WILLMAR -- Soraya Hudson of Willmar was miserable when she was in ninth grade.
She was called names every day at school and wasn't doing well in her classes. She was getting into trouble. If she had stayed on that path, she said recently, she probably would not have graduated on time this spring.
She did graduate, after finding an alternative to a bricks-and-mortar high school and finishing her last three and a half years of high school online.
When she looks back, she said, she can see that she got into trouble by trying to act tough to ward off the bullying. It didn't work.
"Peer pressure can really get to you and make you do things you wouldn't have thought you would ever do," Soraya, 19, said.
"The biggest reason I got bullied was because of my size," the petite Soraya said. She asked for help at Willmar Senior High, and attempts were made, but the bullying didn't stop.
She doesn't like to repeat the names she was called. Those words are "like scars," she said. "Words hurt. ... You kind of lose trust in people."
Her parents wanted to help her, too. Her father, Bob Hudson, works at home and considered homeschooling. He looked for a curriculum, but mostly found religion-based lesson plans, and those didn't fit his needs, he said.
Then he found the Minnesota Virtual Academy, which is affiliated with the Houston School District in southeastern Minnesota. He liked that it was affiliated with a public school and would deliver a public school curriculum.
He talked it over with Soraya, he said, and offered her the chance to try it for the second half of her freshman year.
Soraya's older sister graduated from Willmar and didn't experience any problems. Minnesota Virtual Academy was "just a better fit for me."
It wasn't always easy. "I struggled a little at first," she said. She was using Skype too much and would be interrupted by friends.
Her father referred to it as her "procrastination problem," which he felt she didn't fully overcome until her senior year. It frustrated him, "because she's very smart," he said. "I'm proud of her, but she drives me crazy sometimes."
With the online school, "we didn't have to wonder about her being bullied or what she was doing after school," Hudson said. She still participated in soccer programs in Willmar and studied tae kwon do.
Minnesota Virtual Academy has attendance requirements like any other public school in the state. Students must be logged in for six hours a day, but they can do that on their own schedule. If they don't log in for three days in a row, they are reported as truant.
With the flexible hours, a student who's a night owl can study later in the day. No one cares if the students go to school in their pajamas.
Soraya sometimes took her laptop to a coffee shop to study. She was able to visit her grandparents in Alabama and log in to school from there.
Students can stay in contact through chat rooms and other electronic communications. The students can build "lifetime" friendships at the school, she said.
Once she got used to the schedule and the demands on her, she said, she felt she did well in her classes and became a better person.
"I think I've ultimately become a person I can look up to," Soraya said. "I hope to make my future a lot better."
Psychology was her favorite class in high school, she said, but she liked math and science, too -- something she wouldn't have said before.
"I did really well in Algebra II," she said. "I also like science; I love biology."
Soraya plans to study criminal justice at St. Cloud State University this fall, with hopes of being a forensic toxicologist or an FBI agent. She's always been fascinated with those subjects, she said.
Along with a full high school curriculum and Advanced Placement classes, Minnesota Virtual Academy offered a variety of social activities, including trips to Valley Fair, picnics and a prom. Soraya was prom queen in her senior year.
She was moved by the graduation ceremony she attended, she said. "It really made me think about what I want to do."
She believes she was depressed at the bricks-and-mortar school, and was taking it out on herself. "When I left, all that changed."
The Hudson family has lived in Willmar for about nine years, she said. Before that, they lived in several southern states, moving because of her mom's jobs. Her mother is Dr. Nancy Hallo, a radiologist, and her father is retired from the U.S. Navy and is a science fiction author. Soraya has two older brothers in the military and her sister attends the University of Minnesota.