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For a 17-year-old cancer survivor, school became a sanctuary

This is the second in a series of profiles of college-bound student recipients of scholarships administered by New Visions for Public Schools.

Last month, the principal of the Bronx School of Law and Finance, Evan Schwartz, called junior Karina Melendez to his office, but he didn’t tell her why.

Schwartz had a happy surprise, something that Melendez had long stopped expecting. She had survived bone cancer, homelessness, and foster care all before the age of eighteen, and so had trained herself to anticipate the worst.

“There was this fear and angst in her face” as she walked into Schwartz’s office, recalled Eva Lopez, a lawyer and Melendez’s mentor, who had been invited to the school for the reveal.

But when Melendez saw Schwartz, Lopez, her foster mother, and others who had gathered to celebrate her, with flowers waiting on the table, she was confused.  “Well, I know they didn’t get me that as a sorry gift,” she later remembered thinking. “What’s going on?”

As the news sunk in that she had won a full ride to the college of her choice, Melendez also realized that after years of misfortune, things were turning her way. “This changes everything,” she told the gathered crowd.

Listen to Melendez discuss how she overcame cancer and homelessness to land at the top of her class.
For Melendez, 17, “expect the worst and pray for the best,” had become a motto. Diagnosed with osteosarcoma at age 10, she spent two years wheelchair-bound, being tutored at home as she recovered.

She returned to school without having to repeat any grades, but a year later she and her mother lost their home and moved into a shelter. While living in the shelter, her relationship with her mother began to crumble and she eventually was placed foster care. After living with her aunt and then another foster family, Melendez is now happily living with Zoraida Torres, her school’s parent coordinator.

The Bronx School of Law and Finance became her sanctuary. “I felt like school was the only thing in my life I had control over,” she said. “My grades were the only thing I could control. Everything else could fall apart, but this was all I had.”  Described by her mock trial mentor as “incredibly driven and very, very focused,” Melendez applied that focus to her schoolwork, staying at the top of her class even as she missed long stretches of school while living in the shelter.

One of her teachers asked each student to write her letters, which the teacher would respond to each week. Melendez would write about about the stresses of shelter life, but also about the stresses of keeping her tumultuous personal life secret from her classmates. “It was a really rough time for me and I didn’t want it around, but she always kept it in confidence,” she said.

Melendez favors her English and law classes. She’s the type of student who sits at the front of her 11th grade English class and answers so many questions that, in a recent session, her teacher resorted to calling only on students “other than Karina.”

She’s also taken her skill for staying poised under pressure to mock trial competitions, which in turn sparked an interest in a law career. An outgoing student, she relishes the performance of oral arguments. “I really want to be in court; I really want to be arguing,” she said. “I want to be up there.”

“She really shows sophisticated thinking,” said Lopez, who both coaches Melendez in mock trial and volunteers in one of her classes at Law and Finance. “It’s really impressive how she’s been able to juggle all these balls that are coming at her.”

Even now that college finances are one less ball she’ll have to juggle, Melendez is still focused on the short-term hurdles, including the SATs and finding a summer job. But winning the scholarship has caused a subtle shift away from her “expect the worst” outlook.

“It’s like everything I went through for the past three years has, in a way, led up to this,” she said. “This is like God’s way of saying, ‘Hey, you know, good job, your life isn’t going to be so sucky after all.'”