It already had been a momentous month of June for Akram Bikoni. He had attended his first prom and, that very same day, became an American citizen.
And on June 14, Bikoni joined fellow members of the Class of 2022 at the Arlington Career Center in graduation ceremonies held at Washington-Liberty High School.
Not a bad result for a young man, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was unable to attend school until his family came to the U.S. at age 11.
“My parents’ sacrifice was not in vain – they wanted to give us opportunity,” he told fellow classmates. “Because of that, I’m here today.”
Bikoni was attending Wakefield High School when, three years ago, he shifted to the English Learner Institute at the Career Center. Though initially unhappy with the prospect, it proved to be “the best thing,” Bikoni said, with the Career Center becoming “an extended family for me.”
The English Learner Institute is among a number of programs offered by the Career Center. Another is the newish Arlington Tech program, where students learn through project-based programs.
Lina Barclay, who was part of just the third graduating class of the program, said opting out of a more traditional high-school experience was a gamble, but one that paid off.
“We have been well-prepared for anything new,” she said, saying the pandemic era provided students with “valuable lessons in self-control, motivation and true adaptability.”
Kyla Zientara, a graduating student at the Academy at the Career Center, said that close-knit program and its teachers had “become my rock” through good times and bad, providing “nothing but love and support.”
“The Academy is such a special place where, no matter who you are, you are accepted and pushed to be a stronger version of yourself,” Zientara said.
Her advice to fellow members of the Class of 2022? “Do not be afraid to be an advocate for yourself,” she said. “No one knows you better.”
Also honored were graduates of the Program for Employment Preparedness, or PEP, which provides additional training for those age 18-22 before they move on to the workforce.
Michael Bustamante, who has been in PEP for four years studying automotive technology and will continue those studies at Northern Virginia Community College, praised staff for “the motivation they gave me to never give up.”
“I really have enjoyed my time,” he said.
Career Center principal Margaret Chung said that no matter what program of studies they took, the Class of 2022 showed “resilience, caring and a deep sense of how to build community.”
“Your bright optimism inspired us all to rally,” she said. “We are better because of you.”
“Soak in this moment,” Chung said. “What you have accomplished is monumental.”
The students did, indeed, soak in the moment. But that was just the first item on the pending to-do list.
“Let’s go change this world,” Bikoni said.