At the outset of Mountain View High’s winter graduation last week, Assistant Principal and emcee Gary Morris told students about to receive their diplomas to be strong.
"You’ve endured what others said you couldn’t," he said. "Tell them not to call you a dreamer, but to ‘Call me a graduate.’"
The ceremony was held last Tuesday, Feb. 7, at Oakton High, and Principal Dave Jagels told the crowd, "I’m honored and privileged to be the principal of what I believe is one of the best schools in the county."
Mountain View is known as the school of second chances — a place where those who’ve had a hard life can start over and lay the groundwork for a solid future. At last week’s event, two students shared their own stories of struggle and hope.
Noe Morente and his brother came to the U.S. from Guatemala, hoping to improve their economic situation. But things looked pretty bleak when they found themselves working long hours on a chicken farm in South Carolina.
"We were pulling skin off chickens — and there were just two of us and hundreds of chickens," said Morente. "It was monotonous and the same, terrible circumstances I was in in Guatemala. I heard wages were higher in Virginia so, in 2002 – when I was 14 — we moved to Centreville."
They soon discovered pay was only a bit higher here, and almost everything cost more. "But I wanted to move on and make a better life," said Morente. "I thought learning English was enough, but I soon realized I needed a high-school diploma."
He and his brother got jobs so they could pay their bills and rent, plus send money home to Guatemala. Morente also enrolled in Mountain View. "Leaving for school at 7:30 in the morning and getting home from work at 11:30 at night was a sacrifice," he said. "But Mountain View has meant everything to me."
"It’s my dream and an opportunity to me," he continued. "I’m here today because I have courage, support and self-confidence. Thank you, Mountain View."
Next, Hodan Aden shared her harrowing story of survival and escape from her native country of Somalia. "It’s one of the most dangerous countries in the world," she said. "I lived in a war zone; starvation and death were part of everyday life. Five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined myself standing here, graduating from high school."
Her parents were farmers, and she was one of seven children — all girls. When she was 8, she went to live with her aunt so she could attend school. In exchange, she was expected to do a multitude of chores.
"Everything changed," said Aden. "I worked hard and became responsible, and I walked five miles to school every day. I missed my family and small farm. I thought of running away, but I was afraid of what would happen to me on the road."
Eight years passed and, when Aden was 16, her family decided to move to Kenya, in hopes of going from there to America, so she joined them. "In 2006, I came to the U.S.," she said. "I thought someone would hand me a job and I’d be rich, just like that."
Instead, she said, "I struggled to fit into this new society and I didn’t speak the language. I cleaned airplanes and restrooms from 6 in the morning until 11 at night. I hoped my life would improve, and a door opened for me when I enrolled in high school, even though people told me I was too old."
At the same time, Aden worked nights as a caregiver, which she enjoyed. "I’m glad I didn’t give up or listen to what people said to me," she said. "As the first person in my family to graduate from high school, I don’t take any of it for granted."
"We’ve received a great education here at Mountain View, and a way to step out into the real world," she continued. "Mountain View is more than a school — it’s a place where [the school’s motto of] family, love and respect are a way of life."
Then came several awards. Dean Bedwell, Ryan Drake and Xingjian Tai received the Citizenship Award. Morente received the Faculty Personal Achievement Award, recognizing a student who succeeded personally and academically, despite outside obstacles and pressures.
Susan Culik of the Science Department presented one of the two Faculty Excellence Awards to Mishene De Arujo, who maintained a 3.34 GPA. "She simultaneously worked three jobs and attended Mountain View and NOVA at the same time," said Culik. "She plans to major in international business management at GMU and someday work for the State Department."
Saying De Arujo’s teachers described her as "a jewel of a student" and "a role model for others," Culik added, "She’s an intelligent, beautiful young woman with a brilliant future."
Catherine Collins of the Social Studies Department presented the second Faculty Excellence Award to Aden. "There’s a saying, ‘That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’" said Collins. "And for Hodan Aden, these words ring true, since her life was filled with personal challenges, constant fear and real tragedy." But, she said, addressing Aden directly, "You managed to recover and rebuild, and I learned a lot from you."
"Her struggles mirrored those of the individuals in our history books," said Collins. "[Yet despite everything she went through], she has compassion and understanding."
"Where do you find the perseverance and courage to continue on when a situation seems hopeless?" Collins asked her. "How do you work long hours and still come to school and pay attention in class? You are a role model for what a student can achieve."
According to Aden’s teachers, said Collins, "In spite of her experiences, she harbors no bitterness or resentment, but remains positive."
"Your future possibilities are unlimited," Collins told her. "I’m sure that your core values of education, hard work and dedication will guide you through life. And if things ever get tough for you again, remember, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger."