Most people think they know the narrative of “high school dropouts,” and this narrative usually points the finger at the person who didn’t complete their education. In Salena Hansley’s case, the narrative is completely off. In fact, Salena used to love school.
“I could have been a straight A student,” Salena said. “I was always the class participant. I raised my hand. I turned in all my work on time. I passed all my tests.”
Unfortunately, Salena’s studious behavior attracted all of the wrong kind of attention even though she was doing everything right.
“In school that was looked at as, ‘Oh, you’re the smart kid,’ or ‘Oh, you’re the teacher’s pet.’ So I was bullied a lot. I was picked on,” she said. “Eventually, I started to fall back and my grades started dropping. I just got to the point where I wanted everyone to leave me alone – whatever it was going to take to just not get jacked up on the way home from school, you know?”
Salena’s mom tried to help her when she stopped going to school by enrolling her in an adult ed program. For 17-year-old Salena this didn’t work, mostly because her mother enrolled herself in the same program.
“I’m like ducking and dodging her trying to hang out with my friends. It was so embarrassing to me at the time,” Salena said. “My mom ended up getting her diploma in her early 40s and here I am just wasting away time.”
So without completing her education, Salena met the father of her first son and, as Salena puts it, “started chasing behind him and never went back to school again.”
It was Salena’s five sons’ haircuts that eventually led her to complete her high school education at Highlands Community Charter School.
“It was costing me so much money to go to the barbershop and get my boys’ hair cut,” Salena said. “So I decided I was just going to go to barber school, get myself a license, and cut their hair myself, but I found out I can’t go to barber school without my high school diploma.”
Although Salena’s goals have changed, this initial push at becoming a hair stylist is what caused her to complete her diploma.
“When I first started looking for programs, all the places in my area were GED and high school equivalency things, and I was like nuh-uh. I done came too far. Y’all ain’t going to get me to settle,” Salena said. “I want the words high school diploma.”
Now Salena travels an hour and a half both ways every day by bus because she knows how valuable having a direct high school diploma really is.
For Salena, this is a small inconvenience in a life that has been frequented by misfortune.
“I have my moments. It’s easy and then it’s hard. It’s fine and then it’s not. You know? I get up every morning and I pray for strength and I pray for my smile because I don’t like to wear my circumstance,” Salena said. “When I get up and I have places to be and try to keep a positive outlook because I want others to feel great about their day.”
Salena admits that she doesn’t like to cry in front of people, but the day that her counselor handed over her high school diploma she couldn’t hold it in.
“Isa was sitting there trying to get the spelling of my name right and I told her what I wanted so she turns the screen so I can see – she’s trying to approve the spelling and everything – and I just started crying as soon as I saw it,” she said. “It was just so unreal because I started high school 16 years ago!”
In addition to her high school diploma completion, Salena is also continuing her education with Highlands’ partner school Asher College. She has already completed her certification in Health Services and is now studying for her Associate Degree to work in a medical office.
Salena’s instructor at Highlands, Kent Fischer, remembers watching Salena’s love for school re-blossom.
“As Salena began at Asher, she continued to attend my classes once a week. She would often come into class and say with great enthusiasm and emphasis, ‘Mr. Kent, my brain hurts,’ and then she would excitedly recount experiences she was having at Asher,” Kent said. “A new determination and confidence filled her, and you could see in her attitude that she had fully embraced her education.”