CHARLOTTESVILLE — Riley Noel figures she missed 35 days of school this year. She was failing classes. The mounting absences due to sick days and doctor’s appointments made her chances of graduating from Eastern Hancock High School seem grim.
But after a diagnosis and treatment for which she had been waiting years, along with her drive and support from those in her life, the 18-year-old Wilkinson resident is set to accept her diploma on Saturday.
Riley was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, several months ago. Her symptoms began with stomach problems during her freshman year that became increasingly worse. She couldn’t eat and lost weight. Doctors couldn’t tell what was wrong.
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The experience affected her emotionally as much as it did physically, she said.
“I had no confidence,” Riley said. “I just felt terrible all the time. I never wanted to do anything. I quit hanging out with people, I quit doing all the things I liked to do just because I didn’t have the desire to do anything anymore. It was rough, for sure, and I was drained physically, emotionally, mentally, all of the above.”
After seeing a specialist, her ulcerative colitis diagnosis became clear, and she was able to start a medication regimen.
“So far it has been doing the trick,” she said.
Riley credits her family and friends with helping her overcome the ordeal. Her parents took her to all of her doctor’s appointments. Her 9-year-old sister took care of her when she was sick.
“I just knew that I could never give up on my sister,” Riley said. “She is one of the greatest things ever. She has definitely kept me going because I know I always want to guide her through life and I want to see everything that she will achieve.”
As Riley’s health improved, however, her academic challenges persisted.
“I could not seem to catch up,” she said.
Riley feared she might not graduate, but she worked hard and raised her grades just in time.
She thought her teachers would be irritated by her absences and having to help her work her way back to passing grades.
“I could see how that could be frustrating,” Riley said. “But every single teacher I had was super supportive, and they were motivating and they let me finish everything at my own pace and they were all willing to sit with me and help me no matter what I needed. If they were not as supportive as they were, I definitely would not be graduating; there’s no way.”
Teresa Bever taught Riley both in the seventh grade and most recently in a college- and career-ready math class.
“She actually didn’t need my class to graduate,” Bever said. “So when she was sick and home so much, that was not a class that she really tried to keep up with because she had so many others to worry about.”
When Riley was feeling better and able to attend school more regularly, however, Bever made it clear that failing her class was not an option.
“I wanted her to see no matter what her obstacles had been, she could overcome them,” Bever said. “…As long as she was willing to put the effort forward, I was willing to put it forward with her.”
Bever has been teaching for 33 years. Riley is one of many students she’s seen overcome adversity, she said, adding she tells them all the same thing.
“It’s what you do with what you’ve learned form it,” Bever said. “I think she will take what she’s learned and be such a stronger person because of it… She’s not going to let this define her. This is going to be a stepping stone to what she’s going to become.”
Bever went on to call Riley “a phenomenal young lady.”
“I just can’t wait to see what her future holds,” Bever said. “She will always know I’m there, whenever she needs, even if it’s 20 years down the road.”
Deb Jackson, a library instructional assistant at Eastern Hancock High School and Middle School, interacted regularly with Riley at the school’s library when she’d visit for an online course she took her senior year.
“She’s one of those kids that you just can’t help but like,” Jackson said, adding Riley has “a great work ethic.”
Jackson recalled feeling sympathetic toward Riley in light of her illness and weight loss along with the extended period of time it took to confirm a diagnosis and how it all impeded her ability to perform well in school.
She’s glad Riley’s health has been improving and is impressed with the way the student overcame the challenges that jeopardized her ability to finish high school.
“I’m just so proud of her,” Jackson said, adding she sees a bright future for the soon-to-be graduate.
Riley said her supervisor and co-workers at Elanco, where she interned during her senior year, were supportive as well and were willing to step up for her during her absences.
She also works at Beverly’s Pet Resort in Fishers, played volleyball throughout high school and shows pigs for 4-H. She’s about to cap her 10th year in 4-H.
After graduation, Riley plans to continue working and taking online classes at Marian University in Indianapolis. She eventually wants to pursue a career in health and human services.
“I just want to be able to help and give back,” she said.
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This is the first in a series of stories this week about members of the class of 2019 who have overcome adversity.