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Longview woman overcomes obstacles to graduate from LeTourneau

By Christina Lane
May 6, 2017 at 6:43 p.m.

Melissa Moreno reacts after reciving her Bachelor of Science from the School of Education during the Spring Comencemnt Service of LeTourneau University on Saturday, May 6, 2017 at the Belcher Center. (Courtney Case/News-Journal Photo)

When Melissa Moreno was 16, she lived out of her car and took care of her father, who had suffered a series of strokes. A few years later, she was living in Georgia, trapped in an abusive relationship that she still carries scars from.

After the deaths of her father and her brother, Moreno slipped into a depression from which she had to fight her way out.

She said she consistently was told throughout her life by various people — teachers, family and so-called friends — that she wasn't good enough to rise above the circumstances of her life.

But on Saturday, she walked across the stage as one of about 400 graduates this spring of LeTourneau University. With her new teaching degree and a job at Bramlette Elementary School, she plans to encourage children — including her own son — that they can overcome any circumstances in their lives and achieve their dreams.

"It's been a long journey. I couldn't have done this without my family. They've been here through the blood, sweat and tears," Moreno, 37, said through tears. "It's an honor for my family to say that somebody has graduated college."

Moreno, who has seven siblings, is the first in her family to graduate college.

Her father and mother are originally from different areas of Mexico. They first came to the Texas on visas and became U.S. citizens in the 1980s. Moreno is the only one of the children to have been born in the United States.

Her parents divorced when she was younger, and when she was 16, her mother remarried. She said the man whom her mother married didn't want children, so she was asked to leave.

Simultaneously, at age 16, her father had the first of a series of strokes. His third stroke left him paralyzed, and he began living in a nursing home, Moreno recalled. She lived out of her car and did her best to take care of her father. That meant leaving high school and getting her GED, so she spent less time in school and more time with him. She also started working, trying to support herself.

RELATED: More photos from the graduation.

Both her father and one particular brother, who she says was more like a parent to her, encouraged her to pursue her education.

"My dad didn't go to school. He grew up on the streets in Mexico, and he basically raised himself," Moreno said, crying as she thought about her father. "I come from a family of laborers. It was really important to my Dad that I go to college."

But Moreno was caught up in the cycle of working to support herself. A job opportunity came up in Georgia that paid more money than she was earning here, so she moved east There, she says she got caught up in an abusive relationship. Her now ex-husband left her with scars, physically and emotionally.

It was her current husband, Adan, who helped her get out of Georgia and back to East Texas. She credits him with turning her life around.

"He is my sunshine," she said.

He encouraged her to go to college, as did her brother and father. She had taken some community college courses in Georgia and transferred those to Kilgore College. Her father died in 2009, and her brother died shortly before he did.

After completing classes at Kilgore College, she decided to apply at LeTourneau to continue her education in their honor.

"Growing up in Longview, I had always heard about LeTourneau, but I had teachers when I was younger who told me I would never amount to anything. I had some really good teachers in school, but I also had others who were not supportive. I let that get in my head, and I never thought I would be good enough to go some place like this," she said.

But not only was she good enough to get accepted, she also received scholarships that covered her tuition. Moreno's GPA at Kilgore College earned her entry into the honor society Phi Theta Kappa, which she said helped open doors to more scholarships for her.

Initially she wanted to be a biochemist, but she changed her major to education because she felt like teaching would help her spend more time with her own son, 4-year-old Lionel, who she affectionately calls "Leo."

"I come from a family of laborers and I watched my parents work all the time. I respect them for that, but I wanted to do something that would allow me to spend more time with my son," she said.

She started taking classes at LeTourneau and, because of her transfer credits from Kilgore College, was able to finish her degree in three years. Those years, she said, were difficult because she didn't get to spend as much time with her son as she wanted, but she told herself that she was doing this for his future.

As she walked across the graduation stage Saturday to embark on a new chapter in her life, she said she believes her father and brother will be looking down on her from above.

"My brother would have cried at my graduation. My Dad, he didn't say very much, but he would have been very happy," she said. "I know they're here with me."

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