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Focus, trust helped this grad overcome pandemic setback

Grads with grit: Juan Martinez

Caledonia — Caledonia High School senior Juan Martinez has been interested in cars since he was a kid.

He enjoys watching car modification videos and TV shows, helping his mom’s boyfriend with his automotive repair jobs and eventually, wanted to work on them for a living.

“I like working on cars, fixing them,” Juan said. “The more I learned, the more I was interested and was having fun.” 

Juan is already enrolled in Grand Rapids Community College’s workforce training automotive program for this fall. 

“I’m so much better with the hands-on stuff than reading textbooks and writing,” he said.

Juan came a long way from facing the possibility of not graduating at the beginning of his senior year. He first had to work on attitude toward school and his grades in order to pursue his dream of working on cars.

Getting Back on Track

Juan spent his first year of high school in Texas, after moving from Michigan with his family for his mom’s new job four years before. 

“My freshman year in Texas was easy; I got mostly A’s and B’s,” he said. But that didn’t continue the following year. 

The family returned to Michigan in 2020, and he transferred to Caledonia High School as a sophomore during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Having school online was different,” he said. “I didn’t do any of my work and just used the free time to stay home and hang out.” 

He fell behind and failed several classes, and poor choices led to his having to be out of school for an extended period at the start of his junior year. 

Juan said he had different choices to make when he returned for the second semester.

“I saw how far behind I was and realized ‘Oh gosh.’ I needed to start focusing and putting in the work. It wasn’t perfect, but I knew I needed to get back on track to graduate on time.”

Juan said he struggled in silence at first, keeping from his friends his grades and his fear of not graduating. 

“I’m a pretty quiet person and keep to myself. It was scary to think all my friends would be graduating and I would be left behind.” 

During his senior year, Juan said he learned how to find good, trustworthy friends who supported his efforts to succeed.

“I’m selective with the people I trust. Good friends are the people who help you when you’re having a bad time or when you’re in a bad mental state. When you don’t want to reach out for help, a good friend will help you when you need it.”

Support From Family, Teachers

Caledonia High School counselor Cara Burk recalled first meeting Juan, when his demeanor was quiet and withdrawn from the typical liveliness of high school.

“He was going through some difficult things, but Juan is a smart guy and I think when he realized I supported him, believed in him and wanted to see him succeed, he started to trust me and we connected,” Burk recalled.

Burk helped Juan transition back into school during his junior year and connected him with the school’s online Compass program, a multi-tiered support offered to students who struggle in school.

Compass students receive academic tutoring, social and-emotional support and build study skills. The program also allowed Juan to retake classes he previously failed and improve his GPA. 

“Juan came into his senior year pretty behind, and if he had not utilized Compass he would not have graduated on time,” Burk said. “He really buckled down, took advantage of the opportunities available to him and walked with his class. I loved seeing him smile at graduation. He earned it.” 

Juan said his mom and grandparents really pushed him to graduate. He also wanted to set an example for his younger brother.

A turning point in Juan’s success: paying attention. 

“I stopped goofing off and talking to friends in class, and I started paying attention to what my teachers were saying,” he said. “When you start listening and understanding, it changes everything. When I made that change, it helped me get the work done.”

Looking to the future, he’s learned to “Trust the process and … keep going with it, even when it gets hard.”

Read more from Caledonia: 
Embraced by community, twins persevere  
Writing through the grief 

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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