Clad in a maroon cap and gown, Tristan N. grinned as he received his high school diploma in mid-December.
His mother and sister watched, crying, as Tristan became the first in their family to earn his degree.
Just two months earlier, Tristan was a GED-holder who had little interest in more schooling. But then the 18-year-old set a goal to earn all the credits he needed for a diploma before leaving the J Bar J Youth Services residential program where he resided.
And he did it — earning all the credits in two months.
“I worked all day, every day on schoolwork,” he says. “I wanted to show myself and everybody who said I wouldn’t amount to anything that I could finish.”
Sheila Kelly, Tristan’s juvenile parole and probation officer (JPPO), could hardly believe how quickly Tristan started racking up credits.
“He was in five different placements since March and was looking at possibly going to a youth correctional facility because of all his negative behavior,” Kelly says. “But then while he was at J Bar J, something clicked in him. Every week when I checked in on him, he would say, ‘I got another credit.’”
Tristan, who was arrested the week after his 17th birthday, says that spending his entire 17th year in county detention or residential programs was a wake-up call.
“Growing up, my family didn’t have a bunch of money,” he says. “I was selling drugs and guns just to support myself so my family wouldn’t have to. That’s how I ended up getting into trouble. When I first got into these [residential] programs, I was in a criminal mindset.
“Now, I want to stop getting in trouble and help my family the right way so I can actually be there for them.”
Tristan’s 1-year-old nephew, born while he was in custody, also inspires him. “I need to be a role model and I need to be there to support him,” Tristan says.
Having a supportive JPPO like Kelly also made a difference. Kelly knew that Tristan got discouraged easily, so she always remained positive when checking on his progress, even when his goals might have seemed beyond reach.
“He had a week left and still needed two credits, and he was bummed because he thought he couldn’t do it,” she says. “I told him, ‘Of course you can do it. You’ll be fine, and I’ll be at your graduation.’ And he did it.”
Tristan isn’t stopping with high school — he plans to start taking online college courses at his next residential program. He hopes to study criminal justice with a goal of becoming a police officer or a probation officer.
“I did a lot of not-so-cool things to my community, so being able to give back would be awesome,” he says. “Just because I have some charges under my belt as a youth, it doesn’t define who I am or what my future will be.”