History has been made in Ward 8 — an area in the District that’s both notoriously underserved and incredibly resilient.
But that didn’t stop the 2017 Senior Class at Ballou High School, located in Southeast, from making a rare pact that they’d all apply to college — and every one of the 170 students remained true to their promise.
And on Tuesday, June 13, as they donned their caps and gowns and received their diplomas they had additional good news to share: every student has been accepted into at least one college or university.
“Today is the celebration of our finishing high school. It’s done. Although the journey was hard and at times we didn’t know if we would make it, the destination was so worth it,” said Kemuel Farmer, class salutatorian.
Kemuel’s words set the tone for comments that would follow from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Ward 8 Council member Trayon White and singer Raheem DeVaughn, a Maryland resident who has made it his mission to help Black youth succeed in the DMV.
“We have a lot to celebrate here in our nation’s capital. Our commitment to public education has been the foundation of our city’s great renaissance. And Ballou, in so many ways, is an example of that renaissance,” Bowser said.
Sitting with his classmates on the school’s football field, graduating senior Randy Sams, 18, said his mind wondered occasionally, not from lack of interest but because he had recently made one of the most challenging decisions of his young life. After applying to some 15 colleges and getting accepted to nearly all of them, he has finally to matriculate at Penn State University. He will be the first in his family to attend college.
“What inspired us [to apply to college] was ourselves, but mostly our teachers, because they wanted us to be something in life,” Sams said.
To motivate the seniors to apply to college, teachers at Ballou invited alumni to return to their alma mater and share their experiences. Programs such as AVID, in which Randy participated, and College Summit, also assisted greatly in preparing the seniors for college.
“Them making it easy for us made us want to apply,” Randy said.
He first visited Penn State on an overnight trip with a group of his classmates and says the peaceful atmosphere first intrigued him. He observed the tranquility and said he wanted to experience something like it for himself — a much-needed change compared to his life in the District.
“Growing up hearing about death and seeing a lot of people die, I guess happens everywhere, but it’s so normal here. I just don’t want to be in that environment.”
Like many other students, his way out has come in the form of an acceptance letter. The youngest of four children raised by a single mother, Randy said he’s counting on his education to provide the foundation for his family’s pending good fortunes.
“I wanted to be the first to go to college, to make my mother proud and to one day be able to provide for my family,” Randy added.
Dawn Sams, Randy’s mother, sat overwhelmed with emotion as she watched her son cross the stage. After the ceremony, the two celebrated in front of the school entrance. With tears in her eyes, she smiled before they embraced.
“From his struggles from ninth grade to now, it’s a blessing to see his growth. And we did it as a team. He kept pushing. I’m pushing with him,” she said.
On June 26, Randy departs for Penn State and summer classes that will put him six credit hours ahead when the fall semester begins. He’ll return home in early August for about a week before returning to Pennsylvania with his mother to officially move into college.
“We’re going to make sure he gets settled in,” Sams said. “It’s not goodbye because I’m going to see him again. We’re just going to say, ‘see you later.’ Goodbye means forever and I don’t want us to feel like we’re disconnecting. We’re still connecting. And that’s going to be for a lifetime until God calls us home.”
Randy said he hasn’t decided on a major but he’s weighing his options between computer engineering and international relations. And he wants to travel the world throughout his career — leaving, as he says, a trail of determination in his wake.
“I want to leave behind a legacy of someone chasing their dream and finally becoming who they want to be, instead of who society portrays them as,” he said.