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Turning pain into motivation

Grad with grit: Salutatorian Stephanie Genao

The story of Lee High School’s salutatorian sounds like what you’d expect: 4.07 grade point, accepted at multiple colleges, heading to the University of Michigan to study nursing. 

But behind the success is a story of overcoming.  

Senior Stephanie Genao holds the salutatorian certificate she received for graduating second in her class with a 4.07 GPA

Stephanie Genao said a toxic, abusive relationship that landed her in the hospital helped “open my eyes to the future.” She shares her story in hopes of reaching others and encouraging them.    

Describing the abusive relationship, she recalled “at first everything seemed great, but with time his true colors began to show. I endured both emotional and physical abuse for months with him. It was mentally and physically draining, and I was tired of it.”

She had created an Instagram account to illustrate her love for makeup techniques, but said she temporarily lost motivation for that and for school, where she was a member of Student Council, Spanish club, Student Leaders and the  National Honor Society. She also was a member of the varsity volleyball team and had volunteered at a local food pantry.

A month after going to the hospital with a concussion and bruises, Stephanie said she finally began to process what she had been through.

“I only missed two days of school and bounced back as if nothing had happened,” she said. “I kept it a secret from everyone because I felt embarrassed that it happened, and I didn’t want pity from anyone.”

But she wasn’t sleeping well. When she did sleep, she had nightmares. There were panic attacks in class. She felt depressed. “I was stuck between missing the person I fell in love with and hating the person who hurt me,” Stephanie said.

She connected with a therapist and domestic violence advocate. “After months of self-healing, therapy and talking with my domestic violence advocate, I started to see the bright side of the situation. 

“As time went on, I began to understand why this all happened to me.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, research shows that about one in three U.S. teens ages 14 to 20 have been victims of dating violence, and about the same number say they have committed relationship violence themselves. Teenage victims of dating violence are at risk for negative social, academic, substance abuse and mental health consequences.

Lee High salutatorian Stephanie Genao

Motivation From Role Models

Since that relationship, Stephanie said she focused again on school. She recovered. She was accepted to all 10 colleges to which she applied. She committed to the University of Michigan and was named salutatorian. 

In addition, she got a job at Applebee’s and became a nurse’s aide at a rehabilitation center. Having earned certified nursing assistant certification at age 17, she plans to major in nursing, specializing in emergency room medicine or pediatrics.

“I have no idea how I was able to turn this pain into motivation, but I want to help other people who have gone through something similar to find their potential. Don’t think of yourself as a victim, (but) instead, as a survivor. You can get through it, because you are strong.”

Lee High School teacher Jody Hankis Snyder called Stephanie — who has been a district student since kindergarten — “extremely focused and dedicated to her dreams and goals.” 

“There is nothing she fears when it comes to hard work, and she truly appreciates every honor that comes her way,” Hankis Snyder said.

Stephanie’s perseverance likely comes from her parents, Victor and Maria Genao. They and her oldest sister, Jennifer, were born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the U.S., settling in the Bronx neighborhood in New York, where another sister, Diana, was born. A few years later the family moved to Michigan, where Stephanie was born. The family still visits both places.

Senior Stephanie Genao has made her dreams come true with hard work and perseverance

She called her parents “my role models.”

“They both came into this country not knowing the language or having much educational background and were still able to provide a good life for me and my sisters. My parents always asked for me to not get a factory job like them, and instead become skilled and go to a university to pursue a career.

“My dad is a very strong individual who always puts other people before himself. My mother works 12-hour shifts and always makes sure my dad and I eat a warm, home-cooked meal every single day.”

She calls her sister Diana her best friend, and said Diana reminds her to stay focused.

“I love her for everything she’s done for me since we were little kids. She is raising twin girls with her spouse while still going to school and working. She has always been good with advice and guiding me in the right direction. 

“My family is the reason I am so motivated. I want to one day repay them for everything they have done for me.”

Stephanie will start at U of M with the Summer Bridge Scholars Program, a select group of students each year chosen by U-M staff based on a range of variables including GPA, test scores, grades in college preparatory courses, writing samples and letters of recommendation.

Stephanie said bad things don’t have to always bring you down, but instead, push you further. “It doesn’t matter where you come from and what you went through, it’s about how you take those things and use it for your benefit.”


Teen Domestic Violence Information

From left, Lee Middle and High Principal Candy Van Buskirk delivers a Top 10 award to senior Stephanie Genao, while her mother, Maria Genao, and Assistant Principal Jim Jensen look on
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Cris Greer
Cris Greer
For more than three decades, Cris Greer has been a wordsmith, working in the fields of journalism, advertising and marketing. Much of the past decade, he helped grow the MLive Statewide High School Sports desk as a supervisor, editor and reporter, which included eight newspapers in Michigan and mlive.com. Cris also was a freelancer for The Grand Rapids Press, The Advance and On the Town magazine for many years. A good portion of his early career was spent building and managing the copywriting team in the advertising department at Meijer, Inc., where he oversaw copywriting for print ads, mailers, brochures, signage, several dozen in-house magazines per year and much more.


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