At age 21, Shalanda Murray can tell you first-hand what it feels like to peer deeply into the mirror and see someone very different looking back. She can also express the joy it feels to know the person looking at you is the one you were born to be. When depression hit while Shalanda was in high school, it led to some unexpected changes.

“Everyone has different ways of dealing with depression. And when you are in high school like I was, people couldn’t understand it,” recalls Shalanda. “I had a whole bunch of people telling me I had no right to be depressed. They could tell me what to do but not what to feel, or how to cope with those feelings.”

Despite a caring mother and loving grandmother, nothing seemed to help Shalanda shake free of its grips and she ultimately quit everything, including school. Getting into some rough situations and not caring about school were some of the ways Shalanda expressed her rebellion.

“I was very immature,” says Shalanda. “At this point, I had dropped out and was bouncing around – a lot! I had no understanding of how to keep a commitment and bounced from job to job.”

Blacklisted, unable to find employment, and without a high school education, a feeling of hopelessness took root until Shalanda got a job at Speedway. She was very comfortable in this job, but she knew it wasn’t challenging. Something greater was on the horizon. Having made the decision she needed more in her life, Shalanda decided to return to classes and earn her GED.

On a walk toward the education center to enroll in classes, Shalanda called a friend who happened to be pursuing a similar goal – completing her education. The friend had found SEAT, the Social Enterprise and Training Center in Schenectady and was enrolled in SEAT’s YouthBuild program, a national program providing the opportunity to earn a high school diploma in an environment that provides wraparound support, including counseling, mentoring, and opportunities to learn other documentable skills along the way.

“My friend told me to turn around and walk to SEAT instead. That everyone was so loving and there was a warm atmosphere. Walking in that direction was one of the best moves I’ve ever made,” explains Shalanda, who in March 2018 applied to the program.

Mental Toughness is the program marking the beginning of the YouthBuild journey. With exercises designed for participants to determine the level of their desire to be successful, Shalanda emerged from the first days satisfied and excited. But when week two dawned with a physical challenge, Shalanda questioned her desire to move forward. She withdrew from the program, returning instead to the dead-end position at Speedway.

“I saw the success and growth my friend was experiencing at SEAT. I wanted what she had. I wanted to accomplish the same things.” With this goal in mind, Shalanda returned to SEAT to join the very next class.

“I had made the commitment and was a strong student” says Shalanda. “I made it through the physical challenge, attending every day and was always on time.” And within two months in the program, Shalanda felt the transformation from the inside out. She was transforming into the young lady she always knew she could be. “My mother and grandmother had a little doubt, feeling that I had always started things but never finished. I was out to prove them wrong.”

It was once Shalanda felt very comfortable in the program that she began to fall back on old habits. She began to slack off, suddenly not showing up for classes. Yet this is where the unique strength of SEAT’s YouthBuild program works best. The support of staff and peers is what made the difference in Shalanda’s experience.

“When I didn’t show up, one of the staff came banging on the door to my house. She was concerned about my well-being. Concerned about ME. This was the defining moment for me. This staff member came to see me. She told me I had too much potential. It meant so much, that she would actually come get me and tell me I could accomplish this. I got back in the program, back with my peers who expressed their support of me, and I never left again.

This personal commitment to students’ success and a strong peer network is what made the difference for the 40 students completing SEAT programs on Tuesday, February 26.

“To some young adults, coming to SEAT and the YouthBuild program means they hadn’t succeeded elsewhere. It’s a lot easier to enroll in a high school equivalency program and be anonymous. But I feel that with SEAT, I had the support I needed. I was not only working toward my high school equivalency but also earned other certifications along the way. I had more opportunities to learn and have doors opened. I’m working now as an intern in human resources at Rivers Casino, and I am enrolling in school to earn a degree in business administration.”

“Through the program, I learned to be responsible and more patient. I developed the maturity I lacked before. I learned the importance of being consistent and gained self-control – that not every action needs to be a reaction. But the most important things I learned is to never doubt myself. I now look in the mirror and see the person I knew I could be.”