From childhood on, Kelsey Fuentes knew she had a bright mind, one that would take her anywhere she wanted to go. Learning always came easy to the now 26-year-old alum of East Side House. Yet, her curious mind could never quite be contained by a classroom. “I’ve always had dreams, but a few of them were just too big for others to believe,” said Kelsey.
One of those dreams was a life in the medical profession. Kelsey remembers always being fascinated with the way doctors and nurses changed lives. Growing up, television and movies were her only exposure to such a life.
Raised by her great grandmother in Rhode Island, Kelsey says she always felt out of place. She felt comfort with her great grandmother, but as she entered her rebellious teen years, she was sent back to her mother in the Bronx. When she returned to New York to again live with her mother and half-siblings, her emotional state became even more complicated. “At that point, I wasn’t able to respect my mother’s authority as a parent because of our time apart,” said Kelsey.
Kelsey began to struggle, often feeling confused and overwhelmed, lacking motivation in a school setting. Soon the unrest Kelsey felt at home began to impact her schoolwork. Bored with school, and feeling unchallenged Kelsey began to skip classes – feeling high school was a waste of time. Polite, well dressed and congenial, Kelsey admits she did not fit the typical “troubled teen” mold. Not surprisingly, her truancy from school easily slipped under the radar, though not for long.
Bouncing from different high schools, Kelsey found that each one seemed a different version of chaos with students who had long ago “checked out”. School, like most things in her life at that point, just did not fit. Though she had rejected school routines, Kelsey had found her fulfillment in the work place. She held down two part-time jobs and became known as a conscientious and indispensable employee at the coffee shop and retail stores in lower Manhattan. “I just always remember being my own person. Maybe I even was a little stubborn.”
Before long, the absences piling up were undeniable and two years of educational challenges had taken their toll. She transferred to a new program at East Side House’s Bronx Haven High School with hopes that she could catch up and graduate. However, Kelsey admits the same challenges of motivation continued to follow her – even with the full support of East Side House. Not having friends and not feeling comfortable led her to further slip in her studies. Feeling like she was reaching the age limit of high school, Kelsey entered a GED program. However, the instructor knew right away she was far advanced from the other students and that she was capable of far more.
Natalie Lozada, Associate Executive Director of Programs, said Kelsey was one of the most complex students ESH staff had encountered at that point. “She was so bright, and had so much talent, but she felt high school was holding her back. She felt beyond it.”
Natalie recalls conferring many times with staff members about the seemingly confident and self assured young woman who simply lacked the connection between her present schoolwork and the future. “In the end, it was about accountability. It was about making her realize she’d be free of the constraints, but only when she buckled down and got her degree,” said Natalie.
Kelsey quickly discovered slipping out of the classroom unnoticed would not work at East Side House. She realized she had met her match in ESH staff, who relentlessly pursued her, engaging her, holding her accountable and using a whole team approach to re-engage her in her studies.
East Side House then offered the solution she had been hoping for. She enrolled in a brand new program for the time, the Young Adult Borough Center (YABC) which offered afternoon and evening classes. It seemed like a flexible schedule that could work for her, one that allowed her to keep the satisfying full-time work she had come to love, and still pursue her high school diploma.
Something inside Kelsey clicked and she dove into her studies, making up classes, exams and putting herself back on track to graduate. “I’ve always been on my own timetable,” she said. She admits that the behind the scenes and hands-on support from ESH staff was integral to driving her to adjusting that timetable into one that produced results – a high school diploma.
After graduation, Kelsey waded through multiple jobs trying to find her way. She took college classes part-time while working full time as a secretary. After a lay-off, a temp agency placed her in the office of a hospital transplant unit. It was serendipity. The dream of a life in medicine, one that had softened to a whisper suddenly began to roar again. “It was something about being there, seeing the doctors and wondering if it was not too late. I wanted my dreams all over again.”
Kelsey researched and learned of a special program abroad that allows students with non-traditional backgrounds a chance at medical school. Upon doing all her research it was time to place a call for her high school records.
Though she had kept in close touch with ESH staff in six years since graduation, this news, she knew was going to come as a shock. “We were ecstatic for her,” said Natalie “It was amazing to see her going for something she wanted, but we never knew.”
No one knew. Throughout her student life, Kelsey had closely guarded her secret dream of being a doctor. “I was always afraid that I would be judged or dismissed,” said Kelsey. She finally felt relief as ESH staffers enthusiastically helped their former student put the pieces together to apply to medical school. Kelsey began to realize how much she treasured her relationships with East Side House.
“They have always been there for me, but they made it clear everyone was in my corner,” said Kelsey. Now, half a decade after she left with a diploma, she fully realizes the team she had in East Side House.Months later, she typed just three words into a text message to Natalie and other ESH staff members, ” I did it!”
After years of resisting school, Kelsey was accepted into medical school, rewriting a future she once was unsure about. This fall, Kelsey will return for her third year of school at the Medical University of Lublin in Poland. The intensity of her studies, the challenge of learning life in a new country have been daunting, but she knows she’s come too far to turn back. “I know I’ve already beaten so many odds already,” said Kelsey.
This summer, on her school break, she is working in the ESH administrative building, which she says was like coming home. Familiar faces who once chased her back into the classroom were now working side by side with her as colleagues. Just weeks before, she happily volunteered to speak with other ESH students when this year’s Student Ambassadors traveled to Europe. Kelsey is direct in her advice to today’s high school students: don’t waste opportunities.
She believes she now better appreciates opportunities she almost lost. “The important thing to remember is it’s never too late to live your dreams.”
Footnote: Today, East Side House high school students like Kelsey have the benefit of a brand new career exploration and credentialing program called PSP or Post Secondary Pathways. Now entering its 2nd year of operation, the program allows students to deeply investigate career fields of interest, (like health and technology related industries). Students take college level courses that certify them for entry level jobs in those industries.