On a sunny day in early June, 12 young people received their high school diplomas at a moving ceremony at the Oakland Museum of California. Graduations are always full of emotion and excitement, but this one was a little different because these young people dropped out of high school, but came back to get their diplomas. The friends and loved ones gathered to celebrate their achievement knew exactly how hard they had worked for this moment and the obstacles they’d overcome.
“When I came here, you know, I wasn’t ready,” said Jorge Plata Zuniga in a speech from the stage. “I dropped out in ‘07. I dropped out of high school. Came back 2016, I wasn’t prepared. I overcame my obstacles, you know, and I did it.”
They are graduates of Civicorps Corpsmember Academy, a program for 18-to-26-year-olds who have recommitted to getting a diploma despite a range of academic experiences. Some come back to school at a fourth-grade level, while others are just a few credits short of graduating from their original high school. No matter their level, Civicorps focuses on supporting their physical, emotional and mental health needs in addition to coaching them academically.
“High school dropout is a label I’m thankful to tear off me as a person,” said Jeremy Ward during his graduation speech. For many of these graduates, getting a diploma felt like an insurmountable challenge.
About 40 percent of Civicorps students are homeless, some have been involved in the criminal justice system, and others are young parents, all barriers to completing their degrees. At Civicorps, they participate in outdoor conservation work, doing things like clearing brush and maintaining trails for the regional parks, while completing their academics. That means they get paid while they’re in school, often an important requirement for people who have to support themselves and their families.
“I never thought I’d see the day; I'm not gonna lie,” said Antoine Marigny. "It's an unbelievable feeling. I never thought I could do it."