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Posted: May 19, 2024

Manzano High Senior Persevered to Get to the Finish Line

Mariah Noland didn’t let homelessness stand in the way of her diploma.

Mariah Noland at Manzano HIgh School.

Mariah Noland at Manzano HIgh School.

When Mariah Noland walks across the stage in her purple cap and gown on Tuesday, she’ll be marking a triumphant milestone in her extraordinary journey—a journey characterized by homeless shelters, couch surfing, and angels who gave her the strength to keep moving forward.

“I’m emotional. I’m so proud of myself for making it,” the 18-year-old Manzano High School student said, reflecting on the ups and downs she and her family have experienced. She plans to attend the University of New Mexico in the fall and dreams of becoming an architect and owning her own firm someday.

Noland will be the first in her family to graduate from high school and the first one to enroll in a university.

“No one in my family has gone straight through,” she said.

Born and raised in Albuquerque, Noland has two sisters. Their parents divorced when Noland was 7, and she and her two sisters—one older, one younger—stayed with their father, Jason Head.

They moved around a lot as Head pursued different education and job opportunities.

Her family’s precarious living situations are a blur, although certain episodes stand out in her mind. She lived in a shelter with her grandma and sisters for about a year while her dad worked on getting a stable job. When COVID hit, they were couch surfing, bouncing between a cousin’s home and the rental her grandmother moved into. The family was evicted from an apartment because someone broke in and caused thousands of dollars in damage that her father couldn’t cover. They moved in with her grandmother until her grandma’s landlord made them leave because they weren’t on the lease.

But for all the hardship, Noland said, there were kind people along the way who stepped up to help and who made a difference in her life.

A fifth-grade music teacher at APS helped get her anxiety under control by teaching her to channel her pent-up energy to music and art. She “helped me ground myself,” Noland said. She doesn’t remember the teacher’s name, but she’ll never forget that she was Black like her, had beautiful hair, and used colorful wraps.

“She was so encouraging. She had such a big impact on me growing up,” Noland said, explaining that she has a reading comprehension disability, was bullied in elementary school, and would go home and sleep for hours after school. That all changed in fifth grade when she met the music teacher.

There was a math teacher who recognized Noland had trouble sitting still and worked with her. There was an English teacher who used games to engage Noland and the rest of the class, and, in so doing, got her to write her first essay.

“Now I love reading,” she said. “I love history. I love art history. I like to read romance, but my favorite is realistic fiction.”

A man named Jeff and others with the APS McKinney Vento program helped Noland and her family find stable housing, showed them where to get food, and even took them snowboarding.

Noland’s other angels were closer to home.

Her paternal grandmother constantly went without to help Noland and her sisters. And her dad has been “working like crazy” to build a better life for his family and taught her never to quit.

“Now we’re finally on track,” she says. “We’re renting a house and have two cars. It’s so awesome. I’m so glad because we didn’t have it growing up.”

She remembers a long bike ride she went on with her dad and how she wanted to quit because it was hot and she was tired. He told her the final stretch is the hardest but urged her to push through because it’s also the most rewarding.

“Never give up on the end,” she recalls him saying. “It’s the most important.”

So she didn’t, even when it meant two hours on city buses just to get to school or making up credits so she could graduate on time.

As she wraps up her high school career, Noland is glad she chose to stay at Manzano High, a school that she says nurtured and supported her and helped her succeed.

“There’s a lot more people struggling than you think,” she says. “You don’t know if your story is going to help someone in the future.”