CLASS OF 2023: For North Salem grad, school became a refuge from turmoil at home

This article is part of a series of profiles of graduating seniors in Salem high schools. Read the full series here.

Elizabeth Valencia doesn’t tell her friends much about her childhood.

The North Salem High School senior, who’s 17, has plenty to keep her busy: running cross country, preparing for a career in pediatrics and working at rolled ice cream shop 22 Below.

But Valencia’s high school success comes after years of homelessness, instability and turmoil in her young life.

When she was in first grade, her family lost their home in a fire that nearly killed her parents and sister. Valencia spent a week in the hospital, while her family was put on life support.

From there, her family began to fall apart. They couchsurfed between homes, sometimes sleeping in parks or crowding into a two bedroom apartment with 10 other people. Valencia’s mother, who had gotten clean during her pregnancy, relapsed.

“It just kind of went into a spiral. My parents got separated. She found a way to cope with drugs again,” Valencia said.

Staying focused in elementary school was hard when she often didn’t know where she’d be sleeping that night, but Valencia said her classes at Hoover Elementary School also provided some stability in the midst of chaos.

“Somehow, we still managed to get back to school every day. Because school is really like an escape for me from my actual life. And I do remember never really wanting to go home,” she said.

By the time she was nine, Valencia and her sister had moved in with their grandmother. They saw their father during visitations, but he couldn’t afford to support them, and her mother continued to struggle with addiction.

“Because of her drug addiction, she stopped being able to find places to sleep. And she eventually became homeless. I remember times, she was living in a tent. And I remember visiting her a couple of times over at like a park or wherever,” she said. “If she did ever come across money, she would try to at least pay her phone bill so she could talk with us, but there were times when her phone was off. And I didn’t know what she was doing or even if she was alive, so it was hard.”

At North, Valencia struggled her freshman year, earning a 2.8 grade point average as she adjusted to the demands of high school. 

“When I think about it now, the people I’ve been going to school with never really knew what I was dealing with. It’s not everyday life is the way mine was. And as hard as that was I kind of just, I don’t know, I kind of just dealt with it,” she said.

When Covid hit and school moved online her sophomore year, she saw it as a chance to reset. 

While many of her classmates struggled, Valencia said she worked well with online coursework because she could go at her own pace. Her mom was clean again, and while their relationship was still rocky, Valencia said things had improved somewhat. Her older sister and grandmother remained sources of support.

During her junior year, she found a home in the school’s new International Baccalaureate program which got her started in career-focused courses in health sciences. She also studied early childhood education, working at the daycare run by North students. 

Valencia persevered through challenging parts of the IB psychology course even after wanting to give up, said Amy Green, the school’s IB program coordinator.

“Watching her come back at it with a vengeance … she’s a pretty impressive person,” Green said.

Valencia is graduating with an IB certificate in health sciences — one of seven students earning a diploma or certificate for the school’s inaugural class of IB scholars. She enjoys caring for children and wants to become a physician assistant, working in pediatrics.

In the fall, she’ll attend Multnomah University in Portland, studying biology or pre-med, and hopes to earn her physician assistant degree at Oregon Health & Sciences University.

She only began telling her story to others as a senior when she began reflecting on her past for college admission essays. Valencia was named a Ford Scholar by the Roseburg-based Ford Family Foundation. The award covers up to $40,000 per year for college.

Green said Valencia was adamant that she didn’t want to take advantage of people’s sympathy.

“That was her main concern: ‘I don’t want their money because they feel sorry for me,’” Green said. “It was like, no you’re getting it because people can see that you can persevere through difficult things.”

Valencia has since become open to speaking about her childhood more publicly. She was recognized by the Salem-Keizer School Board in January after winning Stand for Children’s Beat the Odds scholarship, which included a short video about her life.

“I know I’m not the only one going through this. And maybe one of my stories can inspire people,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter. Click I want to subscribe!

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.