Cassie Arauzo has just been recognised for being the cream of the crop in her industry in New Zealand.
Heavily pregnant, the 27-year-old expectant mother is happy to tell you that she waddled, rather than walked, up on to the stage to receive her award then cried the entire way through her speech as she thanked her daughter, new husband and everyone who'd believed in her for being named PRINZ Young PR [Public Relations] Professional Of The Year.
Being recognised for your success is emotional for anyone but for Cassie, from Auckland, it meant even more because the last time she'd waddled up on to a stage to receive an award was at her high school graduation.
We first introduced you to Cassie two years ago, when she spoke candidly to Now To Love about becoming a teenage mum. She had wanted others to understand that getting pregnant young didn't mean you had to give up your hopes and dreams.
While her life path after falling pregnant had become gnarled and full of pot holes, at 25 she was starting to reap the rewards of her steely determination to push on in pursuit of her goals.
Now in 2019, not only is she excelling in her career, she's also newly married, a first-time home owner, and she and husband Myron are expecting their first child together, a little sister for Cassie's daughter, eight-year-old Lexi.
Cassie says, "It feels like everything I've worked for has fallen into place.
"You can dream of all these things, you have all these boxes that you want to tick in life, and in the past couple of weeks I've realised, gosh, I've ticked a lot of those boxes now."
Cassie is not encouraging anyone to consider having a baby young, but she does believe, "I wouldn't be where I am today if I hadn't got pregnant when I did".
Getting pregnant at 18 threw her off course, but it didn't stop her from following her dreams; it only made her more determined to realise them.
"I know that's the exact opposite of what people say about teenage pregnancy, and there are moments when you trip and fall and think 'how the hell am I going to get out of this?' But once you're accountable for another person you work from a place of 'need' rather than 'want'.
"I didn't get a degree because I thought it would be nice. I got a degree so that I would have a career and be able to support my daughter. My thought processes were 'how am I going to put her through school?', 'what kind of person am I going to be for her to look up to?'"
Cassie was 18 when she fell pregnant to a boy she'd met at her Year 12 ball. A student leader who excelled at school, played multiple sports and mentored younger students, she'd had lofty goals, starting with going to university to study broadcast journalism.
But the pregnancy derailed her, and after graduating she was forced to take a 'gap year' while she adjusted to becoming a mum.
It was a "hard year", she confesses.
"You're out of the bubble of school and everyone is moving on with their lives. People are travelling and going to uni and having fun; I was at home with a new baby and felt like I was missing out.
"The dad and I split up. When the baby came it was a lot harder than we had imagined. You don't think about things like sleep deprivation and you can only prepare yourself so much. He had quit uni and started working to try and support us but we had gone from being young and careless teens to being real grown up. I had moved out of home as well because there was no room for me and the baby.
"I had had this whole idea of having a happy family, even though we were young, and so it was hard coming to terms with the fact I was going to have to do it on my own. My dad helped where he could and he financially supported me where he could but he wasn't rolling in it and he was often away in Mexico.
"So what I really lacked was physical and emotional support - having someone there to talk to or show me how to do things like change a nappy. I had no family support. I remember one of my first nights YouTubing how to swaddle a baby and another time how to do mashed potatoes - thank god for the internet."
As that first year drew to a close, Cassie enrolled at Auckland University, intent on picking up where she'd left off in pursuing her goals.
"But it was so hard. There was a lot of study hours required that I just didn't have because when I came home from uni I had to feed her, bath her and she still wasn't sleeping through the night. Study time normally started at 9pm and went till about 1am so I wasn't getting a lot of sleep."
Cassie's health suffered and over the next two years she was admitted to hospital at least twice a year. Her high temperatures and abdominal pain was put down to running herself ragged so she pulled out of university, took six months to regroup then enrolled at AUT in 2013. And this is where Cassie finally found her groove.
"Straight away I said to AUT 'this is my situation and I need something that will work for me' and it felt like being back at school a bit because they were very supportive.
"I could take Lexi to class… and it was really nice to be encouraged to not miss class if I needed to bring her. They nurtured me to succeed rather than pushed me."
Cassie graduated with a communications degree with excellence then landed her first job in PR, working her way up from an intern role to executive then manager.
From there she moved to a large telecommunications company and after getting her first big campaign under her belt, wrote a compelling entry for the PRINZ Young PR Professional Of The Year award, and won.
Along the way she met Myron, after mutual friends set them up, and she attributes some of her success to Myron's ongoing support.
"One of the things he said to me early on which really stayed with me was, 'I'm going to take care of you.'
"That was like 'ding ding' for me. I don't think he realised how much that meant to me. After having Lexi I had to grow up really quick, so to hear that and then for him to follow through.
"I sometimes pinch myself how lucky I am to have met him. He takes genuine care of me and Lexi, and he's been a big supporter in my career.
"Often, in addressing the gender pay gap we try and do a lot for mums in organisations, and there's still more to go. But we don't want to forget the dads as well because by empowering the dads to be at home you're empowering a woman to have her career."
The couple bought their first home together in 2018 and married in Mexico, where Cassie's family come from, in January 2019. Lexi was a flower girl and Cassie's father gave her away.
Of all the people Cassie had been nervous to tell when she'd first discovered she was pregnant at 18, her dad was the one she'd been most nervous about.
"Dad is very loving but he is a very hard man... If I got first place in a race it would be 'but your time could have been better' - he was quite harsh like that."
When she told him his disappointment crushed her. "You've proved them all right," he told her sadly.
Part of Cassie's drive has undoubtedly come from her yearning to make her dad proud, and the first time Cassie spoke to Now To Love she told us that although her father had never told her she'd made him proud, he'd told others and "talked about me all the time".
On the day of her wedding her father made a speech she'll remember the rest of her life.
"He said he was so proud of me and my resilience. He said he was proud I had Lexi despite being so young and despite him trying to convince me not to. It was a really emotional moment. I felt like I had finally done him proud."
Within a month of the wedding, Cassie and Myron began trying for a baby. She says this pregnancy has been very different to her first.
"I don't know whether it's because I'm older or because I really wanted this (as opposed to getting pregnant accidentally), but this time I've been so anxious. I think with the first pregnancy I was so focused on what decision I was going to make and how I was going to make it work, rather than those little things like 'am I able to eat feta?'
"Those thoughts I have now, I don't think I even had the capacity to think like that. I had much bigger worries, like where am I going to live and how am I going to look after her?"
After the baby, a little girl, is born, Cassie would like to take a step back to enjoy time with her family. She'd also like to put some of her energies into volunteering for organisations that support teenage parents.
"I'd like to help them with their PR, because I don't think there's a lot of awareness out there about them. There are a lot of teen mums really pushing through to get degrees and sometimes they just need a little inspiration or a little nudge to say 'keep going'.
"After the last story I did for Now To Love I was really overwhelmed by the amount of mums who'd been in the same situation as me and reached out to me. I was so inspired and so humbled. There are a lot of sad stories around teen pregnancy but those are not the only stories."
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