A heart for big challenges

Adriana Hillard has coped with a learning disability and cancer to finish her studies and graduate with her Crater class tonight
Adriana Hillard, who will graduate tonight from Crater Renaissance Academy in Central Point, says despite a learning disability and cancer, she took a full load of classes to “show that I could handle the challenge.”Julia Moore

CENTRAL POINT — When she dons her white cap and gown tonight and walks across the stage with fellow Crater Comets, 18-year-old Adriana Hillard won't be thinking about the bout of homelessness her family faced when she was young, a learning disability that threw countless obstacles onto her path or the chemotherapy appointment she rescheduled to attend graduation.

The smiling blonde will be thinking about which classes she'll select at Rogue Community College this fall and about her mother's proud tears as Hillard receives her hard-earned diploma.

"She was crying after graduation practice, so I'm sure she'll cry at graduation, too," Hillard said.

Amidst the clanking of chairs and workers readying the stage for ceremonies Tuesday, Hillard beamed and recounted the challenges she faced to accomplish what so many students take for granted. Hillard exhibited a serious learning disability in fourth grade and was diagnosed in middle school with a condition that erases short-term memory, making memorization and studying difficult at best.

"When they finally tested her in seventh or eighth grade, the doctor informed us that she would probably only take one or two more years and that the material in school would get too difficult," said Hillard's mother, Kathleen.

"He didn't foresee her ever being eligible to go to college because the courses would be too difficult, too."

Despite encouragement from her mom to switch to non-academic classes, Hillard spent her high school years tackling algebra, geometry, a battery of science courses — maintaining a 4.0 GPA last year — and even a graphic design course at Rogue Community College.

Her grades and her RCC attendance faltered only slightly when she faced yet another hurdle — Hodgkin's lymphoma, diagnosed after a large mass was discovered between her heart and lungs in late February.

Hillard said she had moments that were tougher than others — undergoing chemotherapy, losing her hair and missing her beloved Crater campus to stay home and work with a tutor to protect her immune system.

"When I found out about the cancer, I was thinking I'd have to do summer school or something, but I still got a 3.2 (GPA) and I got to graduate," she said.

To that end, she even showed up to present her senior project.

"I remembered when I was little and my family was homeless so I wanted to help people that were struggling," she said.

"So I went to all the core classes and collected money for Hearts With a Mission."

Adrienne Hillman, Hillard's English, civics and health instructor, said few students could imagine the obstacles that Hillard had endured with poise.

"She's a delightful, kind, sweet person. And she is incredibly strong. I think maybe people might underestimate her because she's so quiet, but she is just rock solid," Hillman said.

"You see kids who barely made it through to graduate or who frankly aren't going to walk at graduation because they're working on credits. You just want to say, 'Really? Look at what this girl was facing — and she made it.' "

Grateful her chemotherapy appointment could be rescheduled to Thursday, Hillard said she looked forward to walking across the stage tonight with friends and giving her mother another chance to cry.

She shrugs off any special attention.

"I wanted to prove I could do it just like everyone else. And I didn't want it to look like, on my college resume, that I just slacked off on my senior year," she said.

"I wanted to make sure I had a full load of classes and show that I could handle the challenge."

Her only sadness, she noted, was in leaving a place where she had met and overcome so many obstacles.

"I hope that I'll feel really happy and excited because I worked really hard to get here and I get to graduate with all my friends," she said.

"But I'm kind of sad to be leaving. I have all my friends and a lot of good memories here. I really have loved it at Crater."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

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