WASHINGTON — Seh Reh, like many who has come to Washington as a Burmese refugee, found life in his new home daunting. The language was so intimidating that he dropped out of high school in 2010.
About a year later, he went back to Washington High School because he wanted to finish his education. Saturday, he will be the first in his family to graduate with a high school diploma.
“I am so blessed,” Reh, 20, said. “I know right now that I am so happy.”
To get there, it took a lot of work. But it was something that he wanted to do.
“I wanted to get my high school diploma,” Reh said in halting English.
Paula Counsil, English Language Learning teacher at WHS, said all of the motivation came from him, but she knew it was not going to be easy. “He still had 14 credits to gain,” Counsil said.
Reh is a refugee from Burma or the country now known as Myanmar. He had settled in Thailand before moving to Indiana in 2011 with his brother and sister. Reh’s parents were already in Washington, working at the Perdue processing plant.
For Reh, like the refugees who are now in Washington and like the explosion in the city’s Hispanic population in the late 1990s, the barrier of language was a high fence to climb.
“Seh actually has no background,” Counsil said. “It was difficult for him, just common ordinary things students have. He’s not really lived in conditions that we really see here in America.”
Obviously because the economic conditions in the former military-controlled republic were so bad, Reh said school was an afterthought.
“In Burma, we go to school every day but we don’t feel like students,” Reh said. “We feel like... we had to eat. “When we get a classroom teacher, we don’t care because we didn’t have any food.”
When he got to Washington, his Burmese friends wanted him to come to work at the plant and make some money.
“He realized that working was not the thing to do right now,” Counsil said.
To get his high school diploma, Reh and Counsil worked to get the necessary credits he needed for graduation. Working with nothing but a thin Burmese-English dictionary, the two spent hours daily on lessons.
“He and I stayed after school for an hour each evening and he was able to get all of his recovery work done,” Counsil said. “We actually finished early.”
Because of Reh’s limited English skills, he was able to complete assignments using collages and journals. Several collages depict Reh’s home, including a visit from Angelina Jolie. He actually met the actress and human rights activist when she toured his village.
Reh’s time was not all spent making collages, he also spent classroom time with other WHS seniors. He finished his regular senior English class, and learned English literature.
“I like Macbeth,” Reh said.
Having never driven a car before he came to the United States, Reh finished driver’s education. He now puts that skill to work picking up refugees from Indianapolis International Airport. He’s also a sociable young man and has several friends in school.
But Reh’s success story was not one that was predictable when he contacted Counsil last fall and said he wanted to finish high school.
“The odds were definitely against him in the beginning,” Counsil said. “But he has really applied himself. He’s kept journals. He’s pushed himself. He’s really a role model for a lot of kids who think it can’t be done.
“He’s proof that it can.”
Academic Advisor Tony Barnard runs the credit recovery program at WHS and saw the work Reh put in to get the 14 credits needed to graduate.
“It’s incredible,” Barnard said of Reh’s accomplishment. “He had tremendous work ethic all the years he was here. He worked mornings. He worked evenings to get it done. He had a goal and he did it.”
But Reh’s story is not just for refugees or those who know English as a new language. His story is for anyone who wants to come back and finish at WHS.
“If you really want to come back and you really want to make a difference for yourself in your life, the opportunity is right here,” WHS Principal LeAnne Kelley said.
Reh’s family is planning a graduation open house this Saturday after graduation and in the future, Reh wants to become a police officer.
“I want to help the community,” Reh said.
But the education of Seh Reh at Washington High School would arguably not have happened without the friendship formed by Reh and Counsil.
“We really formed an attachment and I kind of feel like everyone’s mom,” Counsil said. “I feel really fortunate.”