NEOSHO, Mo. — “This has got to be a joke.”

That’s the first thought that flashed through Arely Avitua’s mind the moment she was told she’d been selected to appear on the popular television reality series “The Real World.”

“I just didn’t think that I would have been picked to be a roommate on the show,” the 21-year-old Neosho resident said.

Within seconds, euphoria washed away any trace of skepticism.

“I grew up watching MTV, and I love ‘The Real World,’” she said. “The first (season) I watched was ‘The Real World: Las Vegas’ in 2011. I remember watching it and thinking, ‘Wow, it would be cool to be on TV and just have fun.’”

Wishful thinking became reality just eight short years later. For the show’s 33rd season, Avitua would join six other men and women inside a 5,400-square-foot bed-and-breakfast loft in Atlanta, Georgia, where their interactions and altercations were recorded by an array of cameras over a nearly three-month period. The season debuted June 13, the first of the series to appear on Facebook Watch.

“It is definitely surreal,” she said of the entire experience, both living through the filming process and then viewing the finished, edited product on Facebook. “It’s so crazy to me that I ended up on ‘The Real World’ and telling my story to millions of people. I was just so excited for people to know not just my story, but my roommates’ stories as well.”

Her story

Avitua, who has lived in Neosho since 2005, is an aspiring nurse who manages The Children’s Place at Northpark Mall. She graduated from Neosho High School in 2016 and from Crowder College two years later. She is the proud mother of a 4-year-old son, Adrian. One of the reasons she was chosen to be on the show was her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status; she moved with her parents from Mexico to the United States before she could even walk. She is now fighting for permanent citizenship.

Unlike most reality shows, “The Real World” focuses primarily on social issues, exposing the raw emotions displayed on either side. For example, in the show’s third season in the early 1990s, a housemate named Pedro revealed that he had AIDS, and he used the show’s platform to educate viewers about the negative stigma surrounding the disease. In 2009, a woman named Katelynn demonstrated to millions of people what it’s truly like to live as a transgender person in America.

For this season, Avitua was able to educate the viewing public, as well as her new roommates, about the misconceptions and emotional issues surrounding immigration and the country’s policies behind it.

“The only difficulty that I had during the show was just really trying to get people to be open to listening to my story,” she said.

During the first episode, housemate Dondre Randolph confronted her about her DACA status, labeling her — incorrectly — as an “illegal.”

“I had a couple of roommates who were very strongly opinionated, and it was something that I wasn’t used to,” she said. “I definitely was out of my comfort zone, but that is what ‘The Real World’ is all about.”

She was the youngest of the seven housemates; only she and another woman, 23-year-old Megan Melancon, were younger than 25.

“I ... sometimes felt like I was little — and sometimes with all the others, my voice would get drowned out,” she said. “So it was more of overcoming my own struggles.”

Which she managed to do, she said with pride.

Living in Atlanta

Like hundreds of other young men and women hopefuls each month, Avitua applied online earlier this year. Unlike hundreds of other men and women, she received a callback, which was quickly followed by a Skype interview.

“I then flew out to Los Angeles for final casting interviews and a few days later did another Skype call — during which the casting manager notified me that I was officially picked to be one of the roommates for ‘The Real World: Atlanta,’” she said. “I was super excited but nervous because I had to leave my son” behind for about three months with her grandparents.

There was no interim period — she was immediately thrust into the imaginary world of “The Real World.”

“Living in the house was great,” she said. “When we first moved into the house, we had a fully stocked fridge and pantry. Everything was so open. Nothing had doors except the bathrooms, so we definitely had no place to run off to and be alone — unless it was the confessional. It took some time getting used to because I wasn’t used to having people follow me around with cameras and being watched 24/7. We really didn’t interact with production during the filming of the show. We literally just had each other in the house.”

While the other cast members bickered over their different beliefs and political views — the house had people with a mixture of conservative and liberal viewpoints, of Catholic and Jewish faiths, and several sexual orientations, including two pansexual individuals — she had to deal with issues from outside the house. Those issues, of course, were captured on film and promptly aired.

One of the most emotional scenes was a phone call she had to make concerning the custody of her son.

“I had just recently broken up with my ex before I went onto the show, so I had to deal with that situation while being away,” she said. “The one that I stressed the most about was my son. I had to deal with adult situations that affected my home, but I was in a completely different state. There was only so much I could do. Thankfully, I was given the opportunity to still take care of my child’s needs and my needs during the show.

“Being away from my son was the hardest part of being on the show,” she continued. “I wish I could have just taken him with me, but I knew I couldn’t. Even though he wasn’t physically with me, I was still able to call him every day and even video chat with him. It always brought a smile on my face because he was always so happy and just asking me when I’m coming home. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for your family, and this was a big opportunity for me to make good money and hopefully help me in the future with my goals and what I want to accomplish.”

A reality TV star

More than 3 million people watched the second episode; the first episode had an audience of 2.8 million.

“It’s crazy to me that I am now a reality TV star,” Avitua admitted. “Especially coming from a small town like Neosho in Missouri. I never would have imagined myself where I am today. I think it’s amazing that I was given the opportunity to do the show. I think that I brought a lot of information about my DACA status. Growing up in Southwest Missouri, it is very conservative, and I just wanted to let the people that lived around me (know) that not everything you hear or think is true is really true.

“I just want people to know that they need to do their own research before they believe everything they hear.”