School Janitor's Daughter Becomes Class Valedictorian

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Biiftu Duresso, whose father is a custodian at her high school, graduated as the valedictorian this weekend. (Photo: 6abc)

The valedictorian at a New York high school spoke this weekend about the people who inspired her to succeed — namely her father, an Ethiopian immigrant who is also a custodian at the school.

Biiftu Duresso, 18, graduated from Joseph C. Wilson Magnet High School in Rochester, N.Y., on Saturday night. In her speech, the valedictorian, who will attend Barnard College next year, spoke about her mother and father, who came to the U.S. from Ethiopia in 1983 with no education or job. “They had the audacity to imagine something better for me and my siblings,” Duresso said, referring to her 16-year-old sister and 4-year-old brother.

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Jamal Abdullahi, a custodian at Wilson Magnet High School, with his daughter Biiftu Duresso, the class valedictorian. (Photo: Max Schulte/Democrat and Chronicle)

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Duresso’s father, Jamal Abdullahi, works nights as a custodian at Wilson Magnet High School and says he is so proud to see his daughter find such success. “I tell them, ‘All I can do is to help you, but it is your future, you must help yourself,’” Abdullahi tells Yahoo Parenting. “And I said that people respect those who have education, and it helps opportunities come up for you.”

Abdullahi, who had no education when he arrived in the U.S., received an associate’s degree from Monroe Community College in 2003 and then his bachelor’s degree from the College at Brockport in 2008. When he received that degree, he brought his daughters along to witness his accomplishment. “They were excited,” he says. “I have so much passion for education.”

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As much as he tells his kids about opportunities, Abdullahi also makes sure they know about struggle. “I know the feeling of struggle, I know how it feels and that’s why I am happy she is succeeding.” Adbullahi even brought his daughter back to Ethiopia once, to see what he overcame. The high school senior wrote about the trip in her college admission essay, according to the Democrat and Chronicle“Before this visit, my parents told me stories about Africa, yet I never really understood it until I went there. I was a student who did not value my education and take advantage of opportunities that were accessible to me. … (My relatives’) eyes upon my life revealed my privilege.“

For all of his daughter’s success, Abdullahi says he can’t take too much credit. “We do what we can for our children to be successful,” he says. “I do what I can — but between work and providing the life they need, there’s not enough time. Kids need so much time to be attended to.”

He says his wife has been integral in helping Duresso and her siblings accomplish all they have. “Her mom works daytime and I work at night, so her mom comes from work and is running after them after school, going from one place to another to pick them up,” he says. “So it was nice to see Biiftu recognizing her parents.”

Abdullahi says that to see any child succeed is a blessing. “When children are achieving, it is a beautiful thing,” he says. “What is the [other] option? Striving and doing what you can is what you have to do, failure is not an option.”

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