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.)
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.”