Como Park High School seniors about to graduate, including Kalid Ali (right), stand as the MCJROTC Color Guard present the school colors at the beginning of the graduation ceremony. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Resilience and adaptability don’t formally appear on any list of graduation requirements. But for the class of 2021, these skills became as important as reading and math.

Since schools went into distance learning in March 2020, toward the end of students’ junior year, nothing about their schooling has gone as expected. Some students lost family members in the COVID-19 pandemic, or got sick themselves. With new flexible schedules, some took on jobs or additional work hours to help their parents pay the bills and save for college. 

Many found it challenging to complete coursework and college applications from home, without being able to sit down with a teacher or counselor. The milestones and rites of passage that mark the transition from a school environment to the “real world,” like prom and senior field trips, had to be canceled or significantly altered. 

Teenagers and young adults, at a developmental stage when socializing is a top priority, mourned the separation from their peers for such a long time. Some struggled with mental health. 

But as schools began to open for in-person learning and vaccines became available, school slowly started to get closer and closer to normal. And throughout May and June, students were able to celebrate in a way that once seemed out of reach: with an in-person graduation. The pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony mean even more when an entire class has to overcome so many obstacles to get there.

Sahan Journal spoke to Twin Cities high school and college graduates from immigrant communities about the ups and downs of the year. We’ve reported some of their stories here before. A Somali student at the Carlson School of Management experienced discrimination in March when a staff member refused to rent him a laptop, causing him to fail an exam. Three dedicated Karen friends spoke with us in December about the challenges of applying to college during a pandemic. 

When Sahan Journal checked back with those friends, we saw one of them on the graduation stage at Aldrich Arena, giving a tearful speech before the crowd of graduates and their families in the bleachers. She’d finished high school as the valedictorian of Humboldt High.

She and her peers shared with Sahan Journal the challenges they overcame to walk the graduation stage and their hopes for the future. Congratulations to all of them. 

‘I went through a lot of stuff at Carlson…but I persevered’

Musab Hussein poses with his family after graduating from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management. Credit: Courtesy Musab Hussein

Name: Musab Hussein

School: University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management

Plan next year: Study for CPA exam, work for RSM consulting firm

After a University of Minnesota computer technician refused to rent Musab Hussein a laptop this spring, he failed a major test. That F nearly derailed his graduation plans from the university’s Carlson School of Management. But he made up the credit, and graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

“Getting this degree means a lot to me because I went through a lot of stuff at Carlson,” Musab said. “Imposter syndrome, the whole racist incident….but I persevered.”

Musab lined up a full-time job as an auditor at RSM, a consulting firm in downtown Minneapolis, to start in January 2022. He’s excited but nervous. It’s the first time anyone in his family has pursued higher education, let alone worked in the corporate world. Until he starts his job, he plans to spend time with his family, study for the Certified Public Accountant exam, and travel.

Recently, he met with the Carlson dean. Musab learned that the computer technician was disciplined, but didn’t hear any details due to privacy laws. The incident soured his feelings on Carlson. But it also left him feeling hopeful. Plenty of students and faculty stood with him after the incident. As he transitions into the working world, he hopes he will find people to help him there, too: this time, to become a better businessman.

Ultimately, he hopes to “find my place in the world,” he said—whether that’s accounting or something else. “Just get into the adult world and pursue something that I love.”

—Becky Z. Dernbach

‘I want to tell my dad that his twin daughters have successfully made it’

Lay Lay and Let Let pose with their mom and a framed photo of their dad after graduating from Humboldt High School. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Name: Let Let and Lay Lay

School: Humboldt High School, St. Paul

Plans next year: University of Minnesota

Looking out at the Humboldt High School class of 2021, Let Let paused her valedictorian speech to fight back tears.

“You got it, girl,” shouted out a parent in the audience. The arena filled with encouraging applause.

It had been a difficult year and a half. Midway through her junior year, Let Let’s father was diagnosed with stage four cancer. She and her family watched as her “once-healthy dad quickly left us,” she said. He died in January 2020. 

Let Let shared the last words her father spoke to her twin sister, Lay Lay, in Karen which she translated as: “Daughter, are you guys going back to do your homework?”

She spoke tearfully about the sacrifices her refugee parents made to bring her family to the United States. Lay Lay and another friend joined her at the lectern, standing behind her in support.

“My dad died without getting to go back to his home country, or getting to grow old with my mom,” Let Let continued. “But he did see my sister and I succeed in school. I want to succeed, and make his and my mom’s sacrifice worth it.”

She expressed her gratitude to the staff at Humboldt, who created a GoFundMe to raise money for her father’s funeral. The twins were unaware of the fundraiser until their teachers contacted them to donate the sum of the contributions. 

“I want to tell my dad that his twin daughters have successfully made it,” Let Let said. Both she and Lay Lay have been accepted into competitive undergraduate programs at the University of Minnesota to study biology and pre-med. And as the twins graduate from high school, both have received their associate’s degree from St. Paul College.

Cheers filled the arena as she concluded her speech.

After the ceremony, friends and family members crowded around the twins to take photographs with them outside. A sudden shower had swept in on a steamy day. Graduates and their guests huddled under the arena’s awnings to stay dry.

One of the family members waiting to take a picture with Let Let and Lay Lay was their mom, holding a framed photograph of their father. Outside the arena, a rainbow appeared across the sky.

—Becky Z. Dernbach

‘There are still some students that should be with us but won’t be with us’

Kalid Ali reads the names of his fellow graduates during his graduation ceremony from Como Park High School. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Name: Kalid Ali

School: Como Park High School, St. Paul

Plan next year: Macalester College

Right up until graduation, Kalid Ali was still trying to help his classmates make it over the finish line.

“I’m working with one student who is this close to finishing up his coursework,” Kalid said. “I’m excited to see him there.”

It was a tough year for St. Paul seniors. Nearly half of all secondary students were failing a class after their first quarter, potentially putting them at risk to not graduate. Kalid, the student representative for the school board, pleaded with district leaders to help his classmates. A district policy allowed students to make up the first-quarter credits by passing the class in the second quarter, which somewhat decreased the numbers of failing grades.

Still, not everyone will be walking across the stage. “There are still some students that should be with us but won’t be with us, and that’s really disappointing,” Kalid said.

Even after coming back to in-person learning, more than half the senior class stayed virtual, Kalid said. In a pandemic senior year, it was difficult to build the sort of memories that typically forge bonds between graduating classmates.

Kalid didn’t always feel motivated, either. “At some point I thought about taking a different approach other than schooling, to pursue something else,” he said. “I kept going and going. “And now that I am here, it feels unreal and I’m excited.”

He used the flexibility built into the school year to travel to Ethiopia, attending remote classes from his family’s home country. “That was something I’m grateful for,” he said. “It was a brief moment to clear my head and see my mom, who I haven’t seen for eight years.”

Other students in Ethiopia, he observed, didn’t have the opportunity to learn virtually.

“I’m just grateful to have this opportunity to finish high school,” he said. His mom dropped out of high school at a young age, he said. By graduating, he could make her proud.

Before he heads to Macalester College in the fall, he plans to work up this summer to support his mom, so he doesn’t have to worry about working so much during the school year.

As he prepared to graduate, one quintessential teenage worry weighed on his mind, after a year of social distancing: awkwardness.

“It’s still awkward to see students gathered in a big hall, and just seeing people,” he said.

—Becky Z. Dernbach

‘I became much more a person who is actually rooted in a place’

Kori Suzuki recently graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Credit: Allyn Suzuki

Name: Kori Suzuki

School: Macalester College, St. Paul

Plan next year: Washington Post summer internship, University of California–Berkeley School of Journalism

Kori Suzuki didn’t realize how much it would mean to him to graduate in person.

After a year of learning mostly online, school had started to feel like a series of boxes to check. Winter felt especially rough: a routine of waking up, turning on his laptop for class, making food, and sleeping.

Macalester College held two smaller in-person graduation ceremonies for students who were in the Twin Cities, and the main commencement ceremony online. Classmates who had been learning from out of state returned for the festivities. Kori’s mom and sister flew out from California.

“Getting to be in person to see everybody, and to celebrate one last time–I didn’t realize, leading up to it, how much that was going to mean,” he said. “But it definitely meant a lot.”

Instead of spending his senior year in Macalester’s college bubble, the Bay Area native spent more and more time out in the Twin Cities, documenting events for the student newspaper and for himself.

“After COVID, after George Floyd was murdered, that was when that all really started to change,” he said. “I became much more of a person who is part of a place, who is actually rooted in a place.” 

Spending more time in the community over the tumultuous last year made the Twin Cities feel like home–which made leaving hard. After graduating, he headed home to California before moving to Washington, D.C. for an audio internship at the Washington Post. And in the fall, he’ll start journalism school at the University of California–Berkeley.

Some of his classmates at Macalester have shown interest in bringing back the podcast he created this year, showcasing personal stories from students of color. He’s looking forward to seeing what may come of the project after he leaves.

“I’m excited to be graduating and moving on to new things, to be able to hopefully find a place in the industry, and start doing some work that will matter,” he said. He’s worried about ultimately finding a job in journalism. But his internship this summer is paid, and he received a generous financial aid offer from Berkeley.

Still, he misses Minnesota already.

“Every time I think about everybody back in Minnesota and all of the friends and folks I know who I’m leaving behind, it’s a really tough thought,” he said. “And every time I think about that, it makes me continue to think that I will definitely be back.”

—Becky Z. Dernbach

‘Plans don’t always go the way we want, and it happens for a good reason’

Saylia Moo graduated from Highland Park High School and plans to attend Augsburg University. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Name: Saylia Moo

School: Highland Park High School, St. Paul

Plans next year: Augsburg University

Saylia Moo has just graduated from high school, and already she’s thinking about what she’ll be doing after college. “I’m such a future person, I just think about what are the next steps,” she said. “Maybe I should slow down, live in the moment.”

Saylia’s future plans were already upended once this year when she didn’t get into the college she’d planned on attending, the University of Minnesota. She’d hoped to go with her friends Lay Lay and Let Let.

The rejection “was very unexpected because it was sort of my safe school,” Saylia said. The night it arrived, she started applying to every other college she could think of. She was accepted, with a generous financial aid offer, at Augsburg. She won’t have to pay for tuition, and hopes to start saving for medical school.

“Plans don’t always go the way we want, and it happens for a good reason,” Saylia said. “Even if we don’t go to the same college, we’ll always be together. We’re a bridge away from each other.”

She and the twins, who had worked together at Panera Bread, have since quit those jobs.  Saylia now works as an apheresis telerecruiter for the Red Cross: that is, she calls people and encourages them to donate platelets. She finds it fulfilling: it brings her joy to help her community. And she, the twins, and a handful of other friends are planning a trip to Florida this summer. It will be Saylia’s first time traveling with just friends. 

“We’re definitely going to get a place by the beach,” she said.

She’s excited to be living in a dorm next year to have an authentic college life experience—a prospect that was still in doubt just a few months ago.

“It’s always been a dream to live by myself. Now I’m going to live in a dorm with other college students from different areas,” she said. “I really love meeting new people, and I really like making friends, so that’s really nice.”

She’s nervous about her freshman year, too. Her college grades will affect her med school applications, and she’s already feeling the pressure.

Still, she’s looking forward to starting college.

“Even though Augsburg wasn’t my dream college, it’s a college that’s going to take me to whatever future that may be,” she said.

—Becky Z. Dernbach

‘You kind of have to get creative’

Michael Suleiman poses for a photo after graduating from St. John’s University. Credit: Courtesy Michael Suleiman

Name: Michael Suleiman

School: St. John’s University, Collegeville

Plan next year: Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, South Carolina campus

Michael’s senior year began with a lot of uncertainty. “Everyone was very skeptical about whether or not we were going to be able to stick around in person for the entire year,” he said. 

For much of the year, classes swung back and forth between online learning and in person, making it difficult to make plans even one or two months in advance. With that came many challenges; it was harder to develop close relationships with classmates and professors, stay engaged in class and have thought-provoking discussions about course content. “A really valuable aspect of education was missing,” he said. 

It was the loss of community that stung the most, however. He did have the opportunity to live on campus, in a shared apartment with five friends, growing closer as they experienced this last year together. But Michael found it difficult to reconcile the fact that much of his senior year would be spent in lockdown. He explained: “It was really tough knowing that this was my senior year, a year where I was supposed to grow in many of my relationships, and when I was trying to become very connected to the school that I was at.”

Still, Michael soon found his footing. He started writing for the school newspaper; every week, he interviewed people on campus and documented their stories. He also took a job with a new initiative that promotes student health. “When a lot of the more traditional ways that you can feel connected to community are taken away from you, you kind of have to get creative in how you go about that,” he said. 

When we spoke, Michael was driving and on his way to see his family. His summer is relatively short, but for good reason: he will begin his first year at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) in July. For many people, in many ways, this was a tough year, but Michael recognizes that he’s in a “good situation.” He’s excited to finally make plans for the future, with some degree of certainty.

—Aala Abdullahi

‘Everything we’ve done is finally going to be celebrated’

Yanelis Camacho plans to attend St. Olaf College. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Name: Yanelis Camacho

School: Cristo Rey Jesuit High School

Plans next year: St. Olaf College

When Yanelis Camacho’s family came to Minnesota from Puerto Rico 10 years ago, she struggled to adjust to speaking English in school. 

“We were all labeled as failures at some point in time because we didn’t know the language,” she said.

Her family moved to the mainland in search of better educational opportunities. Even before Puerto Rico’s debt crisis led to the mass shuttering of schools, Yanelis’s mother, a teacher, thought the island wasn’t heading in the right direction. It was difficult for her to get a teaching job without an insider connection.

Yanelis struggled in her first school in Minneapolis when she didn’t receive enough attention from her English-language teachers. But when her mom landed a job at Windom Dual Immersion School, Yanelis went with her as a student. There, her teachers “pushed me to my limits,” she said. By fifth grade, she had tested out of the English-language-learner program. 

At Cristo Rey, a Jesuit high school off Minneapolis’ Lake Street, she found teachers who believed in her, too. Her senior year took place largely online due to the pandemic, which meant she didn’t have all the bonding time she would have liked with her classmates. A few activities helped, like a senior carnival to celebrate the colleges her classmates will be attending.

And as vaccines started allowing daily life to become more and more normal, she and her classmates could begin to plan for an in-person graduation—something they’d barely dared to hope for. Last year’s Cristo Rey class celebrated with a drive-through graduation. But that’s not the same, Yanelis said.

“We were able to take a deep breath,” Yanelis said. “Everything we’ve done is finally going to be celebrated among our family members.”

Despite the challenges of the pandemic and online learning, she and her classmates were able to maintain Cristo Rey’s unbroken success streak: For the 11th year in a row, 100 percent of the class earned acceptance to college.

“We were able to achieve what we thought was impossible at the beginning of the year,” Yanelis said.

After college, Yanelis hopes to attend law school to become an immigration lawyer: She thinks of it as an opportunity to give back to her community. She hopes to make legal support more accessible to everyone who needs it.

She’s looking forward to college and living away from home for the first time—though she’s also “petrified” about being a student of color in a predominantly white institution like St. Olaf College, in rural Northfield.

But now, she’s focused on graduating and making her family proud.

“Hopefully I will remember Saturday, as we walk across the stage and I look down upon our peers and family members,” she said. “Just seeing all of their faces as we finally take our own paths.”

—Becky Z. Dernbach

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Aala Abdullahi is the innovation and community engagement editor at Sahan Journal.