Originally published in The Tucson Weekly– June 22, 2018
When Lily O’Connell walked across the stage at her high school graduation, she wasn’t alone. Her two-year-old son, Andrew, walked with her.
She gave a speech to the graduating class of nearly 150 about the challenges she overcame during her high school career. It hadn’t always been easy. But there she stood, dressed in a blue cap and gown and ready for the next step.
“It felt like a really good accomplishment, like this is what I have worked for, and also kind of relieving,” O’Connell said. “Like, ‘okay I did it, we’re here’. So I can kind of relax a little bit. I was just super excited that I was there.”
From the crowd, O’Connell’s family watched her and her twin sister graduate from Insight Academy of Arizona’s graduation ceremony in Phoenix on May 29. The family drove up from their home in Tucson for the celebration.
“I was really proud of her and how she could actually get up on stage and talk,” said Morgan O’Connell, Lily’s older sister. “Which is a big accomplishment for any teen mother.”
O’Connell, 18, had her son at the end of her sophomore year. She worked a full-time job as a nanny her junior year, but with senior year came a heftier schedule: She got a retail job and clocked in 35 to 40 hours a week.
Beyond her job and schoolwork were her duties as a parent, a balancing that proved challenging at times, O’Connell said. She did most of her classwork at night after she came home from work, when her son was already sleeping.
“You kind of have to work around your child’s schedule, because it’s hard to sit there and do all your school work while your child wants to play,” O’Connell said. “It teaches you how to manage your time, for sure.”
An online high school student since midway through her freshman year, O’Connell worked on her classes from home alongside both her job and parenting duties. She attended online public high school through K12 Inc.
O’Connell was in a program that allowed her to accumulate class credits faster than most high schools. Coupled with taking extra classes for several semesters and summer school, she ended up graduating a semester early, finishing her classes this February.
Marion O’Connell, Lily’s mother, credits the support and encouragement of K-12 with helping her daughter reach her goals.
“I think her staying home and doing online schooling with the guidance of the teachers, she grew up much quicker had she stayed in the school,” Marion said.
O’Connell said teachers worked with her to make sure she grasped class concepts and turned in all her assignments. Before she her son, she struggled with a few classes, but after, she earned straight As from there on out.
“What I see in her is spirit that she never had before, and I see her looking at the long-term goal that she never had before,” Marion said. “She is reaching her goal, and she’s not going to stop now. She’s more inspired to continue and make excellent grades and work hard.”
When snags came up in O’Connell’s schedule, her family was there to help. O’Connell lives with her parents and two sisters, and they watched Andrew when needed.
“He’s been the king of the castle,” Marion said. “There was always someone there ready to pitch in and help when the time was needed, and he was a miracle to our family and he’s been a great addition to our family, so it’s been easy.”
But as O’Connell headed toward the finish line, some health issues flared up. Toward the end of her senior year, O’Connell contracted strep throat. She ended up having to get her tonsils removed the week of final exams.
“I was so close to being done,” O’Connell said. “Things can come in the way but it’s like you’re so close to being there, you just kind of have to push yourself that little extra way to get there.”
The same determination that bolstered O’Connell through high school continues today.
After her high school graduation, O’Connell headed back to Tucson for her first day of class at Pima Community College that evening. She is taking three classes there this summer to jumpstart her path to the school’s radiology technician program.
Radiology technicians have fascinated O’Connell since her childhood, when sports injuries from gymnastics, soccer and volleyball sent her to get x-rays and MRIs.
“I thought that their job was super cool, and they got to use these big machines,” O’Connell said, adding that she loves the aspect of helping people.
She hopes to finish college and get a job in her field, and one day, she wants to go back to school and get an MBA for healthcare administration. For her son, she hopes he can go to a good school and be successful.
But as for the future now?
“I’m just excited to see what it brings,” O’Connell said.
To learn more about Insight Academy of Arizona, visit https://az.insightschools.net/.