On May 14th, 2016, Stephonae Nelson took a handful of steps across a stage at The Pit to receive her diploma. While she only traveled a few yards at that moment, for Nelson, they signified the end of a long journey. A journey that she never expected to take when she was preparing to leave high school many years earlier. But with the love and support of her friends, family, counselors and teachers, Nelson ended the day as a UNM graduate, double majoring in Family Studies and Psychology.

When Nelson thinks back to the day she walked onto UNM’s main campus for the first time as a student, she remembers how she never believed she would be a college graduate, much less preparing for graduate school and tackling the problems of a new generation of college students. After attending three different schools during her high school career, she believed that she would leave UNM shortly after she arrived.

“When I came to UNM I really didn’t think I was going to come to college. I was dead set that I was going to work at McDonalds and Walgreens, and no one could tell me any differently. According to common belief, I was a lost cause educationally. I was headed down a bad path.”

But her story starts before that first day of classes at UNM.

After attending two previous high schools, and transferring to a school that she thought was her ‘last resort,’ Nelson wasn’t sure what her future held, but was convinced that a university education wasn’t to be. While she was resigned to this, a counselor at the Rio Rancho Cyber Academy saw Nelson’s potential to excel academically, believing in Nelson when she didn’t believe in herself.

“My senior academic advisor and my school principal were the ones who interviewed me (for entry into the Rio Rancho Cyber Academy). They asked me ‘why did you want to come here?’ I told them, ‘honestly, it’s my last resort.’  They were taken aback. They looked at my test scores and asked me why I had a 1.2 GPA, since I had maxed out most of their entry tests.

“At a lot of my other schools, my instructors didn’t see me as a student that had a future. It was more ‘let’s try to get her to finish her diploma, and then we can wipe our hands clean.’ So when I went to Cyber Academy, I was told that I was going to be a year late in graduating. They explained to me that APS credits don’t transfer to Rio Rancho evenly.”

This setback could have demoralized Nelson even more. But at this new school she had support that she hadn’t previously experienced at her other schools. Her advisor told her it would be OK, that this would give her the opportunity to be better prepared to attend college.

“They recognized that I needed someone to believe in me so I could start believing in myself. I think that’s what it came down to. That’s why my advisor filled out my UNM application, because I didn’t think that I belonged here. That if I was obviously struggling so hard in high school that there was no future for me in higher education.”

That belief paid off, as Nelson graduated from the Rio Rancho Cyber Academy and prepared for the next phase of her life at The University of New Mexico.

Once Nelson arrived at UNM, she found a support network that was very much similar to the one she had just left in Rio Rancho. She took advantage of the academic advising support on campus and each semester her GPA continued to climb, and with it, her confidence grew. She was selected to attend the Disney College Program, and later became an orientation leader and a resident advisor, and joined UNM’s Greek Life. She credits this support in helping her break out of her high school shell. And they continued to give her the drive to push past problems she encountered in college, from her anxiety about being a college student, to being temporarily homeless, and to almost losing her lottery scholarship.

“These little victories made me start to believe in myself. And I wanted to pay it forward and I wanted to start believing in others, which is why I started taking some of the positions I picked on campus and work with those incoming freshmen.

“I think that it’s important to challenge our incoming students. Because even if they stumble along the way, they’ll overcome it in time. I really believe that the power of believing in someone can encourage them, push them and then they’ll realize that they can empower themselves, and that makes it possible to be more involved in the UNM community, and in Albuquerque. Because of the fact that you recognize that if it wasn’t for the welcoming arms of UNM, if it wasn’t for the fact that ‘Everyone’s A Lobo,’ you wouldn’t be where you are.”

Nelson takes a moment to look back at her accomplishments, but she also knows she isn’t finished with college yet. After achieving her dream of being a college graduate, she now has her sights set on her Masters degree and Ph.D., and possibly a second masters, “if I get bored,” and plans on staying in higher education to mentor, advise, and believe in the next generation of students who may not believe in themselves.

“I want people to be able to have the beautiful experience that I’ve had here. I want them to be able to challenge their thoughts. I hope I can get my doctorate and continue in higher education and really help people recognize that it doesn’t really matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter what disparities you might have, it doesn’t matter what anybody else says. It is achievable and it is doable, and I want to be the person fighting for them in their corner.

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it took a university to plant the seeds of success into myself and many more like me. Thank you, UNM.”