Thousands of young Mainers are making one of life’s great transitions at high school graduations across the state this month.
And beneath each cap and gown is hard work, a bright future and a story.
We asked area high school administrators to identify members of the senior class who, because of smarts, talent or toughness, are likely to make a difference in the world. Then we narrowed the list and, in the spirit of the selfie generation, asked the grads to take out their smart phones and send us a personal photo.
Here are the stories of 10 members of the Class of 2014, and their journeys to graduation. They include a musician, a dancer, a former drop-out, athletes and refugees who escaped war or violence. All have already overcome much – from the death of a parent to serious illness – to earn their diplomas.
Meet the Maine Sunday Telegram’s 2014 Graduates to Watch.
Troy Ali, Casco Bay High School | Sarah Gooch, Greely High School | Matt Hawks, Sanford High School | Chanelle Irakoze, Deering High School | Carolyn Liziewski, Catherine McAuley High School | Camden Loeser, Thornton Academy | Abbey Mitchell, Falmouth High School | Luis Ramos-Dubon, Portland High School | Ahmad Mansoor Rasa, Old Orchard Beach High School | Dany Reyes, Kennebunk High School
Troy Ali: No plans to sit still
By the end of this year, Troy Ali hopes to be backpacking through Nepal, photographing and blogging about his experiences. He also wants to produce a travel documentary that will help him win a seat to study film-making at his school of choice, Emerson College.
Ali, who graduated last week from Casco Bay High School in Portland, plans to fund his gap-year project through the Kickstarter website and travel with a group of friends for three to four months early next year.
“It’s a way to combine my two passions, which are travel and film,” Ali said. “I’m very interested in culture shock and the ability to go from something that’s completely familiar to something that’s not.”
Ali, the son of Vanessa Antonio and Pius Ali, has plenty of experience overcoming personal challenges. As a child, he was diagnosed with dermatomyositis, a rare auto-immune disorder of the skin and muscles that can cause inflammation, rashes, weakness, pain and paralysis.
For Troy Ali, the disease was at its worst in seventh and eighth grade, when he missed as many as 80 days of school per year and needed a wheelchair to get around. Soon after he gave up prescription medications and their side effects, replacing them with a healthier diet and regular exercise. As a result, his health has greatly improved in recent years, he said.
When he was homebound, Ali developed his love of photography and films, which led him to work as a production assistant on a local shoot and to direct a project for a new media class at Casco Bay high. He also manages the “Humans of Portland, Maine” page on Facebook, taking photos of and writing about some of the city’s more interesting characters. And he recently hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail in Maine.
“It was hard on my body, but I really loved it,” Ali said. “Once you’ve dealt with (an illness) of that caliber, other things seem a lot less daunting. It’s about making up for lost time. It’s about making every moment count.”
– Kelley Bouchard
Sarah Gooch: Beating down the stereotypes
Sarah Gooch is used to getting skeptical looks when she walks into a room and sits down at the drums. Female drummers aren’t that common, especially in jazz bands.
Then she picks up the sticks and starts to play – whether in the Greely High School gym or at the Jazz All State Festival – and any doubt melts into amazement.
“I’ve come across some light-hearted prejudice,” Gooch admits. “They have a hard time believing a female drummer can hold the group together. Then you start playing. In the language of jazz, eye contact is everything. When they see a 17-year-old girl playing a minute-long solo, I get a lot of blank stares.”
Gooch graduates Sunday afternoon from Greely High in Cumberland with a long list of accomplishments, musical and otherwise. Her parents are Tim and Sue Gooch.
A standout member of the Greely Jazz Band, she has achieved top scores, won awards and been chosen to play in select jazz, concert and big bands and combos during district and state competitions.
She also has performed with the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Portland Youth Wind Ensemble, and she gives drum lessons to younger students. When she wasn’t playing drums or her less-practiced guitar, she played varsity field hockey and tennis, and she was a member of the Nordic ski team.
But it’s jazz drumming that lights up her soul. She started playing drums at age 7, encouraged by her grandfather’s interest in jazz, which she found boring until she experienced the joy of banging out a beat.
She got serious her sophomore year, when she started taking private lessons from Chris Marro at Midcoast School of Music. She credits him with transforming her solo skills from novice to advanced and expanding her repertoire to include Latin and funk styles.
Known for her dedication, respect for other musicians and “lightbulb personality,” Gooch plans to attend the rigorous Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program at the University of North Carolina. She’d like to teach, perform and write jazz, including lyrics that tap her love of literature and writing.
But jazz drumming will always be her first love.
“I can express anything I’m feeling,” Gooch said. “Plus, the drummer gets a lot of attention.”
– Kelley Bouchard
Matt Hawks: Dropped out, then turned his life around
Like many graduating seniors, Matt Hawks says finally finishing high school “feels amazing.”
But unlike many seniors, Hawks’ journey to graduation involved dropping out, going to work and discovering that life without a high school diploma was not what he had in mind.
“For the first time in my life I’ve actually accomplished something,” he said.
Many who encountered Hawks during his “second chance” senior year would say his accomplishments go far beyond earning his diploma. He graduated from Sanford High School on Friday, two years after he would have finished had he not dropped out eight credits shy of a diploma.
Hawks, 20, said school was never his thing, starting in elementary school when he was bullied.
“When I got to high school, it got even worse and I fell into the wrong crowd,” he said. “Poof … I disappeared.”
When he was 17, Hawks convinced his mother to let him leave school and go to work. After months of working at Burger King and later as a temporary worker at the Tom’s of Maine factory, he realized what he was missing out on by not having a high school diploma.
“Every good job I saw needed a high school diploma to start out, and to progress further you needed a college degree,” he said. “I realized education is one of the most important things.”
One day, while on break at Tom’s of Maine, he asked his fellow temporary workers about their level of education. Most were in their mid-30s and never graduated from high school, he said.
“I really didn’t want to be a temporary worker when I was 35. I want to do something with my life,” he said.
With assistance from Gov. Paul LePage’s office, he re-enrolled at Sanford High School. He threw himself into his studies. He was especially interested in his history class, where he wrote a letter to his grandfather, who died during the Vietnam War.
“When I dropped out I was a D- student. I barely passed classes and failed many,” he said. “I aced every class this year and completely turned myself around.”
Even while attending school, Hawks worked a full-time second shift job at Tom’s of Maine. He plans to continue to work after graduation and eventually take classes at a local community college. He also plans to apply for the apprenticeship program at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, where he would like to work in the marine mechanical program.
– Gillian Graham
Chanelle Irakoze: Escaped the violence of her native Burundi
Chanelle Irakoze came to Maine, alone and afraid, sent here by her parents in November 2011 to spare her from a horrible fate in her native Burundi. The small Central African country was divided for decades by ethnic civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis. Her whole family was at risk – her father, a businessman in the capital city of Bujumbura, her mother and her four brothers – but she was the most vulnerable.
“They wanted me to go away to get away from all the rapes and kidnappings,” Irakoze, 18, recalled days before her graduation last week from Deering High School in Portland.
She declines to identify her ethnic background. “I don’t like to say. I believe everybody is the same.”
Irakoze came to Portland as an unaccompanied minor and lived for more than a year with a family of distant relatives, also from Burundi. Then she moved in with Toby and Lucky Hollander, a couple with three grown daughters who volunteered to host her.
Though she was a good student, had studied English and had completed high school in Burundi, she entered Deering as a freshman in a program for English-language learners. Soon, she was leaping ahead, taking honors and Advanced Placement courses in all subjects, and racking up enough credits to graduate a year earlier than expected.
“They said I didn’t know how to speak and read and write English well enough, so I focused on that,” Irakoze said. “I worked really hard.”
In addition to support from the Hollanders, who make sure she speaks several times each week with her parents, Irakoze has found solace with Deering’s Sisterhood group. Made up of girls from Portland’s diverse immigrant communities, the group meets weekly and perform regularly, displaying the clothing, dances, music and poetry of their native cultures.
“You meet all kinds of people who have experienced all kinds of problems,” Irakoze said. “You realize, ‘I need to keep moving. I need to keep fighting for my goals.’ ”
This fall, Irakoze plans to attend Wheaton College, where she has a “full-boat” merit scholarship. She’d like to study public health so she can help others. And while she looks forward to seeing her family and her native country again, she plans to become a citizen of her new home.
“Since I’ve been here, other people have been helping me, so I want to give back,” Irakoze said. “But I can help people anywhere. Here. Haiti. Anywhere. I will always remember my country, but I love it here.”
– Kelley Bouchard
Carolyn Liziewski: An education rooted in civics
For Carolyn Liziewski, the past couple of years have been filled with extraordinary experiences.
She spent the first five months of her junior year at Catherine McAuley High School working and going to school in Washington, D.C., where she was a page in the U.S. Senate, sponsored by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. The experience helped to define her political views.
“I’m socially liberal but fiscally conservative,” said Liziewski, 18. “Sometimes those two things don’t match up. I agree with Republican policies but I sometimes find what they say troublesome. Most of the time, though, I will support a Republican.”
She was an intern for the Maine Republican Caucus last summer and will be again this summer. She enjoyed working in the Senate GOP office in Augusta, connecting with constituents and basking in the glow of civic affairs in the state capital.
“I just loved working in the Statehouse and being immersed in politics every day,” said Liziewski, who lives in Gray with her mother, Sarah, and her older sister, Kathryn, who attends Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
During this period, she also witnessed the courageous 15-month battle by her father, Daniel, with pancreatic cancer, which ended last July, a few months before the start of her senior year. She didn’t let the death of her biggest fan sidetrack her from her goals.
“It was a motivation because he always had high expectations of me, but he always was really supportive, too,” Liziewski said. “The best way to honor my dad’s life was to continue to succeed. He fought hard, so I figured if he could do that, I could stay up until midnight doing homework.”
Liziewski also wanted to be remembered as her own person. “I didn’t want to be remembered as the girl whose dad died,” she said, “but as a girl who did all these amazing things.”
The amazing things are set to continue this fall, when Liziewski plans to enroll at Princeton University. She wants to get a history degree and go on to law school. She’d like to work as a political consultant or for the Justice Department, hopefully in Washington, D.C.
“It’s my absolute favorite city,” she said.
– Kelley Bouchard
Camden Loeser: Father’s support sends him to the stage
Camden Loeser has come a long way from playing the mouse in a stage production of “The Night Before Christmas.”
Fifteen years and countless stage appearances after that first role, the 18-year-old Saco resident is setting his sights on the bright lights of Broadway.
Loeser, who graduates Sunday from Thornton Academy, is bound for the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. But the fact that Loeser – who has acted most of his life and appeared in his first professional production at 14 – will study dance surprises no one more than himself.
Looking for a new challenge two years ago, Loeser started taking dance classes and fell in love instantly.
“When I’m dancing I feel so connected and centered in myself,” he said. “You feel like you’re in your own little world. You feel empowered and invincible.”
Loeser said his inspiration to act and dance is his father, David, who died of leukemia when Camden was 11. David Loeser was an actor who encouraged his children to dream big, work hard and live a full life.
“He was my biggest support until he passed away. I was very energetic as a kid and he saw that in me,” Loeser said. “He opened all those doors (to acting) for me as a kid.”
When Loeser was 5, he appeared as a munchkin in a production of “The Wizard of Oz” at the City Theater in Biddeford. His father played the scarecrow. Before his father died, they often talked about Camden Loeser’s dream of directing a show.
Inspired by his father’s confidence in him, Loeser started a children’s theater, which ran for four years. He now aspires to someday direct his own dance company and appear in a Broadway show.
As he moves to New York, Loeser credits much of his success on stage to the enthusiastic support of his father.
“I’ve been told my mannerisms on stage are very similar to his,” he said. “I have a lot of his spirit inside of me and I carry it on stage.”
– Gillian Graham
Abbey Mitchell: Challenges her illness head-on
Abbey Mitchell knows what it means to keep on pushing, whether she’s in the classroom or on cross-country and ski trails.
Mitchell, 18, graduates Sunday from Falmouth High School, where she distinguished herself as a tenacious and compassionate student-athlete who never let her health issues slow her down.
Mitchell, who is headed to Gordon College in Massachusetts, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 22 months and since then has endured lengthy hospital stays and two hours daily of breathing therapy and medicine treatments.
“I don’t remember what it’s like not to have CF. I can only imagine,” she said. “It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.”
Despite her illness, Mitchell joined the cross-country and Nordic ski teams as a freshman. During her first cross-country season she ran a 5-kilometer race in 38 minutes, but didn’t let her slow time or coughing fits deter her from improving.
“By junior year, I realized I needed to push through running and really reap the benefits,” she said. “When I run it can be hard, as it is for all people, but afterward I feel great. I can breathe so much better and it’s worth it.”
This year, Mitchell ran every race during the cross-country season for the first time and was the team captain. She now runs a 5K in 26.40 minutes. Mitchell also pushed through on the ski trails, where she sometimes finished in the dark long after other racers had competed the course.
“Abbey’s lungs don’t want her to ski race, but from day one of her freshman year, Abbey was determined not to allow her lungs to set her course,” said ski coach James Demer. “In practice and in races, Abbey is tenacious and imperturbable … She never uses her health as an excuse or an opt-out. Instead, she shows up.”
Mitchell said she took that same determination into the classroom, where she discovered a love for language. After meeting and speaking with a Spanish-speaking woman in Massachusetts, Mitchell decided she will study French and Spanish so she can translate and communicate easily with people who come from different backgrounds.
Outside of school, Mitchell spends much of her time volunteering through the West Falmouth Baptist Church – she went to Haiti this year to paint houses – and knitting entries for contests at local fairs.
– Gillian Graham
Luis Ramos-Dubon: Overcame tragedy, blindness
In his 19 years, Luis Ramos-Dubon has forged his way from heartbreaking loss to remarkable recovery.
When he was 5 years old, his father died in a car accident, leaving behind a wife and five children in La Palma, Chalatenango, a small city in the mountains of El Salvador. Soon after, his mother, Morena, left him in the care of his grandmother and came to the United States to work and build a better life.
By age 8, he had lost his sight. Cataracts reduced his vision to shades of gray. Though a relatively common surgery would have allowed him to see again, his family couldn’t afford it. He continued to go to school in El Salvador, but his studies were greatly limited by his blindness.
“I could only see if I wrote with really big letters,” Ramos-Dubon recalled.
In June 2011, he joined his mother in Portland and enrolled at Portland High School. Former and current staff members helped Ramos-Dubon get the costly and critical cataract surgery, which was done pro bono by a Portland practice. One eye was done in November 2012 and the other eye was done in January 2013.
Ramos-Dubon was blown away by the results of the first operation.
“I got really surprised,” he said. “I saw everything I didn’t see before.”
With his sight restored, Ramos-Dubon had one goal in mind. “I want to learn how to read,” he said.
He worked hard in classes for English-language learners, often staying after school for additional help. His reading and writing skills improved, so he was mainstreamed into regular classes. To help his mother, who works at a fish-processing plant, he also got a part-time job at Taco Trio in South Portland.
Last week, Ramos-Dubon became the first in his family to graduate from high school. He passed a math proficiency test, he said, and his score on an English proficiency exam “was very close.” He continues to work on his English skills and plans to attend Southern Maine Community College. He’d like to study criminal justice and become a crime scene investigator.
“I’d like to solve the problem and discover what happened and what caused it,” he said. “I feel so happy because I’m getting my goals for the future.”
– Kelley Bouchard
Ahmad Mansoor Rasa: A long road traveled to graduation
Ahmad Mansoor Rasa traveled a long way to walk across the stage Sunday at the Seaside Pavilion to receive his high school diploma.
Fourteen months ago, Rasa and his family left war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan, for a quieter life in Old Orchard Beach.
“Here is a good place for living,” Rasa, 18, said. “Here it is not war, so I’m not feeling bad.”
When Rasa, his parents, Abdul Ghafoor and Marcia Rasa, and three siblings arrived in Maine, he barely spoke English. He enrolled at Old Orchard Beach High School, where he began to quickly pick up the language, threw himself into his studies and tried sports he never had the opportunity to play in Afghanistan.
“It was really fun to me,” he said. “I learned about a new culture (and) new people.”
Rasa quickly found attending school in Maine was different in many ways from school in Kabul. While he was able to regularly attend school in Afghanistan, it was often a nerve-wracking experience because of the constant fighting.
“We were nervous about the war,” he said. “It was happening around our school.”
In Old Orchard Beach, Rasa felt much more comfortable, and settled into a senior class of 50 students. He thrived in science classes, sang in the chorus, played basketball, learned to cook in a culinary arts class and volunteered with his classmates.
A couple months into the school year, Rasa’s family moved to South Portland. Rasa decided he wanted to stay in Old Orchard, where he had come to enjoy his teachers and the small size of the school. He moved in with high school secretary Sandy MacDonald and her husband, George, who had hosted exchange students in the past, and visited his family on weekends.
“This school was interesting to me. It’s small and has good students and good teachers,” he said. “I could study my lessons well.”
Rasa’s family – including siblings Diba, Massouda and Uida Rasa – will cheer him on at graduation. He said his parents value education and encourage him to push himself to continue learning and preparing for his future. He will attend Southern Maine Community College in September to study computer science.
“I am feeling successful. This is the first step in my education,” Rasa said. “I’d like to complete my education and be a good servant to people.”
– Gillian Graham
Dany Reyes: A harrowing journey from a dangerous place
Dany Reyes was just 16 when, threatened over his refusal to help sell drugs, he fled Honduras and sneaked across the border into the United States.
The smile that is now constant on his face – whether playing soccer, in the classroom, or running races – tells little of that harrowing journey, but a lot about the teen who never imagined he’d live in America and go to college.
“I just try to be happy all the time,” Reyes said. “If you think about the bad all day, it’s just bad for you.”
Reyes, 19, will graduate June 15 from Kennebunk High School. He plans to attend Broward Community College in Florida, where he will study business. He said he would love to start his own business someday.
That is an opportunity he may not have had in San Pedro Sula, often referred to as the most violent city in the world. Honduras has the highest murder rate of any nation outside of a war zone.
When Reyes was 16, people he considered friends tried to recruit him into the illegal drug business. When he refused, they were scared he would go to police, he said. “They got mad at me and wanted to kill me,” he said.
Reyes left Honduras on May 25, 2011, with two cousins and a friend to travel to Mexico. On June 9, he and one cousin, also 16, crossed the border into the United States together. Reyes spoke no English.
“It was really hard because I’d never been away from parents,” he said.
He was cared for by an agency that helps unaccompanied minors and eventually moved to Maine to stay with a friend of a family member and enrolled at Kennebunk High School. There, he met classmate John Burns, whose family Reyes has lived with for the past two years. He calls Sheryl Burns “Mom” and considers her sons his brothers.
Sheryl Burns and lawyers from the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project helped Reyes secure his legal status as a permanent resident with a green card. He said he would like to become a citizen someday.
During his three years at Kennebunk High School, Reyes found success academically and as a member of the soccer and track teams. When his soccer team won an important game, the team celebrated on the field with a Honduran flag. He was scheduled to compete in four events at the state track meet this weekend.
Before he graduates, Reyes will speak at the last senior assembly about his journey from Honduras to Maine. It’s a story that will inspire anyone who listens, said John Burns, who once tutored Reyes in English.
“It went from me teaching Dany about language to Dany teaching me about perseverance and strength,” John Burns said. “He always has a smile on his face. It’s admirable and humbling.”
– Gillian Graham