Faced with challenges, two students accomplish more than graduating
WILLMAR -- As they looked forward to their Willmar Senior High graduation, Sokorey Ahmed and Rene Vallejo share the same sentiment -- they never thought they would make it.
For Rene, 18, it was a matter of overcoming long odds that started with some not-so-great grades and an admittedly short fuse, followed by family stress and becoming a father.
Sokorey, 19, has overcome upheaval in her life that most people born in this country could not fathom. She was born in Somalia and was raised by relatives in Nairobi, Kenya, after her father was killed when she was 2. Her mother came to this country 12 years ago but was unable to have Sokorey and other family members join her until four years ago.
"Rene and Sokorey are examples of that American ideal of meeting the challenge head-on, doing the best you can," said Principal Rob Anderson.
"Some kids have a weak start, but they really persist and graduate," he added. "It's just heartwarming."
The Willmar class of 2008 has "lots of remarkable kids," Anderson said.
Graduation time "affirms that people can step up, meet challenges and succeed," Anderson said. "That's why we never give up hope on kids."
Relationships with caring adults are important in the success of students at all levels, Anderson said.
Finding a mentor is important to a student's success, he said. It could be anyone -- a teacher, a coach or a worker in the school office -- as long as he or she is "that adult the student connects with, and they know that adult really cares. It's wonderful to see that unfold."
Each class has its own personality, and their principal said the 2008 graduates have been a good group to have around the school.
"We're just really, really proud of them," he said. "We hate to see them leave, but it's their time."
Sokorey Ahmed arrived in Willmar four years ago with 18 days left in the school year. She was placed in the eighth grade and spent "the most terrifying days of my life" at Willmar Junior High.
"I was so out of place," she said, and everything was different from her life in Nairobi.
Sokorey spoke English with a British accent when she arrived, but she lost her accent quickly, she said. She also speaks Somali, Swahili and Arabic.
Classes like math and English were fairly easy for her to pick up here, she said. But there's no such thing as a science lab in Kenya and no art or computer classes, either.
Her childhood taught her to be adaptable, she said. That ability served her well in those early days in Willmar. She didn't have trouble making friends once she adjusted a bit to her new world.
Now, she is ready to graduate and got all As this year in her classes. "Seriously, four years ago I never would have imagined being here," she said. In the fall she will attend St. Cloud State University with hopes of studying for a medical field, possibly becoming a pharmacist.
Sokorey said she has noticed that "people take things for granted," and the longer she lives here, the more she finds herself "starting to get into the habit of following the crowd."
Her earlier life helps her stay grounded, she said. "I'm glad I get to experience what it's like to have everything and what it's like not to have everything."
She may not have chosen Willmar herself, but it's where he mother was.
"Being away from violence, that's good enough for me," Sokorey said. "In Kenya where I grew up, it was peaceful, but I wanted to be with my mom."
After eight years apart, the mother-daughter reunion was difficult at times, Sokorey said.
Both have strong personalities, and "we butt heads," she said, but things got better after "we took the time to get to know each other."
Her mother, Faaiso Siyad, is proud that she will be graduating from high school, she said. Because her family is packing to move this summer, Sokorey decided that a graduation party would just add to the stress. Instead, she plans to spend a month with an uncle in San Diego.
Sokorey is proud of her mother, too, who came to this country alone. "She had a tough time," she said. "She had to adjust to every single thing."
Growing up without her parents was difficult, even though she was with family, Sokorey said. She doesn't often dwell on her father's absence. "It was God's will, and there's nothing I can do about it," she said. "The faster you get used to it the better."
Rene Vallejo will be the first member of his family to go to college when he attends Ridgewater College in the fall to get his general classes out of the way.
"From there, I'll figure it out," he said.
His goal is to be a coach or a physical education teacher. "If not that, I want to be a trainer," he said.
Rene has faced many challenges in the past few years. His father suffered several strokes and a heart attack. He dropped out of school for a time when he was a sophomore so he could help with family finances.
Rene got married last fall and is the father of two children, a 19-month-old girl named Alexa and a 6-month old boy named Rene. Rene's wife Myra also attends Willmar Senior High and will graduate next year.
"My parents help out with the kids," he said. "We have a great family that supports us and helps us. ... If it wasn't for my parents helping out, I wouldn't be here."
The family offers support and encouragement but also some stern leadership. When Rene considered dropping out of school to get a construction job, "my parents told me to get a better education" for the sake of his children's future.
Marriage and children weren't in his plans a few years ago, but he is adjusting to the new path his life has taken, he said. "I see life a whole lot different."
Earlier in his high school career, his grades were mostly Cs and "a few barely passing Ds." He had a couple of failing grades.
In his senior year, Rene has earned nearly all As.
"I used to not care about school," he said. "My pastor told me I've grown a lot."
Playing football helped him gain control of his "anger problem." He loved the game and knew he couldn't mouth off to a coach who was trying to help him improve his game.
That carried over into school. "I'm not going to mouth the teacher off for giving me constructive criticism," he said.
Rene said his parents, Joe and Mariana Vallejo, are proud of his graduation, and "I'm very proud of myself. I never thought I could do this." The family plans a big party with music and dancing on graduation day, he said.
Many students who become young parents choose to attend the Area Learning Center, which offers an alternative education program with a less formal structure. Rene decided against it.
"I'm one who likes to push myself," he said. "This is the school I'd been in for three years."