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10 Students Who Overcame Massive Obstacles to Achieve Their Dream of an Education

Whenever your morale starts flagging — when you start to feel like the world is against you, the obstacles in your path are insurmountable, or the goals you have set for yourself are no more than pipe dreams — take a moment to reflect on those who have faced even more impossible odds just to achieve something that most of us take for granted: education. What follows is a series of profiles on ten students from all walks of life who have overcome extraordinary adversity of all kinds — and emerged with remarkable stories of courage, strength, and determination.

1. Khadijah Williams

By the time she turned 18, Khadijah Williams had attended twelve schools in as many years. She had lived in shelters, in parks and in motels, never in a permanent residence for more than a few months.  She had endured the leering of pimps and drug dealers, and the tauntings of students at a dozen schools who pegged her as “different.” But in 2009, at age 18, Khadijah had also been accepted at Harvard University. Homeless since early childhood, Khadijah struggled all her life to hide her circumstances from teachers and fellow students. At age 9 she placed in the 99th percentile on a state exam, and her teacher told her she was “gifted.” From that moment forward, Khadijah decided to do whatever it took to keep herself in that category. “I was so proud of being smart I never wanted people to say,”You got the easy way out because you’re homeless,” she told The LA Times. “I never saw it as an excuse.”[1]

By sophomore year of high school, she realized that she could not succeed in getting the education she dreamed of without getting help to go beyond what her current school could offer. She talked to teachers and counselors who helped her apply to summer community college classes, scholarships, and enrichment programs. And in 11th grade, when she enrolled at Jefferson High School, she decided to complete the rest of her school career there — a decision that meant taking a bus each morning at 4 a.m. and not getting home until 11 p.m.

When it came time to apply for college, Khadijah finally told the whole story of her life, including how difficult it had been to keep up at school, in her application essay.  By focusing not on the hardships she endured, but rather on the lessons and skills she learned from them, she was accepted into Harvard.

Once Khadijah felt ready to tell her story, it won her notice not only from college admissions boards, but also from the news media, including Oprah, who profiled Khadijah on her show. Now a successful student at Harvard, Khadijah continues to use the lessons of her extraordinary life to help and inspire other students.

2. Aduei Riak

To meet Aduei Riak, now 25 and a student at The London School of Economics and Political Science,  you’d never guess the horrors she experienced as a young girl in Sudan. Poised and well-spoken, Aduei prefers to talk about her friends and family, her goals, and her bright vision of the future, rather than the years she spent in refugee camps and on the run from the political upheaval across Africa.“I’ve seen a lot of things that a person of my age should not have been exposed to,” Aduei told USA Today. “The (memories) tend to be very dark and gray. I don’t like talking about them, because for me talking about them is living them again.”[2]

At age 6, Aduei was separated from her family during a civil war in Ethiopia, and from then on she was on her own. She soon joined the thousands of orphans from similarly torn-apart families who walked over a thousand miles to find refuge. These children, often called The Lost Boys or Lost Children of Sudan, eventually found the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where Aduei remained from ages 8-16.In 2000 Aduei arrived in The United States as one of only 89 girls in a group of more than 4,000 orphans in a Lost Boys and Girls resettlement program. She joined a foster family in Belmont, Massachusetts, and began attending high school despite the fact that she spoke barely any English. She devoted herself to her studies, however, and mastered the language by spending hours watching television shows like Sesame Street. Her foster family also engaged a number of tutors to help Aduei catch up.

Within just a couple of years Aduei had become a top student, and in 2003 she was accepted at Brandeis University, one of the most prestigious schools in The United States. Upon graduation in 2007, Aduei was presented with an award for integrating social activism and academic study, and was also named a Justice Louis Brandeis Scholar. Since graduating, Aduei has campaigned against genocide in Darfur, was a keynote speaker at the International Women’s Leadership Conference, and is starting a foundation to help girls in Sudan receive an education. [3] Aduei is also being featured in a documentary film that tells the story of the Lost Girls of Sudan, entitled Like River, A Girl.

3. Jeremy Sicile-Kira

Jeremy Sicile-Kira’s road to high school graduation was an exceptionally difficult one. Severely autistic and unable to speak, Jeremy nevertheless persevered through seven years at Torrey Pines High School, determined to earn his diploma.

Using a letter board to communicate, Jeremy took as many classes as he could in the mainstream education program in addition to special needs classes. He got extra time to complete his assignments, but Jeremy did all the same coursework as his classmates.

Jeremy’s autism affects his hearing, vision, and motor skills. He has never been able to speak, and it takes all his concentration to distinguish which sounds and sights to focus on. “If I don’t concentrate, the world seems surreal,” Jeremy explained.[4] Nevertheless, Jeremy was determined to get the most out of his education, and with encouragement from his parents and teachers, he realized that his autism did not mean he wasn’t as smart as his classmates.

Jeremy passed his California High School Exit Exam, finished high school with a 3.5 GPA, and was invited to speak at graduation. He delivered the speech through voice-assisted technology, which verbalized his written speech. In his speech,  Jeremy thanks his teachers and administrators and talks about the importance of education.

4. Sharhonda Perkins

It took Sharhonda Perkins a long time to come to fully appreciate the importance of education. For most of her academic career she didn’t care much about school one way or the other. But during her junior year of high school, five of her family members died in a fire that also destroyed all of her possessions.

That was when Sharhonda realized that she had to depend on herself, and that the only way to make something of her life was to get an education.The realization that she’d been taking her life for granted did not immediately lead to a 180 degree turnaround in her academic performance. For years she hadn’t taken her studies seriously, and she didn’t quite know how to go about turning over a new leaf. But at Danbury, Connecticut’s Alternative Center for Excellence, Sharhonda learned how to channel her pain from the loss of her family into a determination to succeed.

Sharhonda graduated in June of this year, speaking at graduation as the recipient of the Spirit of the Community Award. “This was a turning point. I saw life as more than a joke,” she told the audience. “It took great tragedies to reach this point, but I wouldn’t change anything.”

5. Avi Rosenblum

Avi Rosenblum is a gifted athlete, a star on his high school’s varsity football and baseball teams and an inductee into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California. But his successes on the sports fields don’t make up for the difficulties his faced in other parts of his life, which Avi has worked doubly hard to overcome while maintaining the rigorous practice and workout schedules demanded by his pursuits in sports.

Avi is an African-American adopted by white Jewish parents. Abandoned at just 12-days-old to an adoption agency in Texas, Avi has struggled all his life against the multiple difficulties that come of being adopted into an interracial family. As a child, Avi tried desperately to connect with his birth mother, trying to uncover the mystery of where he had come from, what his family looked like, and, above all, why his mother had given him away. But he and his adoptive parents received no answer to any of their queries until 2008, when his birth mother contacted the adoption agency, attempting to get in touch with Avi. Avi has since learned more about his mother and his siblings, and has developed a relationship with his older brother, although he has chosen not to communicate with his birth mother.

In addition to these struggles in his personal life, Avi has also battled attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and language-based learning disabilities. He has had to work exceptionally hard to succeed in his classes, receiving special accommodations in order to help him get past his disability.

This Spirit of Achievement  video features Avi’s commitment to family, football, and education.

6. Tyree Johnson

In middle school, Tyree Johnson was floundering. He didn’t care about school or much else  since he had been sent into foster care after his drug-addicted mother could no longer care for Tyree or his sister. For two years they had floated from one foster home to another, and this lack of stability and motivation had fostered feelings of deep resentment and apathy in Tyree. But then a social worker suggested that Tyree apply to the  New Visions Foundation, a nonprofit organization geared toward helping students get to higher education.

Tyree entered the foundation’s Center for Educational Opportunity, a program specifically for foster children, and before long he was back on track to an education and a bright future. Thanks to a scholarship from the Center for Educational Opportunity, Tyree began attending the New Roads School, and there he has thrived. It’s a two-hour commute each way, but Tyree knows that it’s worth the extra time and effort for an education in an environment where he feels at home.

The transition into the strict, private school atmosphere wasn’t easy, but through the encouragement and opportunities he’s received at the school, Tyree has come to view the experience as “challenging and magical.”[5] He has also discovered a passion for fashion, and intends to start his own designer label one day. Tyree’s academic performance has so improved that the director of the Center encouraged him to apply for the $10,000 Beat the Odds Scholarship, which he won in December of 2009. As of 2009 Tyree had already been accepted into a number of colleges and was profiled as one of ABC Local’s “Cool Kids.”

7. Jeanine Horowitz

Of course, it’s not only teen-aged high schoolers who overcome tremendous adversity to achieve their dream of education. Jeanine Horowitz was 37 when she received her Bachelor’s degree from UCLA, the culmination of years of work and struggle.

A single mother, Jeanine supported herself and her daughter for years with temp jobs. When the economy tanked, Jeanine lost her home, and she and her daughter were forced to live out of her car while she fought her way out of poverty. In her spare moments, Jeanine dedicated to herself to her passion for writing, and in 2001 she published her first book. This achievement allowed her to return to college to complete her Bachelor’s in Education and Religion. But the need to continue working to support herself and her daughter made it a long, hard road to graduation. Finally, in 2007, with the help of her academic mentor, she earned her degree.

Upon graduation, Jeanine was profiled in a Fox News report, which helped to launch the book tour for her latest novel.

8. Michael Coady

In March of 2008, Michael Coady was in a snowboarding accident that left him with a broken neck and a severe spinal cord injury. At just 17, Michael was a quadriplegic. For the first two months after his injury, he could only move his shoulders; the rest of his body simply wouldn’t respond to his commands.

Determined to overcome his injury, Michael spent six months at the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre in Halifax, where he has improved to the point of having some ability to move all four limbs. He will probably have impaired movement in all of his limbs for the rest of his life, but Michael maintains his goal of one day regaining the full use of his legs. In June of 2008, he took his first steps  since the accident.

In the meantime he has remained dedicated to his education. He has been saving for college since the age of 10, and has every intention of earning his degree. “He is still planning to take business at St. Mary’s University and is busy filling out scholarships,” said his mother.[6]Michael’s determination and good humor in the face of adversity shine through in his high school graduation address, which can be watched below:

9. Pamela Miller

There are few emotional blows more difficult for a child to overcome than the death of a parent, and when that death is a suicide, the effect can be even more devastating. But Pamela Miller, whose father committed suicide when she was a child, drew from the experience the drive to achieve her dreams and ambitions.

“I honestly feel that no one should have to endure what my family and I have gone through…” she wrote to Ziff Law Firm. “… However, as horrible as some of my life’s experiences have been, I try to extract some good out of them.”[7]

This attitude helped Pamela to rise to the top 15 percent of her class; to become a member of the varsity track and cheerleading teams; to join the Key Club, the National Honor Society and History Club; and to become the Secretary of Concert Choir and a Youth Rotary Scholar. And in May of 2009, Pamela was the recipient of the Ziff Law Overcoming Adversity Scholarship.

10. Marjorie Elliott

Lastly,  there are those who are so dedicated to their dream of education that they keep at it despite the struggles of a lifetime. In July of 2010, at age 75, Marjorie Elliot of Orange County became one of the oldest people ever to receive a high school diploma.

Marjorie was pulled out of school at age 14 to help support her family. She always intended to go back and finish one day, but there was never enough money for her to stop working. In 1964 she and her husband divorced, and Marjorie was left to raise her three daughters on the income of a high-school dropout.

“I pulled the cart all by myself for all those years with my three girls,”  Marjorie told The Orange County Register. “It was very difficult when they were little, because I was not intelligent enough to even help them with their homework.”[8] She put all of her resources into getting tutors for her girls, determined that they would get the education she’d never had.

In 2008 Marjorie was laid off from her job. Her daughters had all grown up and graduated, and Marjorie decided the time had come to finally achieve her goal of getting her diploma. It was enormously difficult for her, as she had to struggle to keep up with the other students to learn things they already knew, such as how to use the computers. But Marjorie persevered, and ultimately graduated with a 4.0 gpa.

Immediately after graduating, Marjorie decided to go on to college. “I think I can do it,” she said. “I won’t say I can’t, because I know I can, and I know I will.”


[1] http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jun/20/local/me-harvard20

[2] http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-07-23-lost-girls_N.htm

[3] http://www.likeriveragirl.com/index-1.html

[4] http://www.chantalsicile-kira.com/2010/06/479-inspirational-autistic-tphs-student-graduates-will-deliver-a-commencement-speech/

[5] http://www.dailybreeze.com/news/ci_13920118

[6] http://www.capebretonpost.com/Wellbeing/2008-10-31/article-770522/Teens-determination-in-the-face-of-adversity-an-inspiration-to-family-and-friends/1

[7] http://www.zifflaw.com/NYInjuryLawBlog/pamela-miller-southside-zifflaw-scholarship-winner

[8] http://www.ocregister.com/articles/elliott-256255-school-high.html

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Comments (2)

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  1. Clay Boggess says:

    “By focusing not on the hardships she endured, but rather on the lessons and skills she learned from them…” This statement really sums up the attitudes of all of these people. Success and achievement in life is not something that you deserve, it’s something that happens only when you work to overcome life’s inevitable obstacles. Many of us would see these obstacles as justification for why success wasn’t possible but these people were able to somehow see around the obstacles.

  2. Shivam says:

    Great students. I hope they become an inspiration to the ones who are weak in studies.

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