Each May, some 4,000 teens graduate from San Francisco public schools. But while the annual pomp and circumstance of high school commencement might feel routine, for some students, graduation is an achievement they had to fight for.
Makda Beyene, 18, graduated from Mission High School on Wednesday. Less than three years ago, when the recent immigrant from Eritrea was sleeping in church basements with her mother and three younger siblings, that goal seemed impossibly far away.
Jenn Bowman taught Beyene history in 10th grade, the year she arrived in America.
“One day I was like, ‘You look so tired.’” Bowman recalled. “It turned out they had been staying in homeless shelters. And meanwhile, she was getting straight A’s.”
Beyene’s mother had sold everything the family owned to bring them to the United States. But when they got to San Francisco, the friends they had planned to stay with had no room for them. As the family moved from shelter to shelter, Beyene threw herself into her schoolwork.
“My mom’s purpose to come to the U.S. was so all of us could get good educations,” she said. “I didn’t want to let her down.”
Today, the family lives in subsidized housing, and Beyene is preparing to attend Pitzer College, in Claremont, where she will pursue a pre-med course. She was selected as a Gates Millennium Scholar, and her education will be covered in full by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Beyene is still surprised by what she has achieved in less than three years in the United States. But she has advice for other teens struggling to get to graduation day.
“Hard work pays off,” she said.
Jackie Fuller could say the same thing. In San Francisco, one out of every seven high school students won’t graduate. For black students, that rate has been as high as one in two. Fuller, 18, was determined not to be a part of that statistic.
“In eighth grade, I was a little rambunctious,” Fuller said, with a smile that suggested she was understating the situation. “I got in a lot of fights. I didn’t like listening to people. I wasn’t focused on school.”
Fuller, who grew up in Bayview-Hunters Point, realized that if she didn’t leave her neighborhood, its culture of violence and hopelessness could drag her down, too. So, although it would mean waking up at 5 a.m. and taking two Muni buses across town, she chose Washington High School, in the Richmond, for ninth grade.
“I think that what helped Jackie stay on track is she saw how difficult it was for me, being a young parent,” said her mother, Daphina Melbourne, who was just 17 when she had Fuller, but managed to return to school and earn a bachelor’s degree from Mills College.
Fuller, who has taken AP and honors classes at Washington, in addition to serving as president of the school’s Black Student Union, graduated Thursday. In the fall, she will attend Dillard University, in New Orleans, her first step toward becoming a lawyer.
“She will succeed,” said Julia Lucey, Fuller’s guidance counselor. “She’s stubborn and hard-headed enough. She’s never going to give up.”
Aaron Truong, 17, was also determined to escape the shadow that eclipsed much of his education. The subject of a decade-long custody battle between his divorced parents, Truong spent much of his childhood in sessions with social workers and therapists, as his parents tried to build a case against one another. His mother physically abused him, and at one point he spent a few weeks in a group home.
“I felt like everyone else had a normal life,” he said. “I always felt like it was my fault.”
Two years ago, a jury finally decided Truong and his sister should live with their father, and with the feud over he was able to concentrate on school. He worked hard to bring his mediocre grades up to straight As, and after graduating from Thurgood Marshall High School, he will attend UCLA in the fall.
“He approaches life, he approaches topics really openly,” said Truong’s science teacher, Kevin Hartzog. “I think he can do a lot of great things.”