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"Remarkable" seniors show resolve to make it to graduation day

During their high school years, they lost loved ones, dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, lived in homeless shelters, and raised children on their own.

These are just a few of the obstacles that 178 graduating seniors from across the city overcame to earn the Chancellor’s Award for Remarkable Achievement, which has been awarded to students since 2006.

“I am truly awestruck by these students’ commitment to education, including their capability to stay focused on graduation and move on to college even through times of extreme difficulty and stress,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott during a reception at Tweed Courthouse on Monday evening that Mayor Bloomberg also attended.

GothamSchools spoke with some of the honorees at the event to find out about the challenges they overcame to get to graduation — and what they credit for their success.

Demetrius Johnson has lived in more than 30 foster care homes and ended up in juvenile detention when he was 16. That’s when he decided to change his life around. He enrolled at Freedom Academy High School, a Brooklyn high school that the city is closing this year, where he excelled in math. Johnson will attend SUNY Jefferson this fall and eventually wants to attend Columbia Law School to become a lawyer.

His biggest obstacle: Carrying the burden of being a foster kid. “Mentally, I was out of it. It was hard to pull myself out of that darkness to get to where I am today.”

Reason for his success today: His social worker Tony Ince. “She’s been there for me since I was 13 years old, from day one,” Johnson said. When he was 16 and locked up in juvenile detention, he told her he didn’t want her to be his social worker any more. “Then she said something to me I’ll never forget, she said, ‘Demetrius, you’ll leave me before I leave you.’ To this day she’s kept her word,” he said. “When everyone else doubted me, everyone said I wasn’t going to be nothing, I wasn’t going to amount to anything, she was like, ‘Demetrius, you’re gonna make it,’ and those words just started sinking in my heart and my head. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”

Octavia Thompson was hospitalized halfway through her junior year and diagnosed with a rare disease that forced into a coma for more than six weeks. She had to relearn how to breathe, eat, and walk, but was determined to graduate on time. Thompson, who lives with her family in a homeless shelter, eventually returned to LaGuardia High School for Music and Art & the Performing Arts and completed all the requirements to graduate. She plans to attend Hofstra University to study psychology in the fall.

“Don’t ever pity yourself or make excuses,” Thompson said. “If you’re struggling, be an active struggler; do everything you can to improve your situation. Face the challenges, believe in yourself, and you’ll accomplish more than you could ever expect.”

Her biggest obstacle: Transitioning from the hospital to school.

Reason for her success today: Her faith in herself and her faith in God. “I’m a big believer that God will help you and God will answer your prayers. I’ve been doing that a lot in the hospital — praying that I’ll get better. And look at me now, I’m better!”

Lubna Rahmani assumed responsibility for raising her sister’s child after her sister left home just a few days before Rahmani started 10th grade at Townsend Harris High School.

Rahmani raised the little girl, who is now two and a half years old, while also being a full-time student and working as a volunteer at her local public library. She plans to attend CUNY Macaulay Honors College in the fall to study business.

She is the first in her family to finish high school and go to college.

Her biggest obstacle: Raising her sister’s child. “The kid was four days old when she left,” Rahmani said.

Reason for her success today: “I think if my family wasn’t financially unstable, if the problems didn’t exist, I wouldn’t exist here today. The problems, the struggles, they make you who you are.”

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