High school graduation is always a time to celebrate, but for Jacqueline Punte it takes on a bigger meaning. It marks the end of a finish line she wasn’t sure she’d ever cross.
After starting her secondary education in Missoula in 2016 at Sentinel High School, Punte withdrew from classes twice before completing her courses at Willard Alternative High School in November.
On Thursday, she received her diploma with her classmates at Willard's graduation ceremony at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“I’m happy I’ll be able to prove a lot of people wrong — a lot of people doubted me,” Punte said about graduating this spring.
When she first started at Sentinel, Punte felt very isolated, found it difficult to make friends and felt as if she didn’t fit in. Over time she started skipping class and the absences began stacking up before she formally withdrew from school during the first semester of her junior year.
While she was disappointed in herself, she was more scared to tell her parents. Her two older sisters and school counselors encouraged her to not give up on herself and continue her education at Willard, which offers smaller class sizes, more hands-on curriculum and is geared toward students with alternative learning styles.
Her sisters had previously attended Willard and gone on to pursue higher education themselves, one graduating from college and the other still working toward her diploma.
Punte comes from a large family with eight sisters and one brother. Her family moved to Missoula from Las Vegas when she was about 5 years old. Her oldest two sisters were both born in Mexico and are "Dreamers."
Punte started at Willard the second semester of her junior year, and right away she could tell something was different.
“Literally the first day I was at Willard I made friends — everybody there’s so outgoing,” Punte said.
She took a liking to her history classes and excelled in writing. She transformed from a student who didn’t enjoy school to someone who admits they will actually miss doing homework.
The pandemic added another roadblock for Punte when she withdrew again from school in early 2020. The move to virtual instruction due to school closures didn’t help motivate her to continue her education. She didn’t feel compelled to complete assignments virtually.
Tri Pham, a counselor at the school, reached out to Punte several times to check in, he said. He constantly encouraged her to return to school because she only had a few more credits to earn before she was eligible to receive a diploma.
“It’s always a little bit painful when students choose to withdraw, and Jackie in particular because you can tell she’s very bright, very capable,” Pham said. “She’s one of those kids that should get a high school diploma.”
It took some convincing, but with the help and support of her family and encouragement from Pham, Punte returned to school and completed her coursework in November 2020.
“I think maybe they believed in me more than I believed in myself,” Punte said.
For Pham, her graduation is a sweet victory.
“It’s always really special because you don’t know as an educator the impact that you’ve had,” Pham said. “Jackie’s really sweet because she believed in what we had to say about her and she believed in herself and she made it happen.”
After completing her graduation requirements, Punte enrolled in courses at Missoula College with a focus on psychology. However, due to the pandemic and virtual instruction she’s opted to take a break to come up with a plan for her future instead.
Through it all, Punte said she’s most proud of herself for persevering and earning her high school diploma after so many twists and turns throughout her education.
But above all else, she’s happy to give this gift to her parents.
“Now that I’m actually going to graduate I’m just really happy and excited for my parents to finally see me graduate,” Punte said. “Honestly, it’s all for them.”