LEWISTON — At the Ramada Inn on Wednesday, shortly before the award ceremony got underway, Ouseiny Ousmane sat in his wheelchair, smiling almost nonstop as the room buzzed around him.

Ouseiny Ousmane gets a congratulatory high-five at the start of the 12th CMCC Education Foundation Annual Dinner at the Ramanda Inn in Lewiston on Wednesday. Ousmane was the recipient of the Against All Odds Award. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

You could hardly blame him for the good cheer. Stricken with polio as a child, Ousmane fled his war-torn home in Central Africa in 2009 and eventually made his way to the United States. Life was better in the the U.S., but Ousmane still had obstacles to overcome. He didn’t have a wheelchair when he arrived and he knew barely any English.

Little by little, Ousmane got by and on Wednesday night, he was one of several students honored as Central Maine Community College gathered for its annual awards dinner, which also served as a celebration of its 30th year.

The list of students awarded at the gathering reads like a Hollywood script.

Kauna Yaga was one of 276 girls kidnapped at gunpoint when the terrorist group Boko Haram stormed a Nigerian boarding school in 2014. She would eventually escape captivity by jumping off a bus with a group of other girls and fleeing into a forest.

Kayla Thayer, of Auburn, was the youngest of 13 children in a struggling family when she had to make the devastating decision to drop out of high school in her sophomore year.

Kayla Thayer was recognized as Central Maine Community College’s Student of the Year on Wednesday at the 12th CMCC Education Foundation Annual Dinner at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

Shawn Brown, an Oak Hill High School graduate, joined the U.S. Army and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before making his way back home.

The list goes on for pages, with story after story of men and women who overcame hardships to earn college degrees and accolades from their peers.

Ousmane and Yaga were each named recipients of the school’s “Against All Odds Award,” given to those who achieve great success at the school by overcoming tremendous obstacles.

For Ousmane, getting to America with his family was not the last hurdle he would face.

“After a difficult six-month stay in Atlanta, the family was able to move to Maine, which they found to be much friendlier and welcoming,” according to the awards program. “Ouseiny started going to school, but since he did not yet have a wheelchair, it was a struggle for him to get around and attend his classes. Things improved after his mother got him a wheelchair, he attended Lewiston High School, but was unable to graduate because his English skills were lacking.”

But Ousmane kept working, ultimately becoming a U.S. citizen, getting his high school diploma and starting at CMCC in 2016, twice earning high honors in business administration and management.

“The journey was very difficult,” Ousmane said Wednesday night, “but I really liked going to school here. I enjoyed it and I’m thankful.”

Yaga, after fleeing into the woods to escape Boko Haram, ultimately found her way back to her home where she was reunited with her family.

“Kauna and some other girls found their way to the United States later in 2014,” according to the program, “settling first in Virginia. She spoke little English and was thrust into the media spotlight by some who did not always have their best interests at heart.”

Yaga moved to New York and then to Maine where she earned her high school diploma through Turner Adult Ed. She began her studies at CMCC last fall and earned a GPA of 3.23, narrowly missing the dean’s list. Still, not bad for a young lady who just five years ago had to jump off a truck to escape the clutches of terrorists.

“I wish my schoolmates were here with me so that they could have this education that I am having,” Yaga said.

Both Yaga and Ousmane said they plan to continue with their schooling.

Kauna Yaga, left, sits with friend Djamila Issifou at the 12th CMCC Education Foundation Annual Dinner at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston on Wednesday. Yaga received the Against All Odds Award. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

Also at the ceremony, Brown was recognized as the Student Veteran of the Year while Thayer was named Student of the Year.

Coming of age in a struggling family, Thayer also had to overcome the challenges of autism, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to CMCC. After dropping out of high school, she got her diploma through Auburn Adult Ed before starting at CMCC in the fall of 2017.

“This is one brave, tenacious and courageous young woman,” the program says of Thayer, who earned high or president’s honors every semester that she majored in life sciences, completing courses in biology, organic chemistry, calculus and other challenging subjects.

She said she plans to move on to the University of Maine to study chemistry with a focus on pre-pharmacy.

Her dream job? Working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thayer, when the Student of the Year Award was announced, was greeted with a standing ovation from the hundreds who attended the ceremony.

“She has truly made her mark at CMCC,” wrote Roger Philippon, dean of planning and public affairs, “and has set a high standard for all future students.”

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