🎓 Destined For Great Things: Student Overcomes Obstacles With Support from FCPS

By Office of Communications
December 12, 2023

In May, James Wrobeh received his diploma from Virginia State University (VSU) and was pinned a second lieutenant in the Army. 

James wanted Bryant High School Principal Karen Hertel (pictured above, left) and Chief Equity Officer Nardos King (pictured above, right) to be involved in his pinning because “without them, going to college was not going to be possible,” James said. “I wanted [them] to be part of the journey that they helped create.”

For James, this rite of passage was something he had dreamed of since he was a child. He accomplished this dream within seven years of moving to the United States as an English learner. 

James with his teacher and high school diploma
James with Bryant ESOL Teacher, Amanda Bowser.

Growing up in war-torn Liberia changed the entire course of James’ life. Although he experienced unimaginable tragedy, he never lost his bright spirit or the determination to achieve his goals, pursue his education, and create a better future for himself. 

Born in 1996 during the civil war, James remembers living with and learning everything from his grandparents, while his little brother stayed with his parents. Splitting up the family increased their chances of survival. 

“I technically didn’t have a childhood. I had to grow up [quickly] to adapt to what was happening around me,” James explained. “Before the civil war, [my family] had a good life.”

When James was 14, the war ended, and he could finally attend school. Although he was happy to start his formal education, James was insecure about his age compared to the age of his classmates who had attended schools in other countries. 

“I was 14 years old sitting among little kids learning to read and write. I learned to write my name for the first time at 14,” he explained. 

Because he wasn’t in the same classes as his peers, he was singled out. He was bullied for being older. “It got to me for a long time but I still wanted something more for my life,” he said. “It was hard. I had to control my anger towards the situation I was in. I never stopped going to school.”

James in his army uniform
James in his army uniform.

James’s father knew he wanted a better life and had a passion for learning. He felt that the opportunities for James would be minimal in Liberia, so he decided to move his family to the United States. James was 19 when he and his family arrived in Fairfax. Upon arrival, the Wrobeh family stayed with a host family, whose children attended Fairfax County Public Schools. 

Everything James knew about public school in America was learned through movies. He remembers feeling nervous on his first day at Bryant High School, a non-traditional, alternative high school. The first thing he did was take a test to measure his education level. He had to take this test on a computer but had never used a computer before. 

“It was horrible. It was not a good feeling for me that day but even though it was very difficult, I went back each day because I knew I wanted a better future for myself,” James said.  

At Bryant, James met many people who supported him and connected him with resources. “It was something I never experienced before — people being interested in my well-being and my education,” James explained. “It was a very good feeling. Having people who don't know anything about me being so interested in my education showed me that the experience would not be so bad. The love and attention towards me increased each day at Bryant. It was something I never felt or had before.” 

James' graduation sash and cords
James' VSU graduation cords and sash.

James ended up graduating from Bryant in three years. He said that was due to his teachers’ dedication, but he also knows he couldn’t have done it without his own personal grit and determination. “My teachers got handwriting books with big lines to teach me how to write,” he continues. “All of my first classes were English classes. I’d spend two to three hours learning how to read, write, and speak. The teachers didn’t just teach, they went above and beyond to catch me up.”

Hertel even connected James with King — an alumna of VSU — when she learned he was applying to the school. 

“We’re very fortunate to have walked through this journey with James. Not every teacher gets to walk through the journey with their students,” Principal Hertel said. “I knew when I met James that he was destined for great things.”