GREENSBORO, N.C. — Life looked uncertain for 6-year-old Vasidki Conneh when his family fled the West African country of Ivory Coast in 2007.

But on Friday, Conneh graduated with a 4.6 GPA as valedictorian of James B. Dudley High School in Greensboro, NC -- a testament of his family's determination to seek a better life.

“As a kid, all I wanted to do was make my father proud," said Conneh. "Being a single parent is really not easy. I remember him coming home late at night tired, fatigued. He would give us the speech, 'You don’t want to end up like me,' because he was basically reading at an elementary school level."

Conneh's father first came to the U.S. in 2004, and then brought Conneh and his sister when he had saved up enough money. It wasn't until 2016 that his mother was able to join the family in the U.S.

"I can here when I was about 6 or 7. It was in 2007, during when the country was basically run by a dictator. So I came here as a refugee. And my dad wanted to find a better opportunity for his kids," said Conneh.

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When he first arrived, Conneh said he had to learn English quickly, because he spoke only Mandinka.

"They have this program called Newcomers School, but since I came in late, I wasn’t able to get enrolled in that. So basically I had to go into an English school without the crutches that most students get to learn English.  So they way I learned it was constantly interacting with the teachers, students," said Conneh.

His father was a strong source of support, encouraging the him to pursue academics.

“He told us that America is full of opportunities, more than we have back home. So if you come here, we should work hard in school, school is always number one. Before we play or mess around, we should always dedicate ourselves to our work," said Conneh.

Teacher, friends, and mentors also provided him with motivation and support, said Conneh. And on Friday, he addressed his fellow high school graduates in a speech encouraging them to question why they choose certain goals, find a support system, and remain dedicated to what is important to them.

“Surround yourself with people who will push you to follow your drive. Me personally, there were times I got tired, fatigued didn’t know what to do. And being around people who wanted it just as bad as I did, encouraged me and reinforced the determination in me," said Conneh.

After graduation, Conneh plans to obtain his associates degree, paid for by the Guilford Apprenticeship Program (GAP). He plans to continue working with Machine Specialties, Inc. to finish his apprenticeship. Next, he plans to obtain a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering or robotics with a minor in drafting.

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