You may recognize Yesenia Rengel, this year’s 2016 Gala Preview of the New York International Auto Show keynote speaker. It’s hard to believe—even for her—that just a few short years ago she learned that she wouldn’t be graduating high school.
The daughter of hardworking Ecuadorian immigrants, she grew up in public housing the South Bronx. She always dreamed of being a zoologist. But life sometimes has different plans for us. Upon reaching high school, as a student at the crowded, problem-plagued high school north of Yankee Stadium, Rengel admits that she didn’t take her education seriously.
Discouraged by the chaotic atmosphere and negativity, she physically and mentally checked out, ditching school and using drugs. But reality was about to hit hard: as a result of failing classes, she was told that she lacked the credits necessary to graduate.
I realized, I just wasted four years of my life fooling around. I was embarrassed. How was I supposed to tell parents?,” she recalls, reflecting back on that day.
This wouldn’t be the last of the bad news for Yesenia. When inquiring about how she could make up credits to graduate, she soon learned that her school didn’t even offer the classes she needed. As a last resort, a guidance counselor recommended that she check out ESH’s Smith YABC program.
Initially unsure of what to expect, her mood changed after meeting with her ESH Advisor: instead of being scared and nervous, the advisor made her feel at ease. Everything about the situation felt right and Yesenia’s confidence began to grow. She felt like she was finally on the road to graduation.
Not so fast.
It was at that time that she discovered that she was two months pregnant. Dejected, she looks back:
I was going to be another young girl who drops out of high school because of pregnancy. I felt like that was it.
Afraid of her parents’ reaction, she hastily moved in with her boyfriend, thinking that they were going to be a family. It wasn’t long after that he became increasingly controlling and abusive. She got a glimpse of what her life was going to become as a teen mom with no high school diploma, relying on a manipulative boyfriend for financial support—and what she saw frightened her.
In a leap of faith, Yesenia revealed this information to her advisor, who helped reestablish the lines of communication with her parents. They wholeheartedly agreed to let Yesenia move back into the family’s home. Things were about to change, but for the better…
She could now move on with her education and felt more motivated than ever to earn her diploma so that she could create a better life for her unborn child. While she studied for her Regents exams, ESH helped her find an internship where she could earn money. Soon, she took exams—and passed—all while pregnant. It was official: she was now a high school graduate.
That was not enough for her. With the support of her counselor here at ESH, she applied and was accepted into college. She became a participant in ESH’s College Retention Services, a program that supports first year college students in acclimating to their new educational environment.
Today Yesenia holds her Associate’s degree and is now finishing her Bachelor’s degree at Herbert H. Lehman College. With the encouragement from ESH, she now sees a career trajectory for herself that she never thought possible: upon graduating, she wants to pursue her Master’s degree and a career helping young adults in the same way ESH supported her,
Watch Yesenia’s speech: