Four hours before her prom even started Tuesday, Floral Park Memorial High School senior Brenda Lopez was already excited after receiving a phone call from one of her teachers.
She learned that she had passed her final New York Regents exam, in U.S. history, and with that she would be graduating with her classmates in a few days.
"I didn't imagine myself graduating," said Lopez, 18, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala when she was 9.
In Guatemala, Lopez said she never attended school.
"I had no education," she said. "My whole life and my brother's life was just working with my grandma."
Back in their native country, Lopez and her younger brother, Ronald, worked preparing tacos that were sold out of food trucks, she said. For nearly four years, she said they were separated from their parents, who were already living in the United States, until their folks made the decision to bring them here.
When she arrived in New York, Lopez said she was enrolled in the fourth grade at P.S. 33 in Queens but she didn't speak any English. And simply adjusting to being in a school setting for the first time was a struggle for her.
"I used to get into fights but that's because I was not used to being around a lot of kids," she said. "I was just used to be being with my grandparents and my brother."
When her parents moved to Floral Park when she was 13, she started in the Sewanhaka School District, and it was around that time, she said, that things started to click in school.
"Little by little I started studying and became a hard worker," Lopez said, adding that she would stay after school for two extra hours every day just to hit the books.
She said she told herself: "It's my destiny to graduate."
Floral Park Memorial High School principal Kathleen Sottile said it's not often that the district sees a student come into the district without having had any formal education before the fourth grade like Lopez. And the odds are often against them.
"But Brenda persevered," Sottile said. "I've watched her grow into a mature, beautiful young woman."
Sottile partly attributed Lopez's success to the support she received from her family, especially her brother, Ronald, 17, a sophomore at Floral Park, and her teachers, "who stuck by her side" throughout.
"When we she passed all her final exams, we all cried," Sottile added.
At Floral Park, Lopez also earned her cosmetology license through the school's Career and Technical Education program, and she's landed a job at a salon in Jericho. But Lopez said she also plans to attend Nassau County Community College in the fall to study business administration.
And when she's handed her diploma at graduation on Saturday, Lopez said she'll be crying.
"She had never known that she was capable of doing something like that," said Ronald, who accompanied his sister to her prom. "We've been through a lot, it's been hard -- she inspires me a lot."
Looking around the ballroom at The Crescent Beach Club in Bayville during her prom, Brenda Lopez added, "It's really special for me to be here.
"I don't want to leave my school ... but it's time."