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New London — Freshman year of high school was difficult for Stephanie Reymundi. It was her first year in a public school and she didn't know many of the other students. The workload proved to be more rigorous than she expected.
So when a guidance counselor told her that she had fallen behind the rest of her grade and was not on track to graduate high school in four years, Reymundi knew she had to make a change.
"Freshman year was my bad year, but I definitely worked through that," Reymundi, now 17, said. "I had to be more organized. I was trying to remember everything, but I had so much going on that I could never remember it all."
With the help of her guidance counselor, Reymundi got organized and put in extra work to catch up.
"Once the first semester of sophomore year was over, they told me I was back on track with my grade. I was so happy and I kept working so hard from there," she said. "I wasn't going to go back down from where I was."
Reymundi hasn't looked back since, and when she graduates from New London High School on June 10, Reymundi will become the first member of her family to graduate from high school.
"They didn't get to do it so I'm going to make sure I do it, to show them that it was possible," she said of her parents, brother and two sisters. "That's why I have to go for what I really want."
Though her siblings have all earned their GED diplomas or continued their education through New London Adult Education, none share the traditional high school experience with their little sister.
Her sisters in particular, Reymundi said, regret having missed out on things like prom, and the pomp and circumstance that accompanies graduation.
"They didn't have an experience at high school at all. But to see me do it," she said, pausing briefly, "they're so excited. It makes them want to push towards what they want to do and where they want to be."
Reymundi said she plans to keep pushing toward what she wants to do: become the first member of her family to go to college, and to study nursing.
Last week, she took and passed her state Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) exam and has been accepted at Southern Connecticut State University, though she is waiting until she learns how much financial aid the school will provide before she officially enrolls.
Her CNA certification was the culmination of a two-year course offered at NLHS that combines classroom learning, hands-on instruction and internship experience.
During one trip to Greentree Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Waterford, Reymundi was assigned to feed an elderly woman who, the staff said, didn't usually eat much and hardly ever smiled.
"But when I was feeding her I made sure I was taking my time with her," Reymundi said. "She ate all her food, she was smiling and I could tell that she felt good. And that made me feel good."
That feeling, she said, was affirmation that a career in nursing is what she wants for herself.
"I love people, I love being around people. If I can help in any way, I will," she said. "So to have a job like that would be over the top."
Between her experiences studying to become a CNA and an internship last summer in the same-day surgery department of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, Reymundi said, she's been granted a good idea of what a career as a CNA or nurse would be like.
"I've seen the job from almost everybody's point of view, I even did paperwork, so I got to see a bit of each thing they do," Reymundi said. "I'm glad I did it because I got to see a lot and I feel like I know what the job is really like."
Now, as she counts down the days until she will hear her name called to receive her high school diploma, Reymundi said she appreciates more than ever the help she received along the way.
Being the first in her family to go through the college application process, Reymundi took advantage of guidance offered by Higher Edge, a New London nonprofit organization that works with high school students from low-income households and those who will be the first in their families to attend college.
Being a trailblazer for her family, she said, has made her more independent, confident and ready for college.
"I have to make them proud, I'm going to make them proud," she said, "and I want to make myself proud."