COLUMBIA — Overcoming language barriers, stigmas and stereotypes were some of the highlights of completing high school for Hickman High School's graduating class.
Adorned in purple gowns and caps, 530 graduating seniors walked across the stage at Mizzou Arena Friday night.
To many, the night was proof of all the adversity they had overcome and the expectations they had shattered.
“Growing up, a lot of people didn’t believe that I would amount to anything,” graduating Hickman High School senior Mar’kiez Smith said.
Smith said he now believes he has amounted to something "huge."
He graduated with six scholarships worth more than $5,000 that will go toward his first year of studying business administration at Northwest Missouri State University. He graduated with honors, a recognition awarded to students with a 3.5 or higher GPA.
Smith grew up with an absent father, which he said caused resentment to brew within him from an early age and deterred him from excelling in school. His turning point occurred in fifth grade, he said, when his teacher Barbara Bauer became his mentor and later his inspiration.
“She got a hold onto me,” Smith said. “That’s when I really started changing.”
Smith entered his senior year only one credit shy from graduating and became a part-time student and a full-time employee. He worked 44 to 60 hours per week interning for The District this year.
He said to some people, African-American males aren't known for graduating and are expected to be into drugs and violence.
Smith considers his graduation and his honors to be fighting back against that stigma.
A smile spread across his face when he talked about his mother and her support throughout his high school career. A single mother who works two jobs and supports three other children, he said she never failed to be there for him.
“She always shows me love and support,” Smith said. “We have a real close bond.”
Smith said he has a few “big dreams" and he hopes to start a mentorship program in order to help troubled youth, just as he was helped by Bauer. “That’s on the top of my list,” he said. Another is to own his own business.
For other students, high school graduation marks the end of a journey filled with culture shocks and language barriers.
A diverse group of students born thousands of miles away from Columbia graduated from Hickman alongside Smith. Jeff Fagan, a teacher in the English Language Learner program, said there were about 20 international graduates.
According to several international students, learning English was one of the hardest parts of moving to the United States.
"We feel relieved," Chhaiya Khim, a Cambodia native said.
“You go where your family go,” said YuTing Wang, a graduate from China. Her family moved to New York in 2009 before settling in Columbia two years later.
“I am so nervous and excited," said Sara Retta , a graduate who is from Ethiopia. "It’s a challenge for us. We didn’t know English, but now we knew.”
International graduates this year are from Burma, Korea, Kenya, China and Ethiopia.
“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last,” valedictorian Ashwath Kumar said during his commencement address.
Supervising editor is Samuel Hardiman.