For most students, high school graduation is a milestone. For others, it is nothing short of a miracle.
“I didn’t think I would live to see this age.”
“There was a time when I thought I would not graduate at all.”
“Something was wrong and my world went dark.”
For students who have survived genocide, conquered cancer or overcome other seemingly insurmountable obstacles, completing high school is a real accomplishment, a cause for reflection and celebration.
Students from all seven high schools in the Cherry Creek School District shared their stories of overcoming adversity on the path to graduation during the April 12 Parents’ Council meeting.
Aynalem Woldemariam - Cherokee Trail High School
Woldemariam talked about the day her world went dark. She grew up in Ethiopia, where she walked miles to attend school. She lost her mother at a very young age, then her brother died at the orphanage where they’d been taken.
“I was lost, lonely and scared” Woldemariam recalled.
But at age 6 she was adopted by an American family and on July 26, 2016, she became a U.S. citizen. She was enjoying life as a student and soccer player at Cherokee Trail High School.
“I was doing what I loved to do when my life took a turn,” Woldemariam said. “Something was wrong and my world went dark.”
Doctors discovered that Woldemariam had a brain tumor that had to be removed lest it leave her blind, paralyzed or dead. Fortunately, the surgery was successful, and though Woldemariam had to let go of her dream of playing college soccer, she is looking forward to attending Metropolitan State University and pursuing a career in the dental field.
“I have had to make some life-changing decisions, but I have chosen to make the best of my situation,” she added.
Garrison Hayes - Cherokee Trail High School
Hayes’ leg was amputated when he was just a kindergartener. He missed a full year of school to undergo high dose chemotherapy, which left him with some hearing loss, impaired motor skills and what his mom liked to call “chemo brain.” Catching up academically was frustrating, but Hayes was resolute.
“I have a strong desire to do as well as I possibly can, and I’ve been pushing myself not to let the adverse effects of amputation and chemotherapy determine the outcome of my life,” said Hayes, who worked closely with his teachers and counselors throughout elementary, middle and high school.
“They taught me to ask questions and advocate for myself,” Hayes said. “They helped develop my confidence and my self-esteem.”
In fact, Hayes has achieved a 4.0 grade point average during three semesters and has also earned two academic letters. Athletics are also a big part of his life. He competes in in several sports using a prosthetic leg and is an international Paralympic competitor.
Hayes has been named a Daniels Scholar and is a recipient of the “Overcoming Adversity” scholarship, presented by the Retired Employees of Cherry Creek Schools (RECCS). He plans to study biomechanical engineering at a college or university that is yet to be determined.
Purna Darjee - Cherry Creek High School
Purna Darjee spent her early years in a refugee camp in Nepal, where her family of four lived in a hut made of mud and bamboo, with no electricity or running water. When she was 5, her father died of tuberculosis and her mother began searching for new opportunities for her family.
“My mom was ready to have a better life than the one we had living in poverty in Nepal,” Darjee recalls.
So they applied to emigrate to the United States, a process that took nearly two years. When they arrived in Colorado, the whole family was overwhelmed by the language barrier, cultural differences, even things like telephones and toilets.
"When I started school in Colorado everything was so different than at home,”Darjee said.
But she found a strong support system at Cherry Creek High School, which enabled her to acclimate to a new country and a new life filled with new opportunities.
“My dream is to graduate college and become a nurse,” said Darjee, who plans to study nursing at Community College of Denver. “I want to help people and give back to the community.”
Sailesh Dahal – Eaglecrest High School
Sailesh Dahal spent the first 10 years of his life in a refugee camp in Nepal. Then his family moved to Colorado.
“We were all very nervous but also very grateful for the opportunity to start a new life in this country,” Dahal said.
His parents worked hard and eventually saved enough money to purchase a home. Their case manager encouraged them to locate in the Cherry Creek School District in order to provide Dahal and his sister with the best educational opportunities.
“From the very beginning, my new CCSD teachers were very supportive and motivating. I would come in after school and during lunch for additional help and they were more than happy to work with me,” Dahal said.
As Dahal became comfortable with his new country and more confident in his new language, he realized he wanted to help other refugees, so he began volunteering at the African Community Center, interpreting for Hindi-speaking refugees and helping new arrivals adjust to American life. He was recognized by Princeton University with the Princeton Prize in Race Relations.
“None of this would have been possible without the guidance and support of my teachers, who helped me develop the skills necessary to be a student leader in my community,” Dahal said. “I will always be grateful to them and the Cherry Creek School District.”
Ashley Vargas – Eaglecrest High School
Ashley Vargas’ parents came to the U.S. before she was born. They wanted to provide a better life and better educational opportunities for their children. But when Vargas was just 5 years old, their lives took a terrifying turn: Vargas was diagnosed with encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain. She spent 15 days in the intensive care unit. Doctors told her parents she might be dependent on them for the rest of her life. But then a medical miracle occurred. Without warning and without explanation, she recovered.
“That’s something I’m incredibly grateful for,” Vargas said.
The Vargas family initially lived California, but moved to Colorado two years ago. Though Vargas didn’t want to move initially, she eventually found new friends and a new home at Eaglecrest High School, where she is a member of Spanish Honor Society, National Honor Society and the varsity track and cross country teams.
While she will miss Eaglecrest after she graduates next month, she is looking forward to the next chapter in her life story. She will attend McAlister College in St. Paul Minnesota on a full-ride scholarship.
Xiounna Davison – Endeavor Academy
The transition from middle school to high school was difficult for Xiounna Davison.
“I felt overwhelmed and lost at a high school that was so big and had so many students,” Davison said. “I had very low self-esteem when it came to my academics. I didn’t feel confident or capable or like I had the motivation or support to do what I was supposed to do.”
So she basically gave up on school. She began ditching and using drugs. “My behavior was spiraling out of control,” she recalls now. By the end of her sophomore year, she had less than five credits. What’s more, her relationship with her parents was badly damaged, even though they continued to love and support her.
“They helped me with my homework, they talked to school when I was in trouble and they encouraged me and tried to make me realize that I have to own my choices,” Davison said. “Eventually, I started listening to them and decided to take control of my life and my education.”
She transferred to Endeavor Academy and took full advantage of the smaller class sizes and unique educational opportunities it offered. She will graduate in May and plans to attend a community college to study nursing.
“I thank my parents and Endeavor Academy for never giving up on me and always believing that I am capable of great things,” Davison said.
Hamin Daniel Yoon – Grandview High School
In 2008, Hamin Daniel Yoon came to the U.S. with his mother and sister. His father is still in Korea supporting the family. At first, Yoon followed the rules and did what his parents and teachers asked of him. But after entering high school, he began to question himself, his purpose, his path.
“The reasons for education, studying and doing homework became very blurred to me,” Yoon said. “I became very short-sighted and started prioritizing having fun today over a better future 10 or 20 years from now.”
During his sophomore year, Yoon simply stopped coming to school. He developed depression. In some ways, he had given up on himself, but others hadn’t.
“At that point, my counselor and a cop came into my bedroom to take me to school,” Yoon said. “It was scary to wake up and see a cop beside my bed.”
But that was the turning point, the beginning of his journey back to success. He is grateful now for the unyielding support of his parents, his teachers and counselors and even his peers. They helped him come to an important realization.
“I am the one who decides my fate, my future, so I have to be responsible,” Yoon said.
Yoon is now bound for college. He’s been accepted to the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York.
Ali Casillas – Grandview High School
Ali Casillas didn’t know she was going to be speaking to parents and administrators from across the Cherry Creek School District on April 12. Her twin brother Alejandro was originally scheduled to be one of the students representing Grandview High School at the Parents’ Council meeting, but after he was injured in a skateboarding accident, Ali graciously stepped in.
With little time to prepare, she articulately shared her family’s story of moving to the U.S. from a small town in Mexico when she and her brother were 8 years old. The family’s pursuit of the American dream became a little more difficult when Ali’s parents separated. Ally and her brother had to change schools, and Ali decided to get a job in order to help make ends meet.
For the past three years, she has worked at Chick-Fil-A while managing her classwork and participating in extracurricular activities including Spanish Honor Society and Key Club. She’s already earning college credit through concurrent enrollment classes, and plans to study business management at Aurora Community College after graduation.
Charley Nabors – Overland High School
Charley Nabors describes herself as “the black sheep of the family, the weird one.”
She grew up struggling with her gender identity, not certain who she really was. That battle, combined with her parents’ painful divorce her freshman year, nearly sent her over the edge.
“The pain I felt during that time of my life was blinding,” Nabors said. “I experienced severe depression, Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder. Two eating disorders were eating away at my very being. I was suicidal. I thought I wouldn’t live to see this age.”
Her junior year, she came out as androgenous, got a full-time job and dedicated herself to work and school. She earned straight As that year. Her senior year, she came out as a female.
“Transitioning has been the best thing that has ever happened to me,” she said confidently. “I’m so sure in everything I do.”
Nabors is ready to take on a new challenge this fall. She will be studying biochemistry and psychology at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Penn.
Mayada Arbab – Overland High School
Mayada Arbab was born in the African nation of Sudan, where more than 500,000 people have died as a result of genocide. Her family fled to Egypt when she was 6, then to the U.S. when she was 12. Her mother wanted Arbab and her brother to have a chance for a better life, a better education. The sacrifice and the potential aren’t lost on Arbab.
“I believe that the United States is a country where there are so many opportunities for a student like me,” Arbab said. “My freedom living in the U.S. has enabled me to appreciate my education and obtain leadership experience.”
Arbab is a member of several clubs and organizations at Overland High School, where she also founded a club called African United to share the rich history of her homeland with her classmates. The club also raises money for a charity that helps people living in poverty in rural Africa.
Arbab says her mother and brother are her heroes and role models.
“They have shown me how rewarding hard work and persistence can be,” Arbab said. “I have been accepted to the University of Colorado and the University of Northern Colorado. I plan to study microbiology.
“One day, I would like to go back to my country and help those who are still looking for a brighter future.”
Mia Coates – Smoky Hill High School
“There were times when it was hard not to give up. But I persevered and came out on top with a great outlook on life and a bright future ahead of me.”
Those positive words from Mia Coates barely hint at difficult road she has traveled. When she was just 10, her mother passed away. Her grandmother and aunt stepped in as second parents, but just three years later, her Aunt Christy died.
“Her death hit me incredibly hard,” Coates said. “I was going into high school and was completely lost. I had become severely depressed with terrible anxiety. I began to lose weight rapidly as my emotional and physical state deteriorated.”
Fortunately, art and physical activity saved her. Coates discovered a passion for pottery and other art forms. She fell in love with hiking and other ways to work out. Her grandmother, sister, best friend and her AVID teacher, Katie Kleeman, supported her newfound interests.
“They helped me invest myself in things I loved,” Coates explained.
As her outlook on life improved, so did her grades. Now Coates is a soon-to-be-graduate on her way to the University of Northern Colorado to study nursing.