With Honors: 6 Graduation Stories That Will Inspire You for the New School Year
As students of all ages return to the classroom for a new school year, they will converge in classrooms to learn and grow.
But not every student will have it easy. InsideEdition.com takes a look at six recent graduates that will inspire scholars to work hard until graduation.
Former Drug Dealer Becomes Oldest Columbia University Graduate
In May, a former drug dealer and heroin addict from Harlem, New York, became the oldest graduate of Columbia University’s class of 2016 at 67 where he received a diploma from the School of General Studies.
As a teen, David Norman says he fell victim to substance abuse due to a "lack of self-confidence" and a "way to self-medicate," according to a press release from the university. He was also selling narcotics at a young age.
In 1968, he was incarcerated, and it was in prison where he discovered the power of literature and philosophy from fellow inmates. In 1995, he had his last stint in prison, where he was serving time for manslaughter. When he was released, he took a job as a volunteer that helps inmates transition back into society.
That job changed my perspective. It let me know that I have something to offer,” Norman said. “I decided I would devote my time to working toward something bigger than myself.”
He has remained drug-free for 20 years and was the oldest to receive a bachelor’s degree from Columbia’s 547-student graduating class of 2016. The average age of the Ivy League school’s class was 29.
“I remember a time when people would avoid me on the street, because of my attitude. Now I smile and say hello to people and ask them how they’re doing. When my perspective changed, my life changed. Whatever happens outside has to begin inside,” Norman said.
His post-graduation plans include writing a book that he hopes will help others who have been in similar circumstances. He also works as a research assistant at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Norman also volunteers with the Coming Home Program at Riverside Church, where he mentors recently-incarcerated individuals, providing support and teaching skill development as they reintegrate into the community.
Mother and Son Graduate High School Together
A Washington mother-son duo made history in June when the pair walked across the stage together in their caps and gowns, both graduating with a high school diploma.
Enjoli Harris-Carter, 37, said she was only six credits away from graduating high school when she got pregnant with her first son, and lost focus of her studies.
"There was a lot of stuff going on at that time," Harris-Carter told InsideEdition.com. "When I found out I was expecting him, that was I don't know if you would say final straw, but it was what made pursuing my diploma pretty much null and void at that point."
She wrote in a statement that over the years, she had given birth to three more children, suffered through domestic violence and was diagnosed with PTSD.
So she put off finishing high school until her son, Elijah Harris was preparing to graduate from Renton Technical College, and inspired her to finish her last few credits at the high school, even though she had received a degree in accounting years before, and was offered the chance to pursue her GED instead.
"A lot of people along the journey at first doubted," Harris-Carter admitted. "Then I was starting to reach some of my goals academically, I saw a lot more support."
Then, she realized she was on track to graduate.
Even though Harris-Carter was hesitant to take the stage in a cap and gown, Elijah insisted they receive their diplomas together.
The mother and son were chosen to give joint keynote speeches for their graduating class.
"It's definitely something special, being on stage with my mom, graduating the same time," Elijah said. "It was really surreal. Giving the speech together was like, oh my goodness."
Elijah will attend community college and dreams of a football career.
High School Student With Cerebral Palsy Steps Out of Wheelchair for First Time at Graduation
Oklahoma teen Micah McDade was born with cerebral palsy and in May, defied his condition as he proudly stepped out of his wheelchair to collect his high school diploma.
He took his victory strides at Okmulgee High School to the surprise of everyone in attendance as he got his diploma.
The student, who has had countless surgeries and hours of physical therapy worked hard in school and was driven to fulfill his dream of walking.
McDade was cheered by his parents, loved ones, classmates and administrators as smiled from ear to ear as he stood on his own two feet.
Teen Has Early Graduation Ceremony at His Mom's Hospice Facility, Days Before Her Death
A Mississippi teen received the devastating news that his mother would pass away before his June high school graduation, but she got to see him in his cap and gown, thanks to the efforts of their community.
Neighbors made sure she was there to witness the 4.0 GPA student’s rite of passage — even if that meant bringing the graduation to her.
Dakota Keenan, 18, told InsideEdition.com that he was given the heartbreaking news as he got home from his last high school baseball game.
He told InsideEdition.com that his mom, Colleen Keenan, 42, was a top chef at a local steak house despite being a vegetarian, before she was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2009. Though she had successfully beaten the cancer and been declared four years cancer-free, chemotherapy and radiation had taken a toll on her body, and she was eventually admitted to the North Delta Hospice in Southaven.
She was weeks shy of Dakota's graduation from Southaven High School. The school suggested an early graduation, where her oldest son could be handed his diploma at his dying mother's bedside, so she could witness one final milestone in her son's life before she passed.
"When she saw him in the cap and gown, she had this look on her face," his teacher, Marty Parks, said.
"She wasn't all the way there, but when she looked at me, it was the same smile she'd always given me," Dakota told InsideEdition.com.
Although Colleen Keenan died two weeks before her son's official commencement ceremony, Dakota said he felt his mom with him as he walked across the stage with her rosary beads in hand.
This fall, Dakota will attend University of Mississippi where he will carry his mother’s legacy with him.
School Organizes Early Graduation So Student's Terminal Father Could Attend
One high school student from Rockford, Michigan, graduated three months early so her terminally ill father could witness the event.
Bethany Chambers graduated in March so her father, Bob, could see his daughter get her diploma before he passed away.
Bethany’s mom, Melissa, asked the school if the diploma could be sent early so Bob could see it.
Within a few hours, the superintendent called Melissa back and said, "We're going to do more than a certificate. We're going to do a full graduation, Pomp and Circumstance. How does 7 (p.m.) sound?"
According to Melissa, the school principal said, "[Bethany] is an exemplary student. There is no question she will graduate, [so] we want to make this as special for her as possible."
"When my mom called and said it was all happening, I was shocked," Bethany told InsideEdition.com, "I said, 'This is awesome. One less thing that he didn't have to miss.'"
"They dressed me up in a cap and gown, and they had a full table set up with my diploma, my academic award plaque, and they set [everything] up in front of my dad so he could see it," Bethany Chambers said.
The excited mother and daughter even organized an impromptu party at the house which included the superintendent, the principal, school board members, the tennis coach, head counselor and even Bob’s 95-year-old grandmother.
"My husband has always been involved with Bethany and her school," Melissa told InsideEdition.com. "It's one of the first things that Bethany thought about — 'Dad's not going to see me graduate high school, or college, or even get married.' There's certain things we can't do anything about, but he got to see her graduate."
Once-Homeless Man Graduates College With 3.2 GPA
Stephen Maxey was once homeless and living on the streets due to a drug addiction. Then, the 52-year-old changed his life around and graduated as a UC Merced Bobcat with a 3.2 GPA in June.
He told InsideEdition.com that the graduation was “very surprising and very satisfying.”
When he enrolled in classes 6 years ago, he was homeless and battling his addictions.
"I wanted to take some classes just to get off the street. That's the only reason I was going," Maxey told InsideEdition.com.
He sat down with academic advisor Amir Falahi, who told him that one day, he would transfer to the more prestigious University of California at Merced, and graduate.
"He said he was not too sure what he wanted to do," Falahi told InsideEdition.com. "I assured him, 'if you want it bad enough, you can do it.'"
Even though Maxey had no money for classes and the semester had already started, Falahi knew he would qualify for financial aid and enrolled him in a class that same day.
"I was excited to do it," Maxey recalled. "It seemed difficult at first, but it was something that once I got to studying, I'm surprised I was able to be fairly good at it."
Falahi helped him navigate and developed into a mentor to Maxey, who chose to become a psychology major.
After six years, Maxey turned his life around and got his prestigious diploma.
"I was so proud of him," Falahi said, after attending his June graduation. "Every opportunity, he thanks me and I keep telling him, 'You did it yourself.'"
Maxey told InsideEdition.com that his friends from the homeless shelter have reached out to him in search of guidance, but he hopes to ultimately help pass legislation so others like him can have access to more permanent housing.