Two years ago, Nyabual and Nyamuoch Bayak (left), Rabia Nur (center), and Mohamed Mohamed (right) were told they couldn't go to Mankato high schools. Now they're graduating. Credit: Photos courtesy Abdi Sabrie, Rabia Nur, and Mohamed Mohamed

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When Rabia Nur graduated from Mankato East High School this spring, it was a particularly sweet moment of celebration that will allow her to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. Rabia, a Somali refugee who grew up in Ethiopia, almost wasn’t allowed to enroll in high school at all.

Two years ago when she moved to Mankato from Wisconsin, Rabia was told that at 19, she was too old to attend a regular public high school. She would have to go to an Adult Basic Education program instead. The program was too easy for her, and she missed being around her peers.

“My dream was going to be crushed and I wasn’t going to be a nurse or anything,” Rabia said. “I was just going to give up on my dream.”

But Rabia and four other East African students in the same situation contacted Mankato school board member Abdi Sabrie, who connected them with a legal aid lawyer. Under state law, Minnesota students are entitled to a free public education through age 21. Students who turn 21 during the school year can finish out the year. With a school board member and a lawyer helping them, the students were allowed to enroll in local high schools.

This spring, three of those students graduated from the high schools they were told they couldn’t attend. A fourth is on track to graduate in the fall. All three graduates will enroll in college to study nursing.

“It’s the most inspiring accomplishment,” Abdi said. 

Abdi, the only person of color ever elected to the Mankato school board, ran for the board in part because of the educational disparities affecting immigrant students. It has been hard sometimes to make fellow board members take the issue seriously, he said, but being able to help these students has been the highlight of his time on the board. “This school district has been engaged actively in denying children of color the opportunity to thrive and succeed and attain their public education,” he told Sahan Journal earlier this month. 

Since the Mankato Area Public Schools hired a new superintendent last year, Abdi says the district is no longer routing immigrant kids to adult school. But it wasn’t just these five students who were affected. Abdi says 24 school-age students, all of whom were immigrants, were sent to adult school since the adult diploma program started in 2014. Many of those students are now working in factories, he said.

Nyabual Bayak and her twin sister Nyamuoch were among the students who were sent to adult school in 2018. They joined Rabia in graduating from Mankato East High School this spring. Nyabual and Nyamuoch, who are Sudanese and grew up in Ethiopia, attended ninth and tenth grade in Mankato high schools. But when they turned 18, they were told they were too old for eleventh grade and had to go to adult school. In the adult school, Nyabual found students her mother’s age who were practicing the alphabet–which Nyabual had learned back in Ethiopia.

Back in high school with Abdi’s help, Nyabual said she appreciated her teachers’ willingness to help steer her toward the classes she needs to graduate and English classes that deepen her language skills.

Students in a similar situation should keep fighting, and ask for help if they need it, Nyabual said.

“Whatever you come here for, you are free to go to school,” Nyabual said.

Both sisters graduated from high school this spring and plan to study nursing. Nyabual will join Rabia at South Central College. Nyamuoch plans to enroll at Bethany Lutheran College.

Twin sisters Nyabual and Nyamuoch Bayak graduated from high school this spring and plan to study nursing. Credit: Courtesy Abdi Sabrie

Things have been a bit more complicated for Mohamed Mohamed and his brother Abdirahman Mohamed. The brothers attempted to enroll in high school after the family moved to Mankato from Rochester. Abdirahman, then 20, had been on the verge of graduating in Rochester. But in Mankato, he was told he had to go to adult school. Mohamed, then 18, was sent to adult school, too. He didn’t understand the age-based rationale. “I was shocked,” he said. “I’m 18. So why am I not going to go to high school?”

Mohamed described the Adult Basic Education program as “horrible.” The coursework was too easy, and he was lonely. “When I was at adult school, I couldn’t have any friends and I couldn’t talk to anyone because they’re all older than me,” Mohamed said. “I was about to give up.”

Mohamed, now 20, is on track to graduate Mankato West High School after one more semester. He’s enjoyed his classes and playing basketball and soccer in the gym during lunchtime with his friends. When he graduates, he wants to go to college or become an engineer. 

Mohamed Mohamed is on track to graduate after finishing a few more credits next semester. Credit: Courtesy Mohamed Mohamed

His older brother Abdirahman wasn’t so lucky. His teachers had urged him to stay and graduate in Rochester. Instead, he was sent to adult school with his brother. He was eventually able to enroll in a Mankato high school. But shortly after he enrolled, he was told that now that he was 21, he was too old. He had to go back to adult school, where he felt frustrated and lonely. A year later, he still hasn’t graduated.

“I just want to get my diploma and join the Army but I don’t think that will happen,” Abdirahman, now 22, said. At adult school, he said, “I feel like they’re wasting my time.”

“Mankato Area Public Schools is committed to student success,” a spokesperson for the district said in response to a request for comment. “We continue to focus on opportunities to best meet students’ learning needs so they can be successful today and in the future.”

These students’ accomplishments are so impressive because despite a system that often shuts out the voices of immigrant students and parents, Abdi said, they found a way to advocate for themselves and succeed.

“They have dreams and aspirations like all other kids,” Abdi said. “And that was really endangered by this process, by denying them the right to a full day of school and support.”

Rabia described her graduation as “amazing,” even though the coronavirus pandemic prevented the school from holding a traditional ceremony. Instead, they had a walk-in ceremony where teachers and school staff presented students with a diploma and gifts. She urged other students who are being dissuaded from going to high school to advocate for themselves.

“You have to fight for your rights because everyone has the right to go to high school and finish it,” Rabia said. “Don’t give up on your dreams if you’re trying to have a big dream.”

Rabia Nur says other students in her situation should not give up on their dreams. Credit: Courtesy Rabia Nur

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

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