Priscilla Creswell

All Priscilla Creswell wanted was to focus on a career, even if it meant leaving her familiar high school. Even though her academic counselors advised against it, Creswell made the move so she’d be allowed to complete a program at her local technical center.

As a bright girl in a computer animation program, Creswell soon became the brunt of name calling and jokes. Her old school, which catered to the gifted and talented, was “like a bubble,” she remembers. Suddenly she was in a different culture where “I’m the girl who came from the school for smart kids and is now going to this inner-city school where not a lot of people are saying, ‘Oh yay, academics!’ ”

The student had been attending City High School in Grand Rapids, Mich. But after a few months, she was given an ultimatum: drop technical training from her schedule and stay in a strict college-prep program, or leave all her friends and transfer to Creston High, from which she’d be allowed to go to Kent Career Technical Center (KCTC).

“I’d never really been a new kid, but I’d just heard stories that being the new kid is difficult. My dad kept pressuring me, ‘You’ve got to make a decision,’ ” Creswell says. “It was on my mind for so long. So, finally, I decided that my career was more important than just my social life.”

The transfer wasn’t easy. “Being in animation prep or just having red hair automatically gives me the stigma of ‘nerd girl.’ I love my red hair,” Creswell clarifies, but “before I went to Creston, I was considering dying my hair just so I wouldn’t stand out.”

Creswell found the strength to endure the bullying. “People say, you know, be yourself, be different, be diverse, and that can be so difficult sometimes. It’s no walk in the park to just pretend to hold your head up and just walk past it,” she adds.

“To be able to maintain who you are and what you like and what you want to do, beyond what people want to say about it, is the strongest thing that anyone can do.”

At KCTC, Creswell met Peter Lantz, who’d successfully learned to fit in after being home schooled. Because he has Asperger’s syndrome, Lantz says he’s an introvert, but “when I got out into the world, where there are all these people to talk to, you have all this wisdom that your parents have given you. Also, I’ve been able to grow up and deal with the bad things that come up, meeting people.”

According to SkillsUSA advisor and graphics instructor Deb Riolo, the technical school provided an “environment that’s safe” for Lantz and one that was “really welcoming” for Creswell. After the students tied scores in a classroom competition, they were put on a two-person team for SkillsUSA’s events in 3-D animation.

“We both sort of freaked out,” Creswell says, adding how one advisor wasn’t sure the two should be paired “because we’re both pretty socially awkward. They were afraid that we’d panic at competitions.”

But the students didn’t panic. They made it to the national competition and earned the high-school silver medal.

“Something SkillsUSA did was help me learn how to perform under pressure,” Lantz explains. “You relax and do it — and enjoy it. It’s helped me understand what kind of a work environment 3-D will be.”

Asperger’s syndrome actually contributes to his success, Lantz adds. “Once I have a set task, I go straight at it. It’s a trade-off; I may not make the best decisions. But, when it comes to [SkillsUSA] competitions, it’s a good trade-off.”

Creswell says their strengths make for a great team. “If I had partnered with anyone else in the classroom, I don’t know if I’d have gotten this far.”