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story.lead_photo.caption Mohamad Alkhatib is a senior at Bentonville West High School in Centerton. He and his family fled to the United States to escape war in his native Syria. "School wasn't really the goal. It was just trying to live 'til the next day. It was that bad," he said of Syria. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)

Editor's Note: This is part one of a series featuring 2020 high school graduates. The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette asked administrators of each high school in Benton and Washington counties to recommend a senior to interview.

Graduation season is upon us, and oh what a peculiar one this is.

Rogers High School

Graduating class: 509

Graduation plan: To be determined.

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Siloam Springs High School

Graduating class: 326

Graduation plan: Traditional ceremony, 8 p.m. July 17, Panther Stadium; attendance may be limited based on state guidelines.

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Bentonville West High School (Centerton)

Graduating class: 496

Graduation plan: Traditional ceremony, 8 p.m. July 16, school stadium; attendance may be limited based on state guidelines.

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Pea Ridge High School

Graduating class: 164

Graduation plan: Virtual ceremony May 30.

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Life Way Christian School (Centerton)

Graduating class: 25

Graduation plan: Traditional ceremony, 2:30 p.m. July 12.

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Arkansas Arts Academy (Rogers)

Graduating class: 64

Graduation plan: To be determined.

The coronavirus forced postponement of this month's traditional commencement ceremonies. Some schools are holding out hope they'll be allowed to have such ceremonies this summer. Others are opting for virtual graduations.

One thing is certain: several thousand students across the region will receive high school diplomas this spring -- one way or another.

The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wanted to honor the class of 2020 by highlighting some of its members. School principals and counselors recommended students with good stories to tell about their academic accomplishments, service to school or community, or some adversity they've overcome on the road to graduation.

Here are six of those students.

Mohamad Alkhatib, Bentonville West High School

Mohamad Alkhatib will never forget the day he arrived in America -- Aug. 21, 2014 -- the start of a new life, the day he put his war-torn home of Aleppo, Syria, in the past.

"Arriving here, it was very different," Alkhatib said. "I thought I was on another planet. We landed in the airport, and I was like, what is this? My mom said, hopefully, this will be better. And it really was."

They left behind the terror of his country's civil war that started in 2011, but the memories linger.

He recalled a time gunshots rang out outside his school, and he and other students took cover for three hours. Another time, he was walking with friends in front of his house when one was shot in the neck, he said. Alkhatib's father helped take the boy to the hospital. He went on to make a full recovery.

"School kept going, but my mindset, everyone's mindset, changed," he said. "School wasn't really the goal. It was just trying to live 'til the next day. It was that bad."

Alkhatib, who's now 18, was 12 when he and his mother arrived in the United States. They traveled on a 10-year visa they'd acquired three years earlier and eventually were granted asylum to stay, he said.

Alkhatib was in the seventh grade. He had to learn a whole new alphabet, a whole new language, a whole new way of writing.

Adapting to high school was a bit rough. He remembers being very shy, having trouble finding his classes and being afraid to ask questions for fear of making grammatical mistakes.

His father, Ahmad Alkhatib, made it to the United States for treatment of lung cancer in 2016. He died four months after his arrival.

Alkhatib realized how many options he had and was determined to make the most of his opportunity in America. He finished high school with a grade point average above 4.0. He took the ACT college entrance exam 12 times, improving from a composite score of 19 to 30 out of 36, he said.

He earned a full scholarship to Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., through the Questbridge program. QuestBridge is a nonprofit group with a goal of increasing the number of talented, low-income students attending the nation's best colleges. Alkhatib plans to study chemistry, then go to medical school to become an oncologist.

When asked about his favorite high school memory, he recalls the first day of his senior year when he was asked to lead students in a chant -- "Are you proud to be a Wolverine?" -- during a school pep rally. It made him reflect on how far he'd come from his freshman year.

"I was like wow, I really did change," he said. "It was a good time to look back and give myself some credit."

Dannie Hu, Pea Ridge High School

Dannie Hu spent parts of her childhood living in New York City, where she marveled at the skyscrapers and visited major landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty.

Dannie Hu poses for a portrait at Pea Ridge High School. Hu was born in Manhattan, just months after the World Trade Center towers were attacked. She went to live with her grandparents in China and returned to the United States when she was four. Six years ago, her family settled in Pea Ridge. (NW Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo

Hu, 18, moved around a lot with her parents, with stops in North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Georgia and New Jersey before finally settling in Pea Ridge about six years ago.

She noticed variations in architecture in the different places and developed an interest in the subject along the way. That, combined with her love of math and science, motivates her to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering, which she will do at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.

Hu, as valedictorian of her class, will deliver a speech to her fellow graduates in a virtual ceremony May 30.

She has a grade point average above 4.0 and a composite ACT score of 31 out of 36 -- the national average is 21 -- but there's more to her than her academic profile.

She was never much into athletics until her junior year, when she decided to step out of her comfort zone and join the Pea Ridge cross country team. It was hard at first, but she quickly knocked 12 minutes off her time in the 5-kilometer race.

Hu is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She was born in Manhattan, just three months after 9/11. A few months later, she went to live with her grandparents in China. She returned to her parents in the United States when she was 4. She spoke Chinese, but no English.

"Since my parents were usually busy with work, I stayed with one of my mom's closest friends," Hu said. "She had a daughter two years younger than me. The daughter only knew English, I only knew Chinese, but after that one year, she became fluent in Chinese, and I learned English from her."

Hu's parents own and operate Rainbow House, a Chinese restaurant in Pea Ridge. Her father runs the kitchen while her mother works up front. Dannie helps as needed.

She hopes to live in New York City again someday, but for now, she enjoys Pea Ridge, where people greet each other on the streets and in the stores, she said.

"It's a small town," she said. "You get to know everybody here."

Emma Hulbert, Siloam Springs High School

Emma Hulbert's father is a physical therapist; her mother is an occupational therapist. It's no surprise, then, Hulbert is eyeing a career of her own in health care.

Emma Hulbert poses for a portrait April 27 at Siloam Springs High School. She's on her way to the University of Arkansas this fall to study nursing. Hulbert was one of six incoming freshmen to receive the Bodenhamer Fellowship, which provides students $72,000 over four years. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

"Just seeing how they treat patients and have a lifelong impact on their lives has inspired me to do the same," Hulbert said of her parents.

She's on her way to the University of Arkansas this fall to study nursing. Hulbert was one of six incoming freshmen to receive the Bodenhamer Fellowship, which provides students $72,000 over four years.

Hulbert scored a 35 out of 36 on the ACT college entrance exam and was one of about 15,000 students nationwide to be named a National Merit finalist.

She shines in athletics, too. She participated in track and field for four years and was part of a 4x800-meter relay team setting her school's record in that event in 2018.

She has been a cheerleader since second grade. Her Siloam Springs High cheer team finished third at state this school year and second last year in the 4A-6A division.

Hulbert, 18, is also a devout Christian. She has been on two church mission trips -- one to Colorado and one to Louisiana -- where she visited with younger children to share Bible lessons, sing songs and play games, she said. Another mission trip she'd planned to make to Guatemala this spring was canceled.

Asked to describe herself in one word, she picked "persistent," a trait she thinks was enhanced by her mission trip experiences and being able to observe the resilience of others living in difficult situations.

"Challenges are inevitable," she said. "It's how you respond to them that makes or breaks you."

Hulbert and her family of five -- she's the middle of three girls -- moved to Siloam Springs from Fort Gibson, Okla., when she was in the sixth grade. She found Siloam Springs to be very welcoming.

"It's been a great place to learn and study," she said. "The teachers are genuinely helpful and care about their students. The students are really open to new people."

Molly Post, Arkansas Arts Academy

Molly Post discovered she had a knack for art at an early age. She made friends in preschool by drawing pictures of butterflies, horses and other animals for her classmates.

Arkansas Arts Academy senior Molly Post poses for a portrait April 23 at the Arkansas Arts Academy in Rogers. Post was accepted to The New School in New York City and granted an $18,000-per-year scholarship. She'll study fashion design within the university's Parsons School of Design. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

Post continued to explore her artistic side, and, as she approached her teen years, she developed an interest in fashion.

"I like that it has no rules," she explained. "Anyone can do it, and anyone can express themselves through it."

Post, 18, grew up in Ozark, a small town in the Arkansas River Valley. She and her family moved in 2017 to Rogers, where she enrolled at Arkansas Arts Academy, an open-enrollment charter school, to start her sophomore year.

The move provided Post many art-related opportunities she hadn't had in her previous school. She started taking a fashion design class her junior year. She put on a fashion show in the school's courtyard two years ago -- 15 outfits she made herself.

In February, she and four other fashion design students put on shows modeling five-piece collections they designed. Post based her collection on a modern-cowboy theme.

"I think it was an improvement from my first show. The color palette was more cohesive," she said.

Post was accepted to The New School in New York City and granted an $18,000-per-year scholarship. She'll study fashion design within the university's Parsons School of Design.

Her dream job, she said, is to be creative director of a brand, maybe even a brand of her own.

Mary Ley, the Arts Academy's chief executive officer, said Post's artistic ability isn't her only notable quality; she's also a gifted speaker. When the school was looking for a student to emcee the grand opening celebration of its newly renovated high school last year, Post got the nod.

"Her speech teacher told me, 'You need her to do this,' and I'm glad I listened," Ley said. "She was just so articulate. She's so special."

Leah Siebert, Life Way Christian School

Leah Siebert demonstrated compassion at an early age.

As a kindergartner at a Bentonville school, she befriended a classmate in a wheelchair who didn't have many friends. A year later, she started sticking up for a boy whom other children picked on because of his developmental disability, she said.

Senior Leah Siebert is a senior at Life Way Christian School in Centerton. During spring break last year, she traveled with a group to Cambodia, where they visited safe houses for girls rescued from the sex trade. Siebert called it a life-changing experience. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

"I just wanted to protect him from the people that were mean to him," she said.

The 18-year-old Bella Vista resident has attended Life Way Christian School in Centerton since sixth grade. She has continued to show kindness toward others.

During spring break last year, she traveled with a group to Cambodia, where they visited safe houses for girls rescued from the sex trade. Siebert called it a life-changing experience.

The group organized dance parties and ice cream parties. They did crafts and held Bible study, Siebert said.

"I was expecting the girls to be really sad and closed off, and it was not at all what I was expecting," she said. "I remember getting off the bus, and the girls came up to us and hugged us. They brought us flowers. They were super joyful."

Siebert joined other Life Way students on a trip to Xela, Guatemala, in November to serve children and families who attended a vacation Bible school and to minister to people in need.

She was in middle school when her aunt encouraged her to pursue a career in nursing. That's what she plans to do when she heads to the University of Arkansas this fall.

Siebert earned her certified nursing assistant's license in 2018 on her own initiative; then worked in a Centerton nursing home for nine months. She started working as a home health aide for children with special needs in late 2018.

"It's challenging, but I definitely see it as a priority to help these kids. It's really important to me to make them smile," she said.

She was active in her school's chapter of the National Honor Society, serving as vice president last year and president this year. National Honor Society is an organization in which students complete community service projects.

"Leah doesn't know the words 'no' or 'I can't,'" said Dawn Bowers, guidance counselor. "When we need students to serve as greeters, ambassadors to new students, really, anything that is needed, Leah steps up to help."

Jacob Zito, Rogers High School

The curtain has fallen on his high school career, but Jacob Zito learned a love of theater from these past four years.

Rogers High School senior Jacob Zito poses for a portrait April 20 at Rogers High School. Rogers High school has announced its three high schools plan to hold graduation ceremonies in July.(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

Taking a theater class his sophomore year opened Zito's eyes to a new world. Drama has been a big part of his life since, to the point he became co-president of his school's thespians club.

Zito, 18, participated in school productions and volunteered at the Arkansas Public Theatre in downtown Rogers, where he helped with tasks such as ushering, cleaning and selling snacks.

Last summer, he attended Arkansas Governor's School, a four-week, statewide summer residential program for 400 seniors who demonstrate outstanding ability in a particular academic or artistic area. Students attend daily classes, specializing in one of eight academic disciplines.

Zito, naturally, concentrated in drama. He did a video conference last month with about nine friends from the program.

"Every time I go to do theater, I find a family. It's a great feeling to be part of a bigger project," he said.

He enjoyed last year's Arkansas State Thespian Festival, a convention for high school thespians where they do workshops and perform competitively. The festival this year was in February, but appendicitis struck him right before the event, causing him to miss it.

He also was looking forward to his school's production of the musical comedy All Shook Up in April, in which Zito would have played Sheriff Earl. The covid-19 pandemic took away that opportunity.

A counselor called him "quirky," a description Zito doesn't reject.

"I think I have a strong personality once you get to know me -- fun-loving, goofball-type attitude," he said.

Zito was born in Costa Rica and lived in several states before he and his parents settled in Northwest Arkansas in 2011. He earned acceptance to several of the country's most selective universities, including Columbia, Duke, Vanderbilt and Yale. He decided to attend Washington University in St. Louis, which he called "just the right fit."

And, yes, he intends to continue doing theater when he gets there.

NW News on 05/10/2020

Print Headline: Class of 2020: Six seniors' path to graduation

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