I recently found myself at the graduation ceremony for Prologue’s alternative schools in Chicago. To be honest, I really didn’t want to go and how I got there is another story, but I soon realized that I was amongst a very special group of young people. The Prologue schools are primarily for students 18 to 24 years old who have dropped out of high school. Instead of getting a GED they attend a Prologue school to get a high school education.
I have attended many high school graduations, but have never been to one anything like this. My two sons graduated from Walter Payton College Prep, a topped ranked school in Illinois. Payton is filled with students considered to be academic achievers. In contrast, this graduation was for students that few believed would ever even achieve a high school diploma or succeed in life. The graduation was in the Peoples Church on Lawrence Avenue. At night the Peoples Church becomes a homeless shelter; during the day community events and church services are held there. Security guards circled the premises to keep out anyone without an invitation. The audience was rowdy and somewhat disruptive, but the graduates attentive and respectful. It didn’t take me long to discover that I was witnessing an amazing event. I found myself at one of the most moving graduations I have ever attended; even watching my own sons graduate did not elicit as many tears for me as this graduation did.
Instead of having guest speakers, six students spoke. Of the six, five cried as they gave their speech. They cried tears of joy and tears of thankfulness as they shared their stories. There was the young man whose mom died when he was 13. With her death, he dropped out of school and lived on the streets. His grandmother took him in and he went back to school; then at 15 his grandmother died. Once again, he spent several years living on the streets. Eventually with hard work, determination and an amazing staff he graduated.
A petite 20 year old woman also received her diploma that day. She dropped out of school at 15. Her mother who had been helping raise her children, became gravely ill and needed her help. She spent the next four years caring for her mother and her children. Never letting go of her dream, at 19, she enrolled in one of the Prologue schools and stood before us, full of anticipation of achieving her next goal—a college education. The only speaker who did not cry was a young man who dropped out of high school six different times. He said, “I was trouble, and no one believed I would ever do this. For a long time I didn’t believe I could do this.” Now at 22, he received his high school diploma.
One hundred students graduated that day. All these students were dropouts that few believed had any potential to succeed. Four students of the 100 received full rides to college. One young man received a full ride to four different universities, one of them being Princeton. He was still deciding were he would attend.
How did these young people from seemingly hopeless situations succeed? I believe there were three key ingredients that helped them on their path. First, they had a goal…a dream to graduate from school and improve their lives. But a dream alone is not enough. They had to do the hard work required, the action needed to graduate. They had to work and study, even when the environment around them made it nearly impossible. The third ingredient to their success was they had mentors, especially at the school, that believed in them and their dreams and helped guide them on their path. These students are a testament to the possibility of overcoming great odds. Having the privilege to witness their achievement was a great gift for me.
This week: Put your struggles in perspective and remember if these graduates overcame their struggles, so can you. Have your dream, take the required action, and find people who support and mentor you on your journey.