When Scotts Valley High School grad Alissa Anderson, 18, started out as a freshman, she fit right in with the cheerleading team and the drama group. But her grades started spiraling down the drain—all the way to C’s and D’s and F’s.
“My mom would kind of be in and out of my life for that portion,” she said, explaining her grandma had adopted her, while her three siblings had been sent to Idaho. “The trauma there was still recent.”
Anderson is the latest recipient of the A.C.E. Award, given out by the Exchange Club of Scotts Valley, which highlights students who have managed to turn their attitude and academic performance around over the course of their high school career. The club says the award is also a chance to bring a bright student to the forefront who might otherwise be overlooked.
Born in Roseville, California, Anderson says she bounced around from place to place as her mom and her stepdad struggled to take care of their kids.
After moving in with her grandma in Aptos, Anderson formed close bonds with her classmates at the tight-knit Twin Lakes Christian Middle School. But they moved to Scotts Valley just as she was entering high school, and she had to make friends all over again.
She enjoyed practicing for the spring performance of the Addams Family musical, but things had gotten so out of hand with her schoolwork that the principal told her she couldn’t perform until she improved her grades.
“My heart sank,” she said. “I was struggling.”
Sarah Hershey, the school counsellor remembers it was a challenging time for Anderson, as she was falling further and further behind.
“You get very discouraged,” she said. “It was tough.”
While Anderson was able to make enough progress to perform in the musical, she still ended up missing three shows because of it.
Anderson continued to have difficulties into her sophomore year. But it was her environmental science teacher, Mark Andrews, who was the catalyst for a sea change in her life, she says. After she “absolutely bombed” a test, he pulled her aside.
“Alissa, you’re not stupid,” he said, she recalls.
It was that moment, where her perspective began to shift.
“I’ve always been the person who’s afraid to raise their hand because I’m afraid of getting the answer wrong,” she said. “It changed me inside. I was like, ‘Wow, I have purpose.’
“I started to excel a little bit more.”
From there, she enrolled in the high school’s K Street Academy classes, which provides students with a non-traditional path to a diploma.
Instead of loathing school, she started to love learning.
“It’s a very positive, welcoming environment,” she said. “You’re there to be you, and to learn, and to grow. It was a-MAZ-ing.”
She made the honor roll for my first time her junior year.
“I was actually understanding curriculum,” she said. “Now I have straight A’s. I just looked today.”
Meanwhile, this year she served as cheer team captain.
Anderson says she couldn’t have done it without her grandma Virginia.
“She’s the biggest piece in this puzzle,” she said. “She’s helped me through my darkest times.”
This week, Anderson was at work, serving older adults at the Brookdale Scotts Valley assisted living facility, when she learned she was the A.C.E. Award winner. She immediately texted her grandma, who couldn’t contain her excitement.
“The texts just kept flooding and flooding,” she said.
It wasn’t until later Anderson realized the honor comes with $500.
“This award means so much to me,” she said, adding it reminds her of how far she’s come. “I was kind of in a very, very dark place within myself.”
Victor Alejandro, president of the local Exchange Club, says the award is meant to promote traditional American values like hard work and perseverance, adding Anderson will now be in the running for a $2,500 scholarship given out at the district level. One national winner will get a $15,000 scholarship.
“Listening to your story, the hard work and perseverance—your attitude is just amazing,” he said, while giving Anderson the award. “I’m glad that you’re sticking it through.”
Dave Hodgin, the club’s past president, says the award can help students clear the hurdle of the college admission process. And, he says, it’s a way to promote a vibrant community.
“The recognition of one person encourages others that are coming along, to see that one of their peers is being recognized for excellence,” he said. “We all need other people to emulate.”
Anderson has applied to the nursing program at Cabrillo College. She’s already been asked to coach the school cheerleading team, with tryouts starting June 14.
She says she understands why a lot of people who need help don’t ask for a hand up—she was once one of those people.
“I was scared at first,” she said, adding, “It doesn’t make you a wimp to say that you’re struggling and you need help.”