Published December 23. 2012 4:00AM Updated December 23. 2012 7:40AM
Editor's note: The high school graduates of 2002 were the first to enter the post-9/11 world. Their careers and adult lives have been shaped by two wars, a shortage of jobs and the Great Recession. The Day asked nine of the seniors profiled at graduation time in 2002 about how their lives now reflect the dreams and ambitions they had then.
New London - From behind the lens of a Canon 60D, Brenda De Los Santos often sees life from a different perspective, at times capturing a family's tender, bittersweet moments.
She's one of two photographers in the state who donate their time to a Canadian nonprofit, The Maple Leaf Mission, which offers photo sessions to military families, those with debilitating or potentially terminal illnesses, genetic conditions, those who have undergone or are about to undergo major surgery, and those who have survived a devastating physical accident.
"The first session I did was someone I knew from high school who had a baby at 24 weeks," De Los Santos said. "It could have been a really sad situation, but it turned out to be a great one."
The baby was 6 months old when she took the family photos, on his way to a healthy life.
"There was a slim chance of his survival, but by the time I got to photograph him, things were looking up," she said. "It's really nice to be able to do those things for people who are going through tough times."
When she graduated from New London High School in 2002, she believed that whatever career path she chose would involve a melding of creative elements. Exactly what elements was yet to be revealed, but it's fair to say she's arrived at her destination.
"Whatever I do, it's going to have to be creative and in a job where I have some kind of creative control," she said in 2002. "I want to go everywhere - China and places in Africa. I want to live in different places, too. I'd be happy living in L.A., Florida, Europe. I want to experience all cultures, all things."
Fast forward 10 years, and she owns a photography business on State Street, teaches a photography class at the Mystic Arts Center, and bakes and decorates her own confectionery treats. She balances all that with babysitting her nieces and nephews, who are also the subjects of many impromptu photo shoots.
She was also in charge of planning the Class of 2002's 10-year reunion.
Oh, and De Los Santos also works part-time for a local orthodontics office. She's in charge of maintaining their computer network across three offices, does their social media promotions and handles their graphic design work.
She was a busy girl in 2002, and she's a busy woman now.
"Back then, I couldn't wait to get out of here, because you grow up in New London and you can't wait to get out, but I learned to love New London," she said. "I didn't think it was me at all, but I love living near the ocean. I can't not live right by the water. In the winter, it's cold and it's not much fun, but winter in New England is beautiful."
After graduating from Boston University, De Los Santos returned to Connecticut, first to work as a long-term substitute teacher at New London High School and then to work for the Groton Public Schools as a communications specialist.
She interned as a photographer for The Day one summer during college and later accepted a photography job at The Middletown Press.
Her job there helped to fine-tune her photography skills, but she outgrew the job.
"It kind of got to the point where I felt there wasn't anywhere for me to go working there. Everyone was getting laid off, and I didn't feel there was any room to improve myself, so I said I'm going to do my own thing," she said.
"My goal has always been to do photography only by the time I'm 30, and I'm 28 now, so I'm going to get there," she said.
Having graduated from college just two years before the recession in 2008, De Los Santos knew she'd encounter some challenges.
"Having graduated with a degree in journalism, I knew I was going to have a hard time, but I didn't think the industry was going to be anything like it was today," she said.
She lives at home, but she doesn't mind it - her parents are "awesome," she said.
As for her classmates, De Los Santos said they're doing well for themselves.
"I might be a little optimistic, but in planning the reunion, I'm in touch with a lot of them. I think people are doing well. A lot of people have families and are settled across the country," she said.
She received the keys to her office on State Street a few months ago and said the event was a "huge milestone."
"I think how lucky I am. I know I've worked really hard to get here," she said. "I've never had anything really handed to me.
"Sure, there were times in the past where I didn't know what was going to happen with my life, but you know, if you keep working towards your goal and you keep being positive about it and you just keep at it, even though there are things that will get in your way, it will happen."