Kenzi Merritt, Northampton Community College (NCC) student, had high honors at Nazareth High School, on track to graduate early. She was a member of the color guard and enjoyed spending time with her friends. Without much warning, her life changed dramatically, and her world seemed to fall apart.
Against all odds, Merritt, 19, was able to find the fortitude necessary to get back on track and enroll for the fall semester at NCC while working full time. A psychology major, she has her sights set on a career in criminal psychology or psychiatry.
“Northampton is a great fit because of all the accommodations they make for people like me,” Merritt said.
From Honor Student to Dropout
Merritt had been living with her mother in a motel since the beginning of her sophomore year in high school. Her parents were separated, with her father in and out of prison and her mother often without work. In the middle of her junior year, Merritt’s mother received a benefit check and had a little extra money. She bought a used car and moved them to Jim Thorpe in Carbon County, where they rented an apartment.
For a while, Merritt drove herself back and forth from Jim Thorpe to Nazareth High School every day, despite having only a learner’s permit to drive. Needing to pay for gas and other necessities, she worked long hours while trying to keep up with schoolwork.
“It was just overwhelming for me,” Merritt said. “I finally asked my mom to unenroll me from Nazareth High School.”
She enrolled at Jim Thorpe Area High School, learning remotely due to pandemic restrictions, which she found difficult. Her job at a travel center required her to work long hours, and she began to fall behind with her classes.
Hoping to ease her load, Merritt unenrolled from Jim Thorpe and enrolled in the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. Her situation improved a bit, and she felt like she was getting back on track. But in October 2021 she and her mother lost the apartment they’d been renting, and Merritt was on her own.
“For the next four months I stayed with friends or was living out of my car, and I didn’t always have internet,” she recalled. “I was on my own and didn’t know what to do. At this point I was completely defeated, and I dropped out of school.”
Automobiles were a part of Merritt’s life from an early age, as her father enjoyed tinkering with engines and working on cars. After leaving high school, she got hired as an auto detailer at a local dealership and found that she enjoyed the work.
“I was making pretty good money so I figured I would just stay where I was and work,” she said. “I was incredibly disappointed with myself that I’d gone from being a great student to someone who couldn’t even graduate, but I thought that was just the way it would be.”
Realizing Merritt’s potential, however, some family members took her aside and intervened.
“They told me I had to finish high school,” she recalled. “They asked me what I really wanted to do with my life, and I told them my dream is to be a psychologist or psychiatrist.”
Shortly after the intervention, Merritt re-enrolled in the cyber charter school and, while working full time, earned her high school diploma, graduating on March 3, 2023. That accomplishment changed everything.
“Graduating from high school gave me the motivation I needed to keep moving forward,” she said.
A Fresh Start
Inspired by her accomplishment, Merritt felt hopeful for the first time in a long while. She was promoted to the position of collision parts associate for Faulkner Collision Center in Bethlehem – where she still works as the youngest employee.
Encouraged, Merritt decided to pursue her dream of college. She reached out to staff at NCC to explore the possibility of enrolling there for the fall semester and was offered some scholarship money. Knowing she could take classes at night and continue with her job gave her the confidence she needed to enroll. Currently, she’s taking five classes and loves being in college.
“I feel like I’m able to get that good foundation that I need here,” Merritt said. “Then I’ll enroll in a four-year college and figure out if I want to go to grad school for criminal psychology or try to get into medical school to become a criminal psychiatrist.”
After a tumultuous period in her life, Merritt is happy and moving forward. She and her boyfriend are living together in Bangor and saving money toward a house. Her five-year plan, Merritt said, includes a lot more school, buying a home and perhaps having a baby.
“My teenage years were really confusing and hard, but things are much better now,” Merritt said. “I’m grateful to be at NCC and able to have a fresh start.”