Vancouver was more than 2,600 miles from Atlanta, Georgia, where Stephanie Heredia had lived the last three years. As a high school sophomore, she moved with her family in 2011 to Washington state, where they had relatives. They opened a tire shop in the Hazel Dell area.

Heredia liked that her new high school, Fort Vancouver, was smaller than her school in Atlanta. Fort didn’t require a uniform or heavy security. The staff was accessible. Heredia made friends right away.

But she’d always had difficulties in math class, and the subject continued to be hard for her. When Heredia began to struggle during her junior year, a friend referred her to Rachel Benton. Benton worked in Fort’s Learning Assistance Program, which provides support to students. With her help, Heredia passed algebra.

Math wasn’t the only challenge in Heredia’s life, however. When Heredia’s grandmother became sick, Heredia’s single mother traveled to Mexico for several months to provide care. Heredia helped manage the family business and raise her three younger siblings.

She began to miss weeks of school at a time. When she returned to class, the junior couldn’t concentrate. “My head was somewhere else. I felt like all the pressure was on me,” she said.

By the end of her junior year, she was short on the credits required to graduate on time. But she stayed after school for homework help and concluded another year at Fort before leaving in 2014.

By then, Benton had moved to the district’s student welfare and attendance department, helping to re-engage students who have dropped out or left school. But she stayed in contact with Heredia. “She’s always been there for me,” said Heredia.

In her new role, Benton worked to enroll Heredia in an alternative program. Clark College was a good fit. Heredia began taking a course in the college’s high school diploma completion program in September 2016 and hopes to graduate within a year.

She’s not afraid to work hard, juggling the class with a job at a nursing home and a second job performing aircraft security checks for a commercial airline.

“I’m really proud of Stephanie. She could’ve given up when she came up against different obstacles, but she persevered. … She never said said, ‘I’m not going to’ or ‘I can’t.’ She always was persistent that she could,” said Benton.

Getting her high school diploma is just the beginning of Heredia’s aspirations, however. Her goal is to become a dental hygienist, then study criminal justice. “I want to be among the first of my family to graduate from college,” she said.

With plenty of determination and Benton in her corner, Heredia is on her way.

Pictured above: Stephanie Heredia, left, with Rachel Benton, a student success coordinator for Vancouver Public Schools.