As a child, your parents tell you to “reach for the stars” or “go after your wildest dreams and never give up.”
Young and thinking that life works in a series of steps like climbing a flight of stairs, you realize that life is not a vertical staircase but more of a zig and zag through a maze or like figuring out the right puzzle pieces and which direction they fit.
As each day passes, you make a new step within a much larger path on your journey to achieve your dreams. In these steps, however, facing obstacles become a harsh reality in preparing you for greater days ahead.
While some setbacks are forthcoming, others are unexpected, throwing you off your path for a moment, only to make you better for the path that is destined for you. For Kristen Dupard, persevering and standing firm in her faith in God has been the source for her witnessing her dreams come true in spite of her circumstances.
Dreams are free, but the hustle is sold separately. And for Dupard, she learned the hard lessons of faith and hustle at a very early age from an unexpected storm.
Growing up in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dupard embraced the idea of family, hard work and dream chasing early on in her childhood.
“Whether my mom being my personal cheerleader or my grandmother constantly telling me to stay focused on my goals, my family members have always taught me to believe in the power of dreams,” Dupard said. “To believe and dream as big as my imagination can go and then look towards getting there.”
For Dupard, that childhood concept has not steered her in the wrong direction.
At 23, Dupard has already met former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former First Lady Michelle Obama, former U.S. President Barack Obama, creating her own initiative “Empower the Vote, Save the Vote” to help young people get registered, interned for Senator Thad Cochran who chairs the Appropriations Committee, went to the White House, worked with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and completed research at Columbia University to give you a brief snapshot of her “puzzle pieces” to figuring out her ultimate destination.
Piecing together her journey, the New Orleans native has a passion to help others along the way and not becoming complacent of where she is and what she has done so far.
“I fear the idea of being satisfied or not having anything that will continue to motivate me,” Dupard said. “Therefore, I continue to create pathways for myself to be successful with the idea of lifting others as I climb on my journey to success.”
Before working in the nation’s capitol and learning from some of the best and brightest minds at an Ivy League school, like any other person filled with ambition and lofty goals, Dupard has witnessed some setbacks.
One in particular, however, changed her entire outlook on life.
Without this unexpected disturbance to what could have been a normal routine childhood, the highly ambitious, goal-driven women from the heart of New Orleans may not have become the woman she is today.
In August 2005, preparing to begin the sixth grade at Parkview Academy, Dupard witnessed a storm like no other. A storm that not only affected her physical location but it grew to effect her emotionally.
The weekend before Monday, Aug. 29, Dupard spent time with her dad, Kenneth, as the two always did.
When the weekend was over, on Sundays, her dad would drop her back off at her mother’s house.
Little did she know that this would be her last time seeing her dad for a while or that she would not be spending her sixth grade year in a place where all of her friends were.
Unlike most kids who dreaded the thought of returning back to the fresh smell of books, desks and clean classrooms, Dupard was the exact opposite.
“I loved school and it would have been my last year at Parkview Academy before I transitioned to another school for middle school,” Dupard said.
Before her dad left her mother’s house, he asked Dupard’s mother where were they headed.
“We’re going to my grandfather’s farm in Thibodaux, Louisiana,” Dupard’s mother’s response to her dad.
Then, Dupard’s mother, Angela, asked her dad where was he going.
He replied, “I’m going to ride out the storm.”
On Monday, Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the busy streets of New Orleans, bringing tree-snapping winds and jaw-dropping floodwaters that engulfed the city and its neighborhoods that were known for good ol’ Southern musicians, diehard New Orleans Saints fans, beignets and to-die-for seafood dishes.
Katrina would become the costliest natural disaster and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in American history.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Katrina caused $108 billion in damage. An estimated 80 percent of New Orleans was under water, with up to 20 feet deep in places and roughly 1,833 people died and millions of others were homeless from the hurricane and flooding from the storm.
But to think, Dupard never thought it would be months before she would talk to her dad again because of power outages and his lack of telephone access. Neither did she think that when she packed her last suitcase full of clothes that these clothes would be all the ones she would have for a while and for memories in the months ahead.
“I thought I would be back in my house in a matter of days,” Dupard said. “Hurricanes and tropical storms are no stranger to us as we anticipate them each year.”
“We just didn’t think this one would bring so much damage.”
Yet, it did.
After the storm, Dupard did not really understand what had taken place and just how much her life had changed in a period of days.
“I was a very inquisitive child that talked a lot,” Dupard said. After the storm, I did not have much to say because I didn’t know what to say and I was just trying to survive.”
“When I think back to that day, I think of pain and death. The first time I saw a newscast, the first thing I saw was people clinging to life on rooftops and uprooted caskets floating in the water.”
Thankfully, Dupard and her family had stored up enough food for a few weeks to get them through what would only be the beginning of the post-transition phase to Dupard’s new life.
Days after the storm, nervous and shocked through it all, Dupard would get the first “zig” in her journey of starting over.
Before the storm, Dupard was about to start school. Now, with catastrophic damage to nearly the entire city, schools did not start at their normal time.
Days after the storm, Dupard’s immediate family decided that she needed to be enrolled in school or she would run the risk of getting held back a year in school.
As a result, one week later, her mother drove her to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to meet up with her Aunt Kermie and Uncle Algy Irvin, who lived in Monroe, Louisiana during the storm.
“I remember my aunt taking me to the store in Monroe buying me tons of stuff to keep me entertained,” Dupard said. “I remember her getting a notebook so that I could write down my thoughts because it was the first time that I would be without my mom for an entire year.”
Dupard stayed in Monroe a few days before she took her first plane ride to Hillsborough, North Carolina to live with her Aunt Anissa and Uncle Dain, with her mother’s belief that she would regain a sense of normalcy.
Dupard enrolled in C.W. Stanford Middle School as sixth grade student. For Dupard, however, the transition was far from normal.
“Things were rough because I had a very close relationship with my mom and dad and not being able to talk to them or see them as much really hurt me,” Dupard said. “It was also difficult making new friends because school had already started in North Carolina but the other students welcomed me.”
“I wondered would the kids talk about me, stare at me or ask a whole bunch of questions about New Orleans. It was a really hard time.”
As life began to set in Dupard’s mind that she was roughly 872 miles away from her mom, the transition began to get the best of her emotionally.
Dupard said she remembered crying a lot when she first moved to the Tar Heel State.
“There were times where I would call my mom and just tell her how much I missed her and I could not stop sobbing,” Dupard said. “I would cry myself to sleep and ask her why couldn’t I be with her now.”
By sending her away, Dupard’s mother hoped that her daughter would gain a sense of normalcy in a stable home with her aunt and uncle before coming back to live with her.
“She kept reminding me that I needed to be strong and that she didn’t want me to come back without a home,” Dupard said. “She wanted me to have an established foundation because restarting my life on a rocky foundation would have negative consequences for me that I did not understand at that age.”
Despite her not fully understanding, Dupard trusted her mother’s plan but more importantly, she continued to weather her storm, pressed forward and chose not to become a victim to the hurricane during the year she was away from her mom.
“I made a decision in my mind that come hell or high water that I was going to be successful,” Dupard said. “I knew it was going to take a lot of grit and grace from God but my family had sacrificed a lot for me to not be successful.”
With a new sense of direction, Dupard moved back with her mom before they made another transition in the summer of 2006. The two moved to Mississippi, where Dupard attended Olde Town Middle School before going on to Ridgeland High School, a school located roughly 10 miles outside of Jackson, Mississippi.
It was in high school that Dupard truly began to find her niche, to embrace her unexpected journey and to see some of her dreams come to fruition right before her eyes. It was just the beginning to the woman she aspired to become.
As a high school student, Dupard beat out 365,000 students across the nation to win the National Poetry Out Loud Contest, won a National Speech and Debate Championship, qualified for National Speech and Debate Tournaments across the country, lettered in basketball and softball and selected for induction in to her high school Hall of Fame.
Following a noteworthy high school career, Dupard attended the University of Southern Mississippi, where she earned a degree in Biochemistry in December 2016 as a first generation college student on her father’s side of her family.
But, like high school, Dupard wanted more.
She wanted more than an education or a degree. Dupard was chasing her dreams and pushing herself to make them become a reality, something she gives a lot of credit due to a deadly storm named Katrina.
“Katrina was devastating but I would not be the person who I am today,” Dupard said. Katrina pushed me to want more.”
“Had not Katrina happened, I feel that I would have still did well. But, after being away from my mother and father for a year gave me a sense of independence. It helped me figure out that I am a fighter, a hard worker and that I can accomplish my wildest dreams.”
With her ambition and her faith in God, Dupard continued to soar at Southern Miss.
Beyond her research endeavors at Columbia and witnessing the The White House, she interned with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, was crowned Miss University of Southern Mississippi, was crowned Miss Black and Gold for Mississippi for Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, attended the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU), presented her research a various national research symposiums, interned with WAPT News, participated in numerous honor societies and selected for induction to the USM Student Hall of Fame.
While Dupard has accomplished a lot at such a young age, the girl from the Lower Ninth Ward, who cried and wondered why her life seemed chaotic, has plans to help build her community and create change as a future health leader.
As an African American woman with a Biochemistry degree, interning on Capitol Hill with U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) and working with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Dupard said she believes that she has what it takes to one day make changes to improve health policies.
“I considered my university acceptance as a start to helping people that resembled my New Orleans natives,” Dupard said. “I’ve seen doctors treat folks with the same conditions and realized that some of the problems could not just be fixed with prescription drugs.”
“Some people need more. They need systematic changes. Changes in housing, education and access to opportunities that would reduce the chances of them being disproportionately affected.”
Dupard, who once wanted to be a physician, is currently applying to law school, with the idea of combining health and law to pursue her latest dream centered around politics at the intersection of healthcare policy.
Dreams are nothing without action, and for Dupard, her action has been built on the foundation of perseverance through the storm, her family’s support to “dream big” and her faith in God.
A few weeks ago, Dupard visited her house in the Lower Ninth Ward for the last time. Tainted with graffiti and wreckage from post Katrina, she noticed her house was still standing and the foundation was still there.
Like her house, she plans to keep standing in the face of adversity, pushing through the storms of life and chasing after her wildest dreams.
“My life has taught me to stand on my values, and no matter what life throws at me, keep standing,” Dupard said. “You don’t have a say of what happens to you but, in my 23 years of life, I have not fallen yet.”
“Everything happens for a reason and is divinely orchestrated and planned. I persevered through Katrina and I believe that I can achieve anything.”