Meeting Challenges Head On: Valencia Grad Overcomes Learning Disabilities to Earn Degree

Commencement is a celebration for all of our graduating students, but it’s an especially sweet occasion for students like Mariana Reyes.

Adopted from Bulgaria when she was six years old, Mariana moved with her adoptive family to Colorado, where she was plunged into kindergarten immediately. Thanks to speech therapy and special education classes, she picked up English quickly. But later in life, she realized that she also had learning disabilities – including dyslexia and dyscalculia. Both made school challenging.
After high school, Mariana didn’t think about college; she was too busy caring for her mom, who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. Yet, in 2017, Mariana, who’s a politics junkie, met a man who would change her life.
Antonio Reyes was in Washington, D.C., for the same conference that Mariana was attending. Mariana wanted to see DC’s monuments so Antonio took her for a tour. Reyes not only liked politics, but by the end of the conference, he saw something special in Mariana.
The two lived half a continent apart, but began dating long distance. They got married in 2017, and Antonio moved to Colorado. But when they moved to Orlando in 2018, Antonio began encouraging Mariana to attend community college.
“He said, ‘If you go to school, you can do something you enjoy and make a career out of it,’ “ Mariana recalls.
Antonio brought the subject up several times, but Mariana was nervous.
“I said, ‘I don’t know if it’s for me or not.’ I just didn’t know how I would handle it with the disability. When I was in middle school and high school, I never got a proper diagnosis. I always struggled with math and numbers, and I always needed more time to read stuff. “
Mariana decided to try, however. And when Mariana came to Valencia, she discovered that a lot had changed since she was in high school. The technology designed to help students with disabilities was far more advanced. And though she was allowed to have a professional notetaker, Mariana discovered that most of her professors were happy to let her record classes or, in many cases, professors would simply send her the slides from the class. Plus, there were lots of good resources for her, which Valencia’s Office of Student Disabilities helped her discover.
Mariana beegan taking four classes each semester — until the COVID pandemic moved all classes online. She slowed her pace from four classes to two each semester, yet Mariana still managed to finish her degree in three years.
So on Sunday, she walked across the commencement stage, proud to be graduating in front of her husband, as well as her mother and father, who traveled from Colorado for the occasion.
What’s next for new Valencia grad Mariana? She’s heading to UCF, where she plans to major in political science.
“I’ve always been interested in local politics,” says Mariana, now 32. “What’s happening in Tallahassee really interest me. But I’m going to minor in legal studies, to see what direction I want to go in.”