CONGRATULATIONS! Chief Sealth International High School senior Clarissa Perez’s national achievement, and triumph over adversity

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

What some consider work, Chief Sealth International High School senior Clarissa Perez turned into a hobby – “scouring for opportunities.”

She has succeeded, in tough nationwide competition, securing some of those opportunities as she gets ready for the next stage in her life – including a prestigious scholarship.

She has accomplished all this while also dealing with depression and immense personal tragedy.

“When you have constant sadness, you don’t know what it’s like to be happy,” she said when we talked recently at CSIHS. “I can’t even imagine a year where I could get a break. Can you imagine how unstoppable I’d be?”

And yet, when you meet Clarissa, you see quickly that she seems rather unstoppable already.

Let’s start with what she calls her “first win of the year” – a Horatio Alger Scholarship, geared toward students who have overcome adversity, inspired by the author’s writings about doing exactly that.

Six-thousand students applied from around the country. Those chosen included just two from our state, and Clarissa was one of them. The award is for $25,000 in scholarship money, to be disbursed throughout her college years. The scholarship comes with other assistance – financial-aid and college counseling, and support for internships, Clarissa says. She is scheduled to officially receive it at a ceremony in April in Washington, D.C. “This scholarship has given me so much hope. I’ve been recognized. I’ve been seen at the national level!”

While waiting for that, she’s doing a lot of other waiting – including waiting to find out which college(s) will accept her, and whether she’ll be accepted to a “gap year” program first, a nine-month program for which she already knows she’s a semi-finalist. That program could send her to China.

“Meeting people from around the world is amazing,” Clarissa muses. “You get a perspective on their lives.” She’s traveled before; in 2017, we featured her as a Sealth recipient of a Global Navigator scholarship to travel to Berlin. That year she also spent three weeks in Berlin as part of a State Department-related program.

That’s all a fabulous foundation for what she’s hoping to focus on – international relations and diplomacy, maybe minoring in environmental analysis/studies. She says she’s “developed a passion for cultural understanding,”

But there’s someone she’d rather be telling all this to, than your reporter here.

She’s missing her biggest fan and cheerleader – her older brother.

He died two years ago, at just 28.

He’s not the only close relative missing in Clarissa’s life. Her mother also died an untimely death.

But that didn’t leave as large a hole in Clarissa’s heart. “I lived in a house with domestic violence … my mom was the abuser. Dad and I got out of that. She was abusive toward him, violent, traumatizing.”

Her brother got out, too, but other trouble followed. “He got involved in gangs, moved to California …” Back here in the Seattle area, Clarissa’s dad worked hard to provide for her and help her focus on education. While attending a Catholic middle school, she struggled with depression, which took a toll on her grades and her personality.. She said she became “mean.” She wanted to drop out – but couldn’t. As high school approached, Clarissa said, she wanted a “different environment,” so she convinced her dad to let her go to Chief Sealth International High School, despite other pressure to continue on the parochial-school track.

At Sealth, she said, she found support for her challenges. She was surprised to have access to a counselor and a therapist. On the academic and extra-curricular fronts, she found clubs to join, support groups like Link Crew (a peer-mentoring program focused on first-year students), and helpful teachers.

“The Green Team was the first club I joined,” she recalled, saying they welcomed her. (We featured one of their achievements, with Clarissa part of the photo, in 2016.)

(2016 photo, with Clarissa second from left)

There was no magic cure for her mental-health challenges, and she didn’t finish freshman year “strong.” So it was on to sophomore year … the year her brother was shot and killed in the Bay Area.

Despite his own challenges, and the distance, he tried hard to stay in her life, Clarissa said. He visited when he could. He would also call her – sometimes from jail. He would express his pride. “He said, ‘you’re going to be the one in our family to make it’.”

Learning of his murder was a low point in a year that “was also the best year of my life.” She was on-site coordinator for the >Washington Global Issues Network conference at CSIHS, working with social-studies teacher Noah Zeichner (who has since left Sealth for Ingraham HS). And she joined Young Executives of Color through the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington, as well as the Seattle Youth Commission.

She felt “really bad ass” to go to City Hall for the SYC meetings and to interact with city leaders who wanted to hear teenage voices, as well as with peers who are making a difference.

Junior year, she ramped up even further, following the full rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) program, offered at only a few local high schools, Sealth among them. She feels she had suppressed what happened to her brother, but that suppression wasn’t going to well. She was wracked by self-doubt, berating herself about her grades, trying to hold herself to an impossible standard of perfection, longing to have her brother to talk to. “I always wanted to tell him what I was doing.”

Her depression remained chronic; her relationship with her father was “rocky.” The pressure escalated into a crisis: Clarissa attempted suicide.

She had done that once before, she explains. This time, unlike the fist time, she “woke up in the ICU.”

No miracle cure – all she could do was battle through. Medication seemed to do more harm than good. It was all she could do to finish the year.

Yet there were spots of promise; while on a vacation in Mexico with her aunt, Clarissa found out that she had been accepted to a girls-leadership program that included a road trip in South Africa, with reciprocity when girls from that country visited here.

“After that trip, I felt like I was ready to love myself more,” Clarissa recounted – another step on the long road to healing. “And then one week after I returned” — this is now August of last year – “I found out that mom had overdosed.”

Because of so many things, including the years of abusiveness, she and her mom were not close. “I had so much anger … she was not being there for me.” And yet it was a shock. All Clarissa could do was push through. “I had to keep going. I can’t stop going.”

Teachers have been mother figures, mentors, for her along the way. Male teachers have been inspirational too. “School became my second home.”

Learning and growing helped keep her going. In October, the second trip as part of her leadership program took her to the South, to New York City, to the United Nations and “amazing museums to learn about civil rights.” Her interests in social justice and environmental justice deepened.

“And Dad said, ‘no matter what, you gotta keep on going’.” She has taken the message to heart and then some. “You just can’t give up, I’ve been told – even if you’re suffering, you’ve gotta power through it. I’ve seen my dad do it” – at times doing without, so Clarissa would have what she needs.

She hopes she can set an example for others facing adversity. “Kids like me often fall through the cracks, feeling discouraged.” Just dealing with mental illness – “my biggest blockade” – let alone the losses of her brother and mom. Surviving attempted suicide – which she calls wryly “the biggest failure I’m proud of” – “I can be the living proof that people can see. A girl of color from White Center who’s gone through hell … why am I going to stop now?”

How can adults help youth like Clarissa? we ask.

“The stigma needs to be erased from seeking help” for mental-health challenges, for one. “The community needs to come together and acknowledge that it exists, get people into therapy … When it becomes normalized, that’s how it gets better. ,,, There needs to be a lot more awareness. Speakers in schools students telling their own stories.”

Also: Support the work that students are doing, especially students of color and those working from challenging circumstances. Those involved with the Duwamish Valley Action Plan, for example. And the next WAGIN conference – Clarissa says proudly that although its founding teacher Mr. Zeichner is at Ingraham, that school is working with Chief Sealth for this year’s March 22-23 conference. Attend, support, learn.

Clarissa, meantime, has a busy future, still taking shape. We expect to hear more as she “keeps on going.”

15 Replies to "CONGRATULATIONS! Chief Sealth International High School senior Clarissa Perez's national achievement, and triumph over adversity"

  • miws January 17, 2019 (8:51 pm)

    Congratulations. Clarissa, on these achievements, despite the immense challenges you faced. Best of luck to you as you progress through life, and realize more of your dreams. —Mike

  • Alki resident January 17, 2019 (9:07 pm)

    WOW Clarissa, I know this won’t be the end to your story. YOU are incredibly gifted and what a proud moment it must be for your friends and family to find out you got this incredible chance in life with this scholarship. I just want to hug you. I’m so sorry you’ve been through so much at such a young age. Do yourself a favor and rise about it all, kick depression in its ass and go live the great life that’s waiting for you. I can’t WAIT to hear what you achieved after college. Keep us posted, you’re such an inspiration. 

  • michelle January 17, 2019 (9:23 pm)

    Clarissa – you are a huge inspiration! Sustain and keep going!  As a Sealth parent and PTSA board member – i hope your fellow students will be inspired by your hard work and follow.  Michelle

  • Ajwren January 17, 2019 (9:45 pm)

    Way to go, Clarrisa!  You are an amazing young woman!  You are already a leader and will do even more in this “adult” world than most of us do!  Well done!

  • Loufa January 18, 2019 (7:18 am)

    Clarissa, What an amazing job you have done after all you have been through. You are a great example of what can be done with tremendous heart and drive.  I know your brother has been walking beside you through all of this and is VERY proud of you! Good luck with you future studies and goals.

  • Melinda Jankord-Steedman January 18, 2019 (8:43 am)

    Clarissa, you are an amazingly strong young woman.  I wish you all the very best with whatever dreams you pursue — we’re all in your corner! Sending much love, Melinda J-S

  • Breanna January 18, 2019 (1:10 pm)

    Thank you so much for profiling this courageous, powerful young woman. I have been blessed to have her in my life for the past four years. She fights for the rights of those whose voices are not often heard, for the environment, for positive international relations and for social justice, and she will not rest until  a plan for concrete change is implemented. She reaches out to other youth to mentor them and encourages them to take advantage of every opportunity available. Her ability to work through the tragedies of her life, maintain a full, advanced academic load in the prestigious International Baccalaureate program and remain a positive force for change is beyond compare. I have learned more from her than I could have ever taught her, and the world is already a better place because of her contributions. Congratulations, Clarissa. This is only one of the many accolades you will receive in your already accomplished life. West Seattle is proud to call you one of our own. Go out there and continue making the changes this world needs. We all believe in you, especially me.

  • Mary January 18, 2019 (1:12 pm)

    What a great story!  Never give up Clarissa!  

  • Swoll January 18, 2019 (1:28 pm)

    Very proud of you, Clarissa! Your hard work and perseverance are paying off massively!  Keep at it!

  • laura January 18, 2019 (2:27 pm)

    you’re a living legacy Clarissa, making the world a better place just by being here.  

  • Admiral Mom January 18, 2019 (2:54 pm)

    Clarissa, you are an amazing young woman and what you are doing is  paving the way for students coming behind you. I am humbled by your honesty and courage. Growing up in these times is not easy and you are doing so beautifully. I am sorry to hear about your loses, I can only imagine the despair. I am particularly sadden to hear of your relationship with your mother. I want to think she loved you and had no support to deal with her own demons. I hope you find it in your hart to forgive her. Wherever she is, I know she is proud of you.Please continue to share with the world the amazing gifts you have been given and put those gifts to serve your community. We are lucky to have you in West Seattle. Big hugs to you.God bless you/Dios te bendiga

  • Keri January 18, 2019 (7:19 pm)

    What an incredible story.  Thank you WSB for covering it, and Clarissa for for being such a wonderful inspiration.  So many of us let small things push us back and beat us down, then we read what you’ve persevered through and it makes even the oldest of us, the ones most ready with excuses, the most defeated, feel ready to push through and try again.  The best part about this story – even though you’ve overcome so much and come so far, it is just the very beginning and I hope the blog continues to follow you all the way through.  

  • Sealth teacher January 18, 2019 (11:39 pm)

    Thank you for this piece on Clarissa! She is truly the fiercest, most passionate, awe-inspiring, and delicate soul that I am so blessed to have known these past 4 years. I can’t wait to see what amazing things you will do for this world. And because you shouldn’t do it all by yourself, know that we’ll always be there when you need us. Shepard

  • Eugene January 20, 2019 (8:52 am)

    That was a great story. Best of luck to you Clarissa, looks like you’ll have alot of opportunities ahead of you. You’re going to do great! 

  • Sam L. January 22, 2019 (11:43 am)

    Clarissa is braver and is already successful, having passed this stage.  When she pushed  my door open and screamed I made it, tears of joy filled my eyes.  I asked her to go and reveal the good news to her Counselor of record, fantastic DR.  How many of us could go through what she went through and still keep our heads above water?  She will continue to be a Hero and deserves our very best.  Great Job Clarissa…many people are cheering for you.  Finish hard, Graduate, be successful at college and Providence with march your hard work with an equally worthwhile profession.Sam

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