The pandemic might have stolen the chance for thousands of graduates to cross a public stage in acceptance of the degrees, diplomas, or certificates they worked so hard to receive. But the virus can’t tamp down their accomplishments. Meet 11 Philly-area grads whose inspiring tales of achievement do our region proud.

Elizabeth Wayne, 22, Overbrook

Duquesne University

I began my collegiate volleyball and track career at Duquesne in 2016. As a freshman, I earned a spot on the Atlantic Ten track and field all-rookie team and was recognized as an Atlantic Ten track and field athlete of the week. After that first season, I decided to focus on volleyball and completed four great seasons of D1 volleyball and finished seventh all-time in season hitting percentage.

In my senior year, I switched back track and began to train for another outdoor season. The pandemic cut short the season and dramatically impacted my last year of college, but graduation is still a time to pause and look back at everything that I accomplished at Duquesne: I finished with a 3.6 GPA and held internship positions at both Western Psychiatric Hospital and Allegheny General Hospital while competing at the D1 level.

To all senior athletes: I hope you leave room to mourn the loss of your season, but please don’t let this take away the joys of celebrating all that you have accomplished on and off the field. My hat goes off to you. Congratulations!

Bobby Capo, 18, Aldan

Agora Cyber Charter School

Bobby Capo, 18, is a 2020 graduate of Agora Cyber Charter School, where he found relief from the bullying he had endured elsewhere - and found support for his artistic passions.
Capo Family
Bobby Capo, 18, is a 2020 graduate of Agora Cyber Charter School, where he found relief from the bullying he had endured elsewhere - and found support for his artistic passions.

Before I found Agora, I attended a few different schools where the bullying could be really harsh, so I withdrew into myself. If I was ever going to find success, I knew I had to make a change. Once I enrolled at Agora, I started to gain back my confidence, and everything else clicked. Without having to worry about physical abuse at school, I was able to focus on my art, education, and other hobbies — like mixed martial arts. I’ve made friends across the state who I met through my classes, extracurricular clubs, and the social events my school arranges.

My younger brothers, Tate and Lathan, also attend Agora, and I’ve been able to watch them grow up — which is something kids who attend brick-and-mortar schools can’t say. I wouldn’t give that up for anything! Now, I have my own art business, and I’ll be attending Full Sail University in the fall, working toward a degree in film production and script writing.

Thanks to my mom, my brothers, and everyone who helped me along the way, I’m ready to fly!

Comfort Melibe, 42, Southwest Philadelphia

Community Learning Center

Comfort Melibe is a 2020 graduate of the Community Learning Center, where she has earned her GED.
COMFORT MELIBE
Comfort Melibe is a 2020 graduate of the Community Learning Center, where she has earned her GED.

In my native country of Nigeria, I took my education very seriously. After high school, I enrolled in the Teacher’s College of Education, which led to a 12-year career teaching elementary school. But my husband and I were worried about the country's civil unrest, so we moved with our four children to the United States.

None of my credentials translated to the American education system, so I was unable to gain employment. I pursued my GED, hoping it would jump-start my career. My first adult education class was too expensive; the next program was free but lacked structure and personal attention. Then I found Community Learning Center, and things started to change. My teachers got to know me. They learned my strengths and weaknesses and put together a plan for me. With newfound confidence, I tackled the GED test but still faced numerous financial and personal challenges, including a high-risk pregnancy and nursing my infirm mother.

With the encouragement of my daughters, I pushed through with perseverance and focus. I am now a high school graduate and working to find a job. My children are so happy for me. So many people helped me. I could not have done it on my own.

David Arlen, 18, Wayne

Conestoga High School

David Arlen, 18, is a 2020 graduate of Conestoga High School. Arlen, who has autism, used to speak loudly and out of turn when in school. He overcame this challenge through singing, where he found his voice, earning a place with the district chorus, regional chorus was named a member of his school's music honor society.
Arlen Family
David Arlen, 18, is a 2020 graduate of Conestoga High School. Arlen, who has autism, used to speak loudly and out of turn when in school. He overcame this challenge through singing, where he found his voice, earning a place with the district chorus, regional chorus was named a member of his school's music honor society.

When I was diagnosed at age 3 with an autism spectrum disorder, some doctors told my parents that they should lower their expectations for my future. I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to prove the doctors wrong. One way that I overcame my challenges was through singing. When I was in elementary school, I often spoke loudly and out of turn. This frustrated my teachers and parents.

Then, in middle school, I found my voice. Music allowed me to express my feelings about life, and to cope with my disorder. Along the way, I discovered that I not only loved singing, but I was pretty good at it, too. I made district chorus in eighth, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. I also made regional choir in 11th and 12th grades, and earned a place in Conestoga High’s music honor society. Another way in which I overcame my challenges was through karate, because it helped me improve my focus. In 2017, I earned my second-degree black belt.

I am proud of my hard work in pushing the boundaries of my disability. Not only did I make the honor roll several times, I was also able to drop the aide that I had used since kindergarten. My father sums it up best: I went to my first day of kindergarten on a special-needs bus, but on my last day of senior year (before the quarantine), I drove myself to school in my own car.

Kingston Ou, 35, Southwest Philadelphia

West Chester University

Kingston Ou, 35, a 2020 social-work graduate of West Chester University, is a three-time cancer survivor who attributes much of his passion for social justice to his experience of coming to the US as a child from Cambodia.
Kingston Ou
Kingston Ou, 35, a 2020 social-work graduate of West Chester University, is a three-time cancer survivor who attributes much of his passion for social justice to his experience of coming to the US as a child from Cambodia.

Kingston is a member of Phi Alpha, the National Social Work Honor Society, and a beloved member of the West Chester Philadelphia Campus Class of 2020. He’s also a three-time cancer survivor whose parents fled the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia and fled to Thailand, where Kingston was born in a refugee camp.

The family eventually moved to America, and Kingston attributes much of his passion for social justice to his family’s immigration experience. As a student, Kingston managed to balance caregiving for family members, working multiple jobs, and fulfilling his school commitments, which over the last three semesters has included 16 hours a week of field practice experience.

Given the many obstacles Kingston has faced in his life — assimilation into a new culture, loss and grief, illness and recovery, and financial hardship — there were ample opportunities to give up on his education. But he persevered with resiliency and grace. We are incredibly proud of the social worker he has become.

Submitted by Susan R. Wysor Nguema, assistant chair of West Chester’s department of undergraduate social work.

Roxanne Pinkl, 54, Northeast Philadelphia

La Salle University

Roxanne Pinkl (front, left) with husband Mike (center, back) and children (left to right) Thomas, Joseph, and Alyssa.
Pinkl Family
Roxanne Pinkl (front, left) with husband Mike (center, back) and children (left to right) Thomas, Joseph, and Alyssa.

In 2007, at the age of 41, I decided to obtain a degree in accounting. I started my educational journey at Manor College, which I attended part-time at night while working full-time during the day and taking care of my family and home. I graduated with an associate’s degree and began pursuing a bachelor’s. I took classes at Philadelphia University, Community College of Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill College, and, finally, La Salle University. La Salle was where I felt the most comfortable — so much so that my two sons then enrolled there. (My oldest son received his bachelor of arts in criminal justice in 2016 and began his studies towards a master’s degree.)

I received my bachelor of science in business administration, with a concentration in accounting, in 2017. Upon my graduation, my son convinced me to go for my master’s. On May 9, he and I received our master’s degrees, but that’s not all: My younger son received his bachelor’s degree in computer science on the same date. As my boys have both played on La Salle’s ice hockey team, we consider this an educational hat trick.

My daughter, who graduated from Arcadia University in 2018, didn’t want to be left out. She graduated this year from Bucks County School of Beauty Culture as a licensed aesthetician.

Kai Cummings, 18, Mount Airy

Germantown Friends School

Kai Cummings, 18, is a 2020 graduate of Germantown Friends School, where he played baseball for the Tigers. He is headed to Mount St. Mary University, where he'll play on the school's NCAA Division I baseball team.
Germantown Friends School
Kai Cummings, 18, is a 2020 graduate of Germantown Friends School, where he played baseball for the Tigers. He is headed to Mount St. Mary University, where he'll play on the school's NCAA Division I baseball team.

As I prepare to leave home for college, I will miss my friends; baseball and track teams; fellow actors and artists; my BASE (Brothers for Academic and Social Enrichment) students; and my mother. The last four years were those of self-discovery, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to try so many things, find my passions, and grow as a leader.

Sports have been a big part of my life and will always be. In fact, I am going to Mount St. Mary University to play on their NCAA Division I baseball team, and I cannot wait to play at that level. The teamwork and camaraderie in any sport, especially baseball, makes you keenly aware of how you can impact other people and how interdependent we all are, on and off the field. This connects to my work with younger students of color (in the affinity group BASE) and informs my performing in and writing plays. I was also able to see how my actions and those of the veterinarians and researchers at Penn Working Dog Center impact animals, individuals, families, and communities. (I did my Junior Project at the center and also helped there in the summer and during my January Term program at GFS.)

I can definitely see myself working with animals and supporting research and development for detection dogs. I am excited to go to college and to see which of these many interests rises to the top. These experiences have shaped who I am forever and given me an understanding of how we can positively impact each other and our neighbors, and awaken the world.

Crystal Macklin, 24, Glassboro

Rowan University

Crystal Macklin is a 2020 graduate of Rowan University, with a degree in civil engineering. Outside of school, she is also a certified EMT and firefighter. She was inspired to become a first responder by her aunt, who is a Rowan University K9 police officer.
ROWAN UNIVERSITY
Crystal Macklin is a 2020 graduate of Rowan University, with a degree in civil engineering. Outside of school, she is also a certified EMT and firefighter. She was inspired to become a first responder by her aunt, who is a Rowan University K9 police officer.

I enrolled at Rowan in 2014 and eventually took a break for a semester to pursue my EMT certification and to become a firefighter. (I was inspired to become a first responder by my aunt, who is a Rowan University K9 police officer.) I now work for three different agencies as an EMT. I’m also a live-in firefighter with the Glassboro Fire Department.

Throughout school, a typical workweek was usually 80-100 hours. I completed my coursework between calls (my EMT work taught me how to use my time efficiently). As for being a live-in firefighter, there were many instances when I was busy through the night and then had to attend an early class in the morning.

Yes, sometimes it was awful. But now that I’m graduating, I know I earned everything I worked so hard to obtain. Although I hope to have a successful career in engineering, I will most likely will always be an EMT and firefighter. It’s just a part of who I am.

Kayla Marrero, 17, Southwest Philadelphia

Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School

Kayla Marrero holds a photo of her cousin, Syeed Woodson, with whom she'd always dreamed of attending Penn State with. After he died unexpectedly, she was more determined than ever to get into the university, in his honor. She's heading to the school's main campus this fall to study broadcast journalism.
Kayla Marrero
Kayla Marrero holds a photo of her cousin, Syeed Woodson, with whom she'd always dreamed of attending Penn State with. After he died unexpectedly, she was more determined than ever to get into the university, in his honor. She's heading to the school's main campus this fall to study broadcast journalism.

Kayla’s love of journalism blossomed during her four years of interning at Comcast, an opportunity she received through Cristo Rey’s Work-Study Program. Last summer, her experience led to a new opportunity at NBC to receive hands-on experience in the field.

Kayla experienced immense heartache during her final year at Cristo Rey: She lost a close friend, her aunt, uncle, and two cousins. Kayla was especially close with her younger cousin, Syeed Woodson, with whom she shared a dream: to attend Penn State University together. These tragedies fueled Kayla’s desire to bring good into her community, inspiring her to start her blog, DearDestiny.org, where she writes about issues of social injustice that impact the area.

Kayla’s support system at Cristo Rey helped her through these hardships, as she maintained straight A’s, was named president of the National Honor Society, and learned to embrace her vibrant Jamaican, African American, and Puerto Rican roots. Focused on her future, Kayla is excited to begin studying broadcast journalism at Penn State, thanks to both the Chick Evans Scholarship and the Horatio Alger Scholarship. She’ll do it for herself and in memory of her cousin.

Submitted by administrators at Cristo Rey.

Abbe Dembowitz, 27, Cherry Hill

Georgetown Law School

Cherry Hill native Abbe Dembowitz is a 2020 graduate of Georgetown Law School, after a circuitous path through college that included her founding of a peer-to-peer mental-health organization called The Turn It Around Project.
Abbe Dembowitz
Cherry Hill native Abbe Dembowitz is a 2020 graduate of Georgetown Law School, after a circuitous path through college that included her founding of a peer-to-peer mental-health organization called The Turn It Around Project.

My daughter is an amazing, inspiring young woman. She faced major struggles in the past with anxiety and a severe eating disorder, and we weren't sure what kind of future she would have as she aged. She left college after one year to work on getting well and, I am proud to say, completely turned her life around. In fact, she founded a peer-to-peer mental health organization called The Turn It Around Project, which works with people across the globe to help them turn their negative thoughts into positive ones.

She has helped countless people who share in her struggles. After achieving her goal of wellness, she returned to college, graduated summa cum laude, and is now about to graduate from Georgetown Law School, cum laude. She will soon begin her legal career at a law firm in New York. My family and I cannot begin to say how proud we are of her and we know that she will be successful in all of her endeavors!

Submitted by her mother, Randi Dembowitz.

Rafiq Williams, 43, Tioga

Chestnut Hill College Accelerated Adult Degree Program

Rafiq Williams and his fiancee Sharon Hamilton. Williams is a 2020 graduate of the accelerated adult-degree program at Chestnut Hill College, where Hamilton is also enrolled.
Rafiq Williams
Rafiq Williams and his fiancee Sharon Hamilton. Williams is a 2020 graduate of the accelerated adult-degree program at Chestnut Hill College, where Hamilton is also enrolled.

A little more than two years ago, after receiving my associate degree, I decided to further my education but had no idea of where to start. I had become a parent at the tender age of 14, and I always wanted my children to go to college. I knew I had to lead by example.

After completing my studies at Chestnut Hill, I was anxiously awaiting my formal graduation ceremony on May 9: I am the first and only child of my parents to both attend college and earn a degree. I was set to graduate summa cum laude and receive a host of academic awards. I was most looking forward to having my mother and grandmother attend; they had been my staunchest supporters. Graduation would be the celebration of all they’d seen me through: the evening classes, which allowed me to still work full-time; the rigorous coursework; the involved professors who made sure I understood the material; and being involved on the main campus, which had given me the real-life student atmosphere that I once feared I’d miss out on.

And then the pandemic hit, and the graduation was canceled. Should graduation ceremonies resume in the future, it will be without my grandmother in attendance: I lost her to COVID-19, so this stings that much more. Nonetheless, I can proudly say that I am a graduate — and that I’ve reached my greatest accomplishment: convincing my oldest son to get his degree! We are currently working toward him enrolling this fall in the same Chestnut Hill program, where my fiancée and youngest son are also enrolled.