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Persevering, And Graduating From Bulkeley High In Hartford


June 18, 2008

In Liberia, Patience Tennie relied on her brother to teach her what he had learned attending school in the war-torn country. Her family, she says, couldn't afford school fees for both children so she relied on him to be her tutor.

Though she bought notebooks at her hometown market and copied her brother's lessons, it was difficult to study because "they were killing people all around us. We had to leave."

Tennie and her mother escaped Liberia and went to a refugee camp on the Ivory Coast. They waited for asylum and developed a resolve, if Tennie made it to America, she would use education to make a better life.

Tennie, now 19, graduated Tuesday night with 238 other Bulkeley High School students who also vowed to persevere and to excel, no matter what the odds.

Brian Carvalho, the class valedictorian, called the 2008 class of Bulldogs "a class that didn't give up. ... We can withstand any obstacle."

In keeping with that theme, the keynote speaker for the graduation held at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, asked the class to use her life as a model. Lilliana Ballesta, a 1990 graduate of Bulkeley, said when she came to Hartford at age 10, she didn't know how to speak English. A counselor and administrator at Manchester High School, Ballesta is now seeking her doctorate degree.

Earlier in the day, Tennie said during her first year at Bulkeley she found it difficult to acclimate herself.

"I was the only African in this school. I was so sad. In my country, you pay school fees, if you act rude, you get smacked with a cane and when you get home you get some more," said Tennie, who said she often wanted to stand up and defend her teachers from unruly students.

Instead, Tennie stayed quiet and paid attention to her studies, both during the day and at tutoring sessions after school with Diane Hazel, an English as a second language teacher.

"When you are quiet, they belittle you," she said of other students. She said she didn't feel comfortable until she found out that another Liberian student, Garmai Morris, was joining the student body.

"I was happy that we were the same age. We could play together," Tennie said.

Like Tennie, Morris faced similar academic challenges but she also concealed her pregnancy by wearing big shirts. She said she was afraid she'd forfeit her chance at a free public education.

"I came to school to get my work and go home. I just continued my education," said Morris, who also graduated Tuesday night.

School officials labeled Tennie and Morris as standouts or students who overcame amazing odds, such as language, cultural and academic barriers, before graduating. Both teenagers voluntarily stayed in school for an extra academic year, so that they'd be prepared to compete in college.

"When you think you are having a bad day," said Alison Giuliano, the lead counselor at Bulkeley said, "look at these kids. ... It's amazing how much our immigrant population has to overcome."

Tennie and Morris are already taking courses at Capital Community College and they plan to study nursing.

Staff Writer Tina A. Brown can be reached at tabrown@courant.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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