Austin Bernardo didn’t want to settle for his GED. So when the Washington State skies opened and poured down rain on his walk to Bethel Acceleration Academies (BAA), he would just keep on walking.
“Even though it was raining, I would still go,” Austin says. Why? “My diploma. I just wanted to get my diploma.”
His determination paid off recently when Austin joined other members of the BAA Class of 2023 in walking across the stage at a Bethel School District ceremony to take his diploma in hand and keep striding toward his dreams.
“I finally did it!” Austin declared, celebrating his achievement with his mother, father, brother, girlfriend, son and other family members cheering him on.
Each of the BAA grads worked hard for this day, overcoming all manner of adversity — including academic challenges, the need to work full time to support themselves and their families or an unease in traditional schools — to realize their goals.
Austin came to BAA in early 2021 after his parents brought him and his siblings to the United States from their native Guam in search of wider opportunities. Austin had fallen behind in his old school and wondered if he would be able to make up the lost ground before he aged out of the public school system at age 21.
A guidance counselor at Spanaway Lake High told him about BAA. “They told me it was an at-my-own-pace kind of school and I’d be able to graduate a lot sooner,” says Austin, 20.
Inside the quiet, studious learning space, Austin found a warm and supportive group of educators. “It really was different,” he says. “The feeling of being on campus was like being at home.”
Director and math whiz Alison Roseboro helped him work through challenges in his most difficult subject, math. “She sat right next to me and she showed me how to do it. She taught me the right way instead of just telling me how to do it.”
Then there was graduation candidate advocate Starr Phillips, who provided firm-but-loving encouragement, including making home visits to make sure he was on track.
“She was very firm. She treated me like one of her kids,” Austin says. “She wanted the best for us.”
Austin says his dad provided a powerful motivation, “He always wanted me to graduate. That was the only thing that he ever asked of me, to show him that I could get my diploma,” he says. “He knows that education is really important — it will open up a whole lot more opportunities.”
Austin works as a casino security guard and is making plans for college, perhaps including a career as a pediatrician. He hopes his hard work will not only open up possibilities for himself, but also provide inspiration for his son, Iosefo.
“If I can put my mind to it, I know that he will be able to do it,” Austin says. “He’s going to go through the same struggles that we all go through, his mom and I are going to be right there to help him.”
Here is a gallery of photos from graduation by photojournalist Drew Perine.