Many students in the Gateway to College High School class of 2023 thought at one point that they would never see graduation day.
So, as 51 new graduates recently crossed the O’Shaughnessy stage at St. Catherine University in St. Paul in caps and gowns, their friends and families filled the auditorium with deafening cheers, despite a request in the graduation program to hold applause until the end.
“The graduates in this room are some of the most impressive and inspirational people I have been fortunate enough to work with,” Gateway to College administrator Darren Yerama said in a speech during the ceremony.
The alternative high school, a partnership between St. Paul Public Schools and St. Paul College, provides personalized attention to students aged 16 to 21 who are behind on their credits. They make up high school credits in part by enrolling in college classes, which helps them catch up faster. One semester of a college writing course, for example, can make up a year’s worth of high school English coursework.
And the program helps students build their confidence by showing them that they can succeed in college classes.
“You are already college students,” Yerama said. “Each and every one of you is prepared to enter any college classroom and shine.”
Four students received the Gateway Compass Award for exemplifying the school’s four pillars—attendance, growth, accountability, and hard work. Those students had the opportunity to address their peers and share reflections on their high school experience. Three of them shared their stories with Sahan Journal.
From high school dropout to honors graduate
Solea St. James dropped out of high school before coming back to finish her credits at Gateway to College. She graduated with honors.
“I stand here today as somebody who has completed my high school education because of this program,” said Solea, 21, who first enrolled in Gateway to College in 2018.
In middle school, after a gym class incident aggravated a previous concussion, Solea was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. That meant she struggled with sensitivity to stimuli like light, scent, and sound.
“I wore a baseball cap, a fedora, and sunglasses for most of my middle school life,” she said. She attended school in half-days, taking frequent sensory breaks.
“In an environment that simply wasn’t yet suited to support my needs, I quickly became someone who feared that they might never finish their high school credits because of these restrictions,” Solea said.
Solea transferred to several different schools and tried virtual learning before landing on Gateway to College in 2018.
“Almost immediately, Gateway provided me with a lightened course load, putting me back on track to graduate at a pace more suited to me, and providing me with resources to finish pursuing my education,” she said.
Then in 2020, as the COVID pandemic hit Minnesota, Solea’s family finances tightened. She made the difficult decision to drop out of high school to work to support her family.
In the spring of 2022, she returned to Gateway. She worried that she might not have enough time to finish her credits, she said, but she received “unwavering support and accommodation” from school staff.
Solea said she hopes her story will inspire others and “spread the word about opportunities like Gateway to College to others,” she said. “[To] those who, like me, need a reminder that they are worth more than they may think, but struggle to see themselves in that light; who are capable of achieving more than they might currently believe to be possible.”
Solea hopes to pursue an associate’s degree in economics or math at St. Paul College or Minneapolis College, and to pursue a career in construction or architecture.
‘You guys believed in me, even when I didn’t’
“You got this, OK?” a teacher whispered as Tashera Mitchell stepped up to the lectern.
Tashera, wearing a necklace with a picture of her great-grandmother, began her speech.
“I started at Gateway last year thinking I wasn’t going to graduate on time,” she said. “But with the help from my teachers, family, and friends, I made it through.”
She thanked her family and school staff “for always being on my case, even when I would get frustrated,” she said. “I knew you guys believed in me, even when I didn’t.”
In an interview after the ceremony, Tashera said she had started out at Johnson High School in St. Paul. Her counselor and one of her teachers helped her transfer to Gateway when it became clear she would not graduate on time at Johnson.
As a smaller school, she said, Gateway has a better support system. “They taught me I learned better there,” she said.
On stage, she concluded her speech. “I just want to say to both of my grandmas who passed away before they could see me hit this stage—I made it,” she said. “And to the class of 2023—we made it.”
Tashera plans to pursue a career in nursing, and said she will likely continue her education at St. Paul College.
‘I became a new person when I came here’
Nevaeh Scott had prepared remarks, but found herself improvising once she took the stage.
“When I was thinking about what I wanted to talk about up here, I wanted to really just leave a message for my fellow class of 2023,” she said.
She thanked God and her family, especially her older brother. “Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to come to Gateway to College,” she said. “I look up to him in everything I do, and I really strive to make him proud.”
She reflected that in recent years, she and her peers lost a number of people they grew up around who should have graduated with them.
“Mental health has really taken a toll on this generation,” she said. “I want you all to remember how far you’ve come and how strong you’ve become. You should be proud of yourselves for still standing, still smiling, and never giving up.
“I know that life can be challenging at times, but I want you to know that you are capable of overcoming any obstacles that may come your way. Your past experiences have made you stronger and better equipped to handle difficult situations. So never lose faith in yourselves, and always believe in your own strength and abilities.”
In an interview after the ceremony, Nevaeh said she had lost several family members during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everything became a bit too overwhelming,” she said. “It got to a point where I just stopped going to school. I was in a really bad depression.”
She started looking for alternative options. One of her brother’s friends had attended Gateway, so he suggested that school. Gateway gave her the opportunity to pursue her studies more independently and move at her own pace, while receiving more individualized support, she said. She developed confidence and learned to work under pressure.
“I became a new person when I came here,” she said.
Gateway also helped her make up credits.
“I was able to do that through taking those college courses, and it also helped me prepare for going to college,” she said. “It was a two-in-one.”
Nevaeh plans to attend Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota in the fall to study sonography, in hopes of becoming an ultrasound technician. She is currently taking a phlebotomy course, so she will have consistent work throughout college.
“I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it here,” she said. “So for me to be able to persevere and come through, I’m really proud of myself, as well as everybody else in the class.”