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Determined city teens defy the odds to earn their diplomas

One is a teen mom.

One was homeless.

Two were refugees.

One came home to a tragedy that would change his life.

The road to graduation in Buffalo Public Schools can be long and hard and scattered with life’s potholes and detours and students who dropped out along the way.

But there are those graduating this week in high schools across the city who overcame the odds and pushed through the adversities so often prevalent in an urban school district like Buffalo. Here are five: Meet Doris Noh, Renee Walker, Duska Samardzija, Dion Watkins and Angelina Mariamu.

These are their stories:

Graduating senior Doris Noh, a Gates Millenium Scholar winner and valedictorian at Lafayette High School, has lofty goals. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Graduating senior Doris Noh, a Gates Millenium Scholar winner and valedictorian at Lafayette High School, has lofty goals. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

A total turnaround

Doris Noh will finish her career at Lafayette High School as valedictorian and a winner of a Gates Millennium Scholarship that will pay her way through college. It’s an ending so different than how it all began.

Doris was a good student in Thailand, where she was born and raised in a refugee camp and lived in a small bamboo house that dripped when it rained. But in 2008, when she and her family resettled in Buffalo, Doris was overwhelmed by the education she would receive in her new city, where she started in the fifth grade.

She spoke no English and learned little her first year. She was promoted to sixth grade, where more of the same awaited her. The petite, dark-haired girl with glasses felt isolated, alone and kept to herself in the back of the room. Still, Doris showed up to school everyday.

It was at an open house in seventh grade when a teacher told Doris’ parents that she wasn’t a good student and needed to work harder.

“I was disappointed in myself because I felt like I let my parents down,” she recalled. “That was a turning point for me – probably for the rest of my life.”

Doris would stay after school to get the extra tutoring she needed. When at home, she painstakingly combed through her father’s translation dictionary each night to complete her homework. One, two, three hours a night. Whatever it took to get it done.

In ninth grade, when another Burmese girl won the Gates scholarship, Doris set two goals: get the highest grade point average in her class every year and become a Gates scholar herself.

She did.

In fact, this is the fourth year in a row a Bill and Melinda Gates scholarship – given to students from low-income families – was awarded to someone from Lafayette, a school with a sizable international enrollment. All four winners were girls, all four were Burmese.

“The work ethic these students have here is incredible, because they have to work that much harder to get things done,” said Cassie Lipsitz, an art teacher at the school.

“But there are a small percentage of students that really bump it up to the next level,” Lipsitz said, “and Doris is that.”

Doris – now 18 and the oldest of four children – wanted to stay close to home for college and decided on D’Youville, where she felt welcomed during her campus visit. She wants to be a physician.

“I’m a little nervous,” Noh said. “I never had college experience so going to college is a big deal for me. I don’t want to fail.”

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South Park High School Valedictorian Renee Walker at the school in South Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

South Park High School Valedictorian Renee Walker at the school in South Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

School as refuge

From the outside, Renee Walker was living the good life in high school.

She was a cheerleader. She was on the swim team and ran track. She was involved with student council, the debate team and prom committee.

But what most didn’t know was that Renee had been homeless.

Circumstances forced her and an older sister to bounce from one friend’s couch to the next for several months during her freshman and sophomore years at South Park High School.

When her time was up at one house or she was asked to leave, she moved onto the next. It was awful.

School became her refuge.

“I loved school,” said Renee, a self-described teacher’s pet. “It kept me distracted, I think. It was the one place I knew I had control of instead of anyone else.”

The situation also pushed her in school so that one day she could do better for herself. By the end of her sophomore year, Renee realized she was on track to be class valedictorian.

Now, she is.

These days, Renee lives with her mother and will attend the University at Buffalo in the fall.

Alyssa Blossom, a guidance counselor at South Park, said she worries about those graduates who are unprepared to face life’s trials. Many give up too easily, she said.

Renee isn’t one of them.

“That’s how we know she’ll be successful,” Blossom said.

The 18-year-old tends to be private about that period of her life when she was homeless, but has opened up recently in hopes that her story might encourage others.

She gives a little piece of advice that her mom gave her:

“It’s up to you if you want to go far in life,” she said. “You have to do it. You have to want it.”

In fact, Renee won several awards a couple of weeks ago during a ceremony at South Park, where she overheard another student talking about her.

“Must be easy having a life like yours,” the girl remarked.

“I laughed at it,” Renee said, “I think it’s funny people just assume things like that.”

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Duska Samardzija, 17, with her son Anthony, 3, spends some family time together before she leaves for work in the morning. She was a teen mom at 14 but still managed to make National Honor Society and is set to attend the University at Buffalo. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Duska Samardzija, 17, with her son Anthony, 3, was a teen mother at 14 but still managed to make National Honor Society. She is set to attend the University at Buffalo. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

A better life for her son

It was during her freshman year at Academy of Visual and Performing Arts when Duska Samardzija got pregnant.

She was 14 – and terrified.

But when Duska gave birth to a boy she named Anthony, the teen mom knew exactly what she had to do.

“I knew I had to work hard,” she said. “I knew I had to finish school. I knew I had to go to college to make a better life for both of us.”

It meant taking her Regents exams right there in her hospital bed.

It meant getting up in the middle of the night for feedings until Anthony started sleeping through after six months.

It meant waking up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready and catch a bus so she could drop the baby off at day care before school.

It meant squeezing in her homework in between classes, so she had time to be a parent when she got home. She’s a teenager, too, so she likes to hang out with friends and socialize.

Her grades?

Duska graduates as a member of the National Honor Society.

“What is amazing about Duska is her willingness and determination,” said Jody Covington, principal at the high school. “Duska remains committed to her education and realizes the importance of placing her studies as a priority to overcoming certain barriers in life.”

Duska, now 17, couldn’t have done it without the help of her family. She and her son live with her mother, who picks the boy up from day care so Duska can work a part-time job to help support the family.

As for 3-year-old Anthony, he’s “a little ball of energy,” although people say he’s well behaved.

“I try to teach him well,” Duska said. “I don’t want anyone to say, ‘She’s a terrible mother.’ ”

Thanks to the Say Yes scholarship program, Duska – a child of Croatian immigrants who speaks three languages – will head to UB in the fall. She wants to major in business and minor in music.
She plans on owning her own business one day.

“There are two mindsets,” Duska said. “There are those people who say ‘I’m pregnant. I have to drop out. My life is over.’

“Then,” she said, “there are those who say, ‘I have to work twice as hard and support this little person, as well as myself.’ ”

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Pausing to do some pull-ups on a door jam, which he often does during his school day to relieve stress, Early Middle High School senior Dion Watkins  is admired by fellow students and faculty for overcoming a horrific family incident which included discovering his murdered mother last year to graduate and attend Villa Maria College this fall.  This was at said school on Monday, June 13, 2016.  (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Pausing to do some pull-ups on a door jam, which he often does during his school day to relieve stress, Early Middle High School senior Dion Watkins overcame the murder of his mother last year. He's set to graduate and attend Villa Maria College this fall. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Overcoming tragedy

Dion Watkins knew something was strange that Thursday evening when he arrived home after basketball practice and the porch light wasn’t on.

The door was locked. He dialed his mother’s phone repeatedly, but there was no answer. Dion finally forced his way into the family’s upstairs apartment, where he found his mother, Diane Demps, in her bed.

She was dead.

Police would arrest Dion’s stepfather and charge him with her death.

That was March 2015.

These days, as Dion prepares to graduate from Middle Early College High School, he still hears his mother urging him on.

“I just figure I wouldn’t let nothing stop me,” Dion said. “She passed, but I still got an obligation to care for myself and graduate.”

School was important to Dion’s mother.

She got her son ready for school in the morning and was careful about checking over Dion’s homework, even though he knew she didn’t know how to do it herself.

“She wanted me to continue school, be the best I could in school,” Dion said. “She told me, ‘You’re going to do better than your parents.’ ”

At times, Dion would tease her and pretend to nod off when she was talking, but he was listening.

“School doesn’t come easy for him and he could have easily quit and said, ‘I’m getting a job,’ ” said Susan Doyle, the school’s principal. “But he knew school was very important to his mother and he just continued on.”

After his mother’s death, Dion and his younger sister were taken in by an aunt and uncle. He was a small forward on Middle Early’s championship basketball team this year and proudly wears his championship ring. Dion, 18, works concessions at Coca-Cola Field and plans to attend Villa Maria College, where he was recruited to run cross-country.

His mother would be happy he’s going to college.

But Dion was taking his high school career down to the wire last week, as he worked to finish up some assignments he needed to graduate.

And he knows how his mother would feel about that.

“She’d probably tell me to get all my work done so I can graduate,” Dion said, “or I’ll be punished all summer long.”

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Successful Riverside High School student Angelina Mariamu worked very hard to overcome her deficiency in Algebra at said school on Monday, June 13, 2016.  (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Riverside Institute of Technology student Angelina Mariamu worked hard to overcome her struggles with algebra. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Undeterred by failures

Angelina Mariamu may not be the top scholar at Riverside Institute of Technology, or its best athlete.

But her perseverance is undeniable.

A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angelina spoke limited English – “Hello, how are you?” was the extent of it – when she and her family arrived to Buffalo five years ago from a refugee camp in Zambia.

That still didn’t excuse her from having to take the state Regents exams.

So each day, for two hours after school, Angelina made her way to the high school library, where she was tutored by teachers through a program sponsored by the Northwest Buffalo Community Center.

But when it finally came time to take the Regents algebra exam in ninth grade, Angelina failed.

“I didn’t understand it,” she recalled, “and I didn’t speak English that much.”

She took the exam again that August and failed a second time.

The following January, Angelina took the exam for the third time and for the third time she failed.

Frustrated, she took the algebra exam a fourth time.

She failed.

“We see this pattern with a lot of kids,” said Frank Mancuso, chair of student support at Riverside and coordinator for the after-school program. “They fail and give up. They drop out.”

But not Angelina.

On her fifth try, she passed the Algebra exam with a 65.

“I wanted to pass so bad,” Angelina said. “I didn’t want to give up.”

And it wasn’t just algebra that gave her trouble.

It took Angelina two tries to pass the Living Environment exam; three times to pass the Global History exam; and two times to pass the Common Core English Language Arts exam.
Each time she failed, Angelina picked herself up, dusted herself off and walked right back into the library after school for two more hours of tutoring.

“Everyday,” Mancuso said, “Monday through Friday.”

That was the story of her high school career.

“She inspired us,” Mancuso said. “I’m not sure that if I had failed I would have continued to come back.”

Angelina, 17, will attend Erie Community College in the fall. She wants to study nursing.

Her English has improved, her grades are good. This year, she spent more hours after school than anyone.

But this time, she was tutoring others.

email: jrey@buffnews.com

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