One graduate said he used to think he wasn't smart enough to finish high school. Another said that "getting locked up" was a blessing in disguise because he was convinced that he would be a dropout.
But these students and eight others at two San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) schools proved themselves wrong in the best way by starting the new year with high school diplomas.
Last month, educators celebrated the graduation of 10 students at San Diego SOAR Academy at East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility and at Career Technical Education Center (CTEC) in central San Diego. Both are part of SDCOE's Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) program.
While the graduation settings weren't so traditional, JCCS educators made sure the ceremonies were.
"It's an important reminder of what we do," said Nathan Head, site administrator at the East Mesa site.
The commencement -- complete with cap and gown, Pomp and Circumstance, and proud family members -- recognized the struggles the five young men have overcome to earn their high school diplomas.
The graduates thanked their teachers, counselors, and others who encouraged and supported them. Teacher Jessica Billeci told the graduates, "My hope for you is that you are as confident in your abilities and as proud as everyone in this room is for you right now."
The graduates who are continuing to serve time at East Mesa will continue their studies with online community college courses.
"Every day is a learning day for us," Head said. "We are always going to push continuing their education. A win for these guys is a win for everyone in here."
At CTEC, five students received their high school diplomas surrounded by family, friends, and well-wishers who crowded in the single-classroom school for the celebration to offer words of encouragement and congratulations.
Graduate Jeremiah Nieves said it felt great to be up there in his cap and gown after overcoming challenges as a student.
"It's like a dream come true," Nieves said. "I'm proud that I could make my mom proud."
Nieves said he's excited to keep learning at San Diego City College. Eventually, he said he'd like to open his own business: a barber shop and salon.
CTEC teacher George Spanias said it was a proud day for him, too.
"The fact that they're sitting up here tells you something about their character," Spanias told the crowd at the ceremony. "They didn't give up on themselves."
Jose Lopez, a teacher at the East Mesa site, said such graduations are why he and his colleagues come to work every day.
"It's our career goal to see one of our students graduate and be a part of it and plant the seed of college and career," Lopez said. "That means a lot."