Profiles in perseverance: What makes these Georgia 2023 graduates special

From rough starts to derailed plans, nothing kept them from getting degrees

Thousands of Georgia students celebrated their graduation from high school or college over the past few weeks.

Many began their most recent educational journey at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Others earned their degrees amid financial hardships. Some overcame learning challenges.

Here are a few tales of some students with unique graduation stories.

A cinematic moment

Alexis McMillian graduated from Georgia Gwinnett College in May 2023. (Courtesy of Alexis McMillian)

Credit: Alexis McMillian

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Credit: Alexis McMillian

Alexis McMillian entered foster care as a baby, was adopted as a toddler and finished high school online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month, McMillian, 20, was Georgia Gwinnett College’s student speaker for the Class of 2023.

McMillian took summer classes to finish her degree in cinema and media arts production in just three years and earn a 4.0 grade-point average.

In 2021, she started taking in-person classes and threw herself into campus life.

“I didn’t even know what my college campus looked like,” she said, after taking classes online the prior school year.

McMillian joined the college chess club, got an internship and became a resident assistant. She drew from her own experiences as a child adopted from foster care to connect with other students living in campus housing.

McMillian plans to take a short break before enrolling in graduate school.

The moment she stood on stage to address her fellow graduates was an honor, she said, not just for her but also for her mother.

“She was going to be proud either way, but I knew it was something extra, like a little gift for her,” McMillian said. “I really, really wanted her to see me up there.”

A graduation, a promotion

When Elmo Desilva applied to be head custodian at Indian Creek Elementary School in DeKalb County, he found out he wasn’t qualified for the job. He didn’t have a high school diploma.

“It’s something I always felt like I missed out on,” he said of a diploma.

Especially when he found out he couldn’t be promoted because of it. But Indian Creek Elementary Principal Stephanie Brown-Bryant, who said Desilva has been a great employee, found out how he could enroll in the school district’s GED program and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Last month, Desilva graduated from the program. And a few days later, he got his promotion.

Elmo Desilva, a custodian at Indian Creek Elementary School, turns his tassel as he graduates from the DeKalb County School District's GED program. After obtaining his GED, Desilva was promoted to head custodian at the school. (Courtesy of DeKalb County School District)

Credit: Photo provided by DeKalb County School District

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Credit: Photo provided by DeKalb County School District

“It’s probably one of the best feelings in my life, you know,” he said. “I’m still overwhelmed with the grateful feeling that I graduated. I’m going to have that feeling for a long time.”

Desilva will serve as an ambassador for the district’s GED program.

“He’s an inspiration to our staff, to our families,” Brown-Bryant said. “I’ve gotten phone calls and meetings from so many people who said, ‘I think I can do it.’ It’s because of him.”

Labor, delivery, degree

Emilie Tate, pictured with her daughter Abigail Tate, graduated in May from Kennesaw State University's accelerated nursing program. (Courtesy of Emilie Tate)

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Emilie Tate was in labor with her second child in October 2020 when a Kennesaw State University student helped changed her life in another way.

Tate previously earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from San Diego State University and had declined a spot in a Maryland nursing program because the timing wasn’t right to go back to school.

Instead, a pregnant Tate and her family moved to Georgia during the COVID-19 pandemic, and she was once again thinking about becoming a nurse.

But first, baby.

Tate was in labor when she met a nursing student who was helping to take care of her at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital.

“We got to chatting,” Tate said, and the student told her about the accelerated nursing program at Kennesaw State.

Fast-forward a few years and Tate, 28, has earned a bachelor of science in nursing through the same program.

Tate graduated in May and already has a job lined up — as a labor and delivery nurse.

The lifesaver

Anaiah Rucker walked across the Berry College field to get her degree to the cheers of family, classmates and administrators a few weeks ago, a remarkable feat after a horrific accident years earlier.

In 2011, Rucker, then 9, was walking with her sister to catch the school bus when she spotted the bright lights of a truck headed toward them. Rucker pushed her sister, Camry, out of the way, but was struck herself. Her left leg had to be amputated. Rehabilitation followed as she adapted to life in a wheelchair and, eventually, learned to walk on her prosthetic limb.

Anaiah Rucker and her mom, Andrea Taylor, are shown at Morgan County Elementary School, shortly after she had her left leg amputated in 2011 following an incident where she pushed her younger sister out of the way of an oncoming truck. (Jennifer Brett / AJC file photo)

Credit: Jennifer Brett,

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Credit: Jennifer Brett,

The community in her hometown, Madison, Georgia, rallied around her, organizing fundraisers to pay for various medical expenses. A television show, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” helped build a new wheelchair-accessible home for her family. The big reveal included Berry’s plans to offer Rucker a full scholarship.

Rucker completed her degree in psychology with a minor in applied behavior analysis. She plans to attend graduate school.

Aran (left) and Sayan Sonnad-Joshi are valedictorian and salutatorian of Atlanta's Midtown High School's Class of 2023. (Courtesy of Atlanta Public Schools)

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Public Schools

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Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Public Schools

Top twins

Twins grabbed the top spots for the Class of 2023 at Atlanta’s Midtown High School. Aran Sonnad-Joshi is the school’s valedictorian. His brother, Sayan Sonnad-Joshi, is salutatorian. They are fraternal twins but say they have identical interests.

The brothers were co-editors of the school paper and co-captains of the debate team. They both want to be classics majors in college. That’s in addition to being pre-med.

It may be hard to believe that such high-achieving students struggled in school, but they insist they had challenges. They were able to help each other out because they have different strengths, they say.

For the first time, the 18-year-olds will attend different schools. Aran is headed to Harvard University near Boston, and Sayan will attend Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. They’re quick to point out the schools aren’t far apart — about 45 minutes by train.

“It seems like a good steppingstone, where we’re still ... seeing each other, but also growing more independent,” Sayan says.

Spelman’s fantastic four

Clockwise from upper left hand corner: Maya Blasingame, Amaia Calhoun, Sydney DuPree and Chandler Nutall were Spelman College's 2023 valedictorians. (Photo courtesy Spelman College via PhotoJoiner.)

Credit: Spelman College

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Credit: Spelman College

Most schools have one student who stands above all academically to earn the honor of being the class valedictorian. Sometimes, it’s two.

This year, Spelman College had four valedictorians: Maya Blasingame, Amaia Calhoun, Sydney DuPree and Chandler Nutall.

Spelman has had multiple valedictorians before. Last year, they had five. If all of the students have a perfect 4.0 grade-point average, Spelman’s practice is to name all of them as valedictorians.

“No matter how many decimal points we went out, those four students tied for the top GPA,” Spelman President Dr. Helene Gayle said during the commencement ceremony.

Blasingame plans to attend medical school with a goal to serve underrepresented populations. Calhoun will join Princeton University Investment Company (PRINCO) as an investment analyst. DuPree, a theater major, is on the executive board of the Brains With Beauty Project, a nonprofit education and empowerment organization that empowers Black girls and young women. Nutall will participate in a public affairs fellowship in New York before pursuing a law degree.

Family affairs

Kendrix Ladson kisses her daughter, Alyeese Williams, on the cheek. They graduated together at the end of the Spring 2023 semester at Georgia Piedmont Technical College. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

It was a mother-daughter affair at several Georgia college graduation ceremonies this semester.

Georgia Piedmont Technical College and Albany State and Clark Atlanta universities were among the schools that saw a mother and daughter receive their degrees together.

Georgia Piedmont Technical College student Kendrix Ladson, 55, and her daughter, Alyeese Williams, 26, worked while attending school. They were each other’s support system, they said.

Williams said her mother was her primary motivation to keep going.

“It’s not how you start but how you finish. She’s proof that it’s never too late.”

‘I didn’t want to give up’

Ariana Matias, now a graduate from Wheeler High School in Cobb County, learned from her parents not to be a quitter.

They moved to the U.S. from Guatemala and Mexico when they were teenagers. Neither made it past the fifth grade in school, and they struggled to find jobs and learn English. They made sure Matias and her sisters knew the importance of education.

Ariana Matias endured the loss of a parent, the COVID-19 pandemic and homelessness during her time at Wheeler High School in Cobb County. She graduated this year with a 4.179 grade-point average and plans to study psychology in college. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy photo

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Credit: Courtesy photo

On Jan. 15, 2020, Matias’ father died from complications related to diabetes.

From there, the pandemic hit. Matias’ family lived with relatives, but by her junior year, they had to move into a hotel. Everything felt like a struggle: her classes, taking the SAT, applying for college.

“I didn’t want to give up because my dad, he wasn’t a quitter,” Matias said. “My mom, she wasn’t a quitter. She managed to do all these things even while my dad was gone, while she was grieving. I was like, ‘I can’t give up.’ I managed to push through it.”

Faculty at Wheeler High named her the Most Outstanding Junior. She graduated with a 4.179 GPA this year. And at the beginning of her senior year, the family was able to move into a house of their own.

Now, Matias and her mom are both excited for her to go to Chattahoochee Technical College next year. Matias hopes to study either child psychology or forensic psychology.

“I want to be able to inspire other people,” she said. “At the end of the day, everything has a purpose. At the end of the day, everything will be OK.”


Go to to watch a video about some of these graduates.