Alicia Whren says she felt like a misfit the day she walked into BelAir High.
The move from Pittsburgh to Harford County and the change in schools during eighth grade was bad enough.
But the worst part was going from an economically depressed blue-collar area where few students in her school dressed up to a school where students generally paid a lot of attention to groomming and dress.
"I came from a place that was very run-down. Football was big, but grades weren't stressed. People were not into the material thing.Here, everyone was different," says Alicia.
For a time in eighth grade she tried to fit in. "I tried to wear the right clothes. But itdidn't work," she says.
So the teen got her hair spiked and dressed with a "burnout, greaser look . . . like a druggie, although I didn't use drugs.
"I wanted to show everybody I wasn't a conformist. Everybody soon recognized me, but also came to believe I was a hell-raiser and not to be trusted," Alicia recalls.
In the ninth grade, Alicia completed less than half her school work. She participated in "totally, absolutely nothing." She constantly was called to the school office for getting into fights. "I isolated myself because I was sodifferent from these people," she says.
But today, perched for graduation June 2, she can point to a report card that contains A's in all but one class, hospital volunteer work, a part-time job and a college scholarship. She dreams of no less than being a nuclear physicist. The turnaround came in her sophomore year. It was then that a realization hit Alicia: She just might want to go to college, and her parents might not be able to afford all of the costs.
At about the same time, she started dating a young man who encouraged her to try harder.
But the real push came from her mother, Rosemary, says Alicia.
Recalls the young woman, "She's a very hard-working person, veryintelligent. She stressed that I had to strive. To this day, I hold those values she kept trying to teach me."
At the end of her sophomore year, the teen placed third in the region in a Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) contest.
And she made a big decision: Shewas tired of having people think her stupid because of her appearance or the company she kept.
She vowed to herself to get straight A's "to prove to somebody I could do this."
During that next year, Alicia took a job working 20 hours a week in a local bakery and practiced enough shorthand on her own to place third in the state in another Future Business Leaders contest. She also started volunteering at Fallston General Hospital.
By year's end, she had a report card full of A's, but she found reactions from her peers to her success were mixed. "When I got inducted into the National Honor Society, some people said stuff like, 'You got inducted? I didn't know you were that smart.' "
Annoyed that "only the popular people get recognized," Alicia took the advice of the senior class adviser Pam Zeigler: run fora class office.
She won the election as senior class secretary and began serving as co-chair of the SGA's public relations committee. That work made her feel more connected to the school.
"I thought if one person could prove that even if you were not the prettiest, smartest or most athletic student in school, you could get elected, it would mean something. Even if you're the underdog, you gotta do it."
In her senior year, Alicia maintained a straight-A average, placed third in the state in a Future Business Leaders of America shorthand contest and won an honors scholarship to Harford Community College.
The scholarship will pay full tuition and fees for two years.
"Some people act like that's not good enough. But I'm just glad to go,"says Alicia, who plans to major in physics at HCC. She hopes to attend the University of Delaware to receive a bachelor's degree after graduating from HCC. Her career goal: becoming a nuclear physicist.
"Science is always a new challenge," says the brunette.
Alicia says she has a lot of people and experiences to credit for her success.
Her job at the Forest Hill Klein's as a night manager gave her confidence and a sense of responsibility, she says. Teachers at the highschool gave her guidance, such as her physics teacher, Jim Barton. And, there were friends who stayed supportive.
"(School principal) William M. Ekey has gone the extra mile to recognize students who often wouldn't have been recognized. Even if you're not an athlete or part of the 'in' crowd."
With graduation just around the corner, she's far from the rebellious eight-grade misfit, Alicia says.
"I feel more like I belong and I can talk to people," says Alicia. "I have learned to look at people for what they are and not what they're wearing. I'd been judging by appearance -- doing the same thing to them that they did to me."
"You just have to be your own person," concludes Alicia. "You can't be weak-minded. You gotta go out and do it. It's not going to come to you."