By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – Willie Warren Bryant III has some advice to anyone who is even thinking about giving up on his-her high school journey.
“Let other people hear and really listen to your story, and they will reach out to help,” offered Bryant, who was one of 94 Newburgh Free Academy Class of 2023 “summer school graduates strong” to earn and receive a high school diploma at last Monday’s August Commencement on Academy Field.
Bryant, who has dealt with Attention Deficit Disorder as well as Oppositional Defiant Disorder challenges for a large portion of his life, watched his focus decline with mounting distractions as his high school years approached. Adding to that frustration was the onset of COVID, presenting a whole new host of learning obstacles and with it reduced motivation. On the verge of giving up, Bryant’s entire life took a 180 degree turn when a friend introduced him to what was to become his salvation: The ROTC Program.
“It really completely changed my life for the better,” reflected Bryant about the disciplined, military training. “Master Sergeant Granda really helped me stay focused, always checking up on me and my grades, making sure I was doing the right thing; guidance counselors and administrators also would not take no for an answer from me, putting me in night school and doubling up my classes, and so many others have been part of my amazing support system here getting me through to this day.”
Stories similar to Bryant’s were weaved throughout the human fabric of the August 2023 Goldback’s Class. Whether it was a familiar tragedy, seemingly insurmountable amount of stress, tenuous belief in oneself, or conflicting priorities, each one of the summer graduates dealt with something, developed the critical tools and resources to navigate it, and persevered, becoming stronger as a result while earning the rite of passage of a high school graduate.
“Each of you has contributed to your amazing story over the years, and when you get your diploma today, that story will continue to be written,” Matteo Doddo, Principal of NFA North Campus, said in his Welcome Remarks. “Continue to believe in yourself; when you do that, you inspire others to believe in themselves.”
Also speaking at the Commencement was Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Jackielyn Manning Campbell. The engaging administrator captured everyone’s attention and was met with wild applause when she threw a symbolic football pass to August graduate, Darryl Jackson, brother of Deondre Johnson, also part of the 2023 Class as well as a decorated Goldback wide receiver headed to Rutgers on a full football scholarship.
“You have persevered and overcome tremendous challenges; you will face others in your life, and I am confident you will also overcome them,” exclaimed Dr. Manning Campbell. “I am so very proud of each one of you, and know you will always be a part of our Goldback Nation.”
That deeply rooted school spirit could be seen under a tent to the left of graduates. Here, many noted alumni sat and watched the summer graduation. Among them was 1945 NFA class member, William Kaplan, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who is the Founding Chairman of the Newburgh Armory Unity Center, where enrichment magic happens every day. Offering a wide range of programs to Newburgh youth, the Center has a concentrated focus on academics, particularly literacy, leaving a lasting, positive imprint on all the lives it has touched. For that and so much more, Mr. Kaplan officially became the first inductee to the Newburgh Free Academy Hall of Fame during the ceremony; his entrance serves as an inspiring role model to past, present and future scholars.
“The heroes are our parents as well; I see it at the Armory taking the children to and from the Center,” Kaplan looked out and told the crowd. “I also see it here today; this is really so spectacular.”
For so many graduates, among them the super wide-smiling Bryant, holding his proud, young nephew, the elusive day they once never deemed possible, became a beautiful reality last Monday. Their determination, willingness to take help and embrace loving support systems, and believe in their abilities, exemplified the Nelson Mandela quote Susan Valentino, Co-Principal of NFA Main Campus, ended her remarks with, “It always seems impossible, until it is done.”