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After struggling to focus, senior now sees infinite possibilities

Grads with Grit: Damian Torres

Lowell — The desire to learn more compelled Damian Torres to request an interview with Lowell Area Schools Superintendent Nate Fowler.

Damian wanted to ask the head of the 3,500-student school district about what it’s like to be a superintendent and what it takes to get such a job.

His interest was piqued after he heard Fowler speak at his school. “I had a lot of questions, It’s definitely not an easy job; I give him props for that. He said he works long, long hours.”

Still, Damian said he might want to be a superintendent himself someday to improve education and help the younger generation.

Damian’s innate curiosity and desire to learn has him looking toward his future with newfound knowledge that many options lie ahead. After a year at Unity High School catching up on 12 credits, Damian will cross the stage in his graduation cap and gown May 25. Most importantly, he’s developed the motivation to stay focused on school — and the level of confidence to take on challenges like interviewing a superintendent. 

“I had a lot of fun sharing my story with Damian,” Fowler said. “We talked about different jobs that I have had in education and jobs outside of education that prepared me for leadership roles. He had clearly spent some time thinking about the questions he wanted to ask. I was impressed with his preparation, thoughtfulness and overall curiosity.”

Finding His Drive

Not long ago, Damian wasn’t thinking about careers or college, or much about school in general. He began attending Lowell Area Schools in eighth grade. He lived in Grand Rapids and Battle Creek before he, his mom and younger brother moved to Lowell to be near his grandmother. 

After years of not feeling a sense of belonging in school, Damian was curious about Lowell, the tight-knit community known for coming together for athletic events such as the Pink Arrow football game that annually raises money for breast cancer research. 

“I’ve never really been part of a community,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of it. … It was a struggle at first, reaching out to people, but now I like being part of the community.”

While it was clear that “Lowell schools care about their students and what they do,” he said, he wasn’t doing what he needed to do to be successful.

“I wasn’t really focused on school as much as I should have been. I was goofing around a lot and was behind on credits. Some of my behavior played a part in that … The big thing is the people I was around, the environment I was around.”

He also lacked confidence — he said he was embarrassed to ask questions in class. The structure of school didn’t fit his needs. He got further and further behind and was getting D’s and E’s. 

‘His brain never shuts down; he’s always researching potential careers, historical events, current events and ways to ensure financial stability in his future.’

— Britney Altoft, Unity High administrative assistant, on Damian Torres 

As junior year approached, he realized he needed to make some changes if he was going to graduate. He began surrounding himself with more motivated people and switched to Unity, where he could work through online classes and still receive one-on-one support from teachers. It was what he needed.

“For me, personally, it’s a better structure to go at my own pace,” he said. In late March, he had just two classes to finish before meeting his graduation requirements.

A book also provided direction. Damian, an avid reader, came across “Drive,” by Daniel H. Pink, which is about the need to direct one’s own life. It helped him switch his outlook. He also took a finance class and discovered an interest in business, especially stocks and real estate.

“Growing up, I didn’t really have money, so I didn’t have that allowance that most kids have,” he said. “I’ve had to have a job to get my own money and have clothes, stuff like that. The big thing that pushes me to (pursue) business is seeing how my parents struggle, and I don’t want to be struggling when eventually I have kids and a family.” 

After catching up on 12 credits, Damian Torres is ready to graduate

The Desire to Keep Learning

Lead Unity teacher Sue Sweet and Administrative Assistant Britney Altoft showed Damian patience and helped him stay on track. They also exposed him to options for his future, he said.

“When Damian first came here, he wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to graduate,” Sweet said. “The confidence wasn’t there. Could he get to the end? Could he do all the different steps he needed to do?

“He has worked beyond what I would have ever expected. It’s neat to see the maturity grow. He went from not having a good idea of what he wanted to do next, to now having so many options.”

Altoft said Damian is a natural learner who leaves “no stone unturned” in seeking information on any topic in which he is interested.

“His brain never shuts down; he’s always researching potential careers, historical events, current events and ways to ensure financial stability in his future,” Altoft said. “Education to Damian isn’t just about school curriculum; it’s about real, everyday knowledge and life.

“He is observant, dedicated, goal orientated, kind, humble and loyal. At the end of each of Damian’s and my conversations, I sit back in my chair, speechless, yet still able to tell him, ‘I’m proud of you, you’re going to do some really great things in life’ and I truly mean it from the bottom of my heart. Damian absolutely has the ability and love of knowledge to change lives.”

After graduation, Damian plans to work with his dad in construction to save money and then attend Grand Rapids Community College to begin pursuing a business degree. He hopes to go on to receive a bachelor’s and possibly master’s degree. 

That could lead to anywhere, he acknowledges, even a superintendent’s seat.

Fowler said he can envision Damian in that role.

“My advice for him is to keep learning, even when he is finished with high school.  He will learn lessons, both good and bad from the people he works with that he will be able to take with him to any job he may have. Being a teacher and administrator can be tough, but Damian has the tools.  I’m glad that young people remain interested in our profession.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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