who influenced my life. We're just there for each other. Everyone is in the same mind-set — get to graduation at the same time. Everyone positively influences each other. That's the most important part of college for me. College isn't just about the education.
In high school, I had my goal. I set a date. Four years later, I graduated. After I got to college, I said, "Okay, I'm here. I've got to graduate college on time." Now that I've done that, I set another goal: to get my master's. I'm not going to give up, just work a little harder.
So that's your next goal — a master's degree?
Yes, nonprofit management. I want to open my own nonprofit organization geared toward at-risk youth, like I once was. It will be a place to develop their strengths, through education centers where kids can do homework and get tutoring. Get health awareness, sex, drug and alcohol education — those things teens don't go to parents to talk about. I plan to have an activity center with sports and an art studio. When I was that age, I remember kids doing stupid stuff. I would wonder: Why is that person doing that? They had nothing better to do.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at (813) 226-3431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.