James Kok arrived in New Haven as a refugee from South Sudan, without knowing a word of English or ever having attended school. After a long road with many obstacles, he walked on stage with a cap and gown.
Kok (pictured), who’s 33, was one of 112 students who poured into Wilbur Cross High Thursday to collect high school diplomas and GED certificates from New Haven’s Adult Education Center.
In total, 206 students graduated this year: 76 completed the high school credit program there; 71 earned high school equivalency diplomas through the National External Diploma Program; and 59 earned a GED.
Friends and family flooded the auditorium for the ceremony, which took place three weeks before traditional high school graduations. The event featured lots of nontraditional students with unusual journeys to the graduation stage.
Kok’s journey began in South Sudan. He was one of some 20,000 children forced to leave their homes amid a violent civil war. Boys, some as young as 5 or 6, walked in droves for hundreds of miles to seek safety in refugee camps. They became known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”
Kok ended up in a refugee camp in Uganda. When he was 17, he became one of thousands of Lost Boys to win a ticket to the U.S. He ended up in New Haven. (Read about some other Lost Boys who landed in New Haven here.)
“I came to this country from South Sudan without one day of school,” he told his classmates from stage Thursday.
Kok, a very tall man, served as one of several class speakers. He leaned down towards the microphone and read from a speech he had printed out. He did his best to sum up his story in a short amount of time.
“My road was a long road. You don’t want to hear all my obstacles. It’s going to take four days for [the] story,” he quipped.
He gave the short version: When Kok arrived in New Haven, he started taking classes at New Haven Adult Ed. Because he had no family to support him, he also got a job at Marlin Firearms while he was studying. Attending school while working was difficult, he said, “so I dropped out.”
“Not a good idea” to drop out of school, he warned. He worked for nine years at Marlin Firearms. Then, after Remington Arms bought the company, Marlin closed its North Haven plant in 2011. Kok lost his job.
“I realized I had an opportunity to return to school,” he said. Like several other displaced Marlin workers, he ended up at New Haven Adult Ed.
As he spoke in halting English, state Rep. Toni Walker, who works at Adult Ed, approached the podium to indicate, gently, that Kok’s time was up.
“Not yet! One minute,” Kok pleaded.
He went on to announce that he now has a full-time job as a security officer, and a high school diploma to boot. And he aims to get his associate’s degree. He thanked all of his teachers and his friends—including two Lost Boys who drove all the way from Maine to celebrate the moment.
“I feel loved,” he said.
The crowd answered him with wild applause.
The same vigorous applause—and tears of joy—flowed for Kok’s classmate, 45-year-old Matilda Bonilla, who also returned to school later in life. Bonilla, who grew up in the Hill, attended New Haven public schools and was originally slated to graduate in 1987.
“Twenty-seven years ago, I was supposed to be here,” Bonilla began. “But I became a young mother.”
Bonilla dropped out of high school when she became a teen mom. “I put my child and my family first,” she said, “and I put myself second.”
She thanked the Adult Ed staff, including Principal Alicia Caraballo, who’s retiring after 26 years, for encouraging her to go back for her diploma: “They always said, ‘Come back.’”
And she did. “I came back in the morning. I came back in the afternoon. I came back at night.”
Now, she said, “I stand here loud and proud.”
“It doesn’t matter how old you are,” she told the crowd.
She thanked her four children for helping her along the way.
“I love you, momma!” called out her daughter.
“I love you too, baby,” she replied.
In remarks before the ceremony to a group of parents, Superintendent Garth Harries said he has made a point to attend Adult Ed graduation every year since he joined the school system in 2009.
“This exemplifies the power of what we are trying to do,” he said—taking students who are off track and helping them succeed. “It’s not the path we want students on, but it demonstrates the commitment to and the value they have for education.”