STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

She achieved her childhood dream. Now she says "there's always room for more."

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Ireana Bernal, college student.

We first told you about Ireana Bernal in our documentary, College Material. Today's story is an update

This is a story of a dream on the verge of coming true and of what comes after.

It’s a story of a young woman in Holland, about to start her first semester of college.

I first met Ireana Bernal about a year ago. She was just starting her senior year in high school. Her high school years started out rough, but she’d been trying to turn it around. She still wasn’t sure how it would turn out. But the people around her all believed in her. People like her counselor, Mitch Veldkamp.

"She has this self will," Veldvamp told me. "Something in her that’s a little fire that started," he said.

That little fire grew all last year, as Bernal applied for college. 

It’s been months since I’d talked to Bernal. We met at a coffee shop in downtown Holland, right across the street from Hope College.

This is where she will be starting school next week.

"I'd ride my bike up and down the streets and the sidewalks of Hope, and just see all the Hope kids and think, 'Hey, that could be me one day.'"

Last time we talked, Hope wasn’t even on her list. But she says, in the back of her mind, it was her dream school. She reminds me she’s the daughter of a teen mom. When she was a kid, they bounced around a lot, trying to find a place to stay. One of the first places she felt settled and home was near the Hope campus.

"I’d ride my bike up and down the streets and the sidewalks of Hope," she says, "and just see all the Hope kids and think, ‘Hey, that could be me one day.’ And I would always just stare at them and dream that that’s me next to them."

Bernal moved into a dorm at Hope over the summer. She says she got a great financial aid package, otherwise the private Christian school wouldn’t have even been an option.

But she still needed extra money for tuition, books and rent. This summer, she worked two jobs to save up.

"I was working 12 hours a day," she says, "It was so tiring."

"All summer long?" I ask.

"All summer, 12 hours a day, yep," she says.

She was so busy, she barely had time to take care of herself.

"I actually have a story, if you don’t mind," she says.

It’s a story about how she ran low on food at her dorm one week, and couldn’t find the time to run out for groceries. She went a week eating nothing but sandwiches.

"But I didn’t tell anybody this," she says, "So one day I come home from my first job and I had to hurry up, get in the shower, get ready for my second job, and I hear somebody at the door while I’m in the shower."

She called out, no response. She got out of the shower, called out again. She heard a noise, but no response.

"Now I was really scared," she says.

"I had to go back in the bathroom, count to 10 and say, 'Okay, I got this.' So I walked out there with my fists up and I saw a bunch of bags on the ground, and I was like, 'What is this?' " she says.

It was groceries. Someone, she still doesn’t know who, had brought her groceries.

"I just grabbed the cup of milk, and was like, ‘Yes!' " she says, "Cause I hadn’t had a cup of milk in a week."

Bernal tells me, even as she’s about to start her college career here, she can feel like an outsider. "Freak" is the word she used. Because she was the child of a teen mom. Because she grew up poor. Because she’s not here on campus just to hang out or have a good time like other students. She has a mission.

But she’s also been made to feel welcome, by the adults around her who believe in her, and help her. By the unnamed friends who brought her groceries.

Next week, the dream she had when she was just a little kid on a bicycle will finally come true. Bernal knows that’s just the beginning.

"Right now, I’m just very happy with the spot I am in in life," she says, "But I want to do more. There’s always room for more."

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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