October 01, 2016
By Victoria Kidd
This summer, when Janeily Perez ’18 took the podium to address alumni, faculty and staff gathered at the Susquehanna Valley Country Club in honor of Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Thomas F. McGrath, no one could have imagined the long and winding road she took to get there. Four years ago, she couldn’t have imagined standing at that podium at all.
Back then, she was battling Lyme disease while also trying to complete high school and keep her dream of attending college alive. “I was extremely determined to go to college as a first-generation student, and I was not going to let one setback ruin my chances of getting in,” says Perez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants.
Although she was often out of school—either in the hospital or at home in excruciating pain because of the disease—Perez kept up with her school work by reading her textbooks and having her teachers email her the work they assigned in their classes.
“What kept me going was the encouragement and motivation my parents gave me,” she says. “My parents would stay up all night with me while I did my homework and studied for my classes.”
Fresh in her mind is a particularly challenging night after arriving home from one of her many hospital stays. “I was doing my homework in the kitchen,” she recalls. “Tears were rolling down my face because I had extreme pain in my knees, ankles and wrists. My parents stayed in the kitchen and cheered me on all night. … [They] would take turns massaging my wrists and ankles while I continued to do my work.
“They taught me that when someone wants something, they have to work hard for it no matter what obstacles are thrown at them.”
Obstacles are nothing new for the Perez family, which includes 10 children. “Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money,” Perez recalls. “It was hard for my parents to get jobs since their English wasn’t so great, and I had trouble in school since Spanish was my first language, not English.”
Things turned worse when her father, who worked in construction, was injured and lost sight in his right eye. “There were times when we were almost evicted from our mobile home, went a couple weeks without electricity, had trouble affording food, and went almost two years without television,” Perez says.
Amid these struggles, Perez, a high school sophomore at the time, was diagnosed with Lyme disease. A month later, her cousin died from the disease. “She was in Stage 5, while I was diagnosed at Stage 4,” Perez says.
The hospital trips followed Perez into the first semester of what would become a combined junior and senior year of high school. Perez not only kept up with her school work despite frequent absences; she excelled in her academics, taking all AP (advanced placement) classes and doubling up on English classes in order to finish the requirements for graduation in a year.