By SARAH PARSONS WEST

for the Colchester Sun

As president of Colchester High School’s chapter of the National Honor Society, Dorcas Lohese has learned a lot about delegation and community organization.

She leads her peers with no hesitancy, making decisions for the good of the group.

“My gift is one of leadership,” said Lohese, “I’m always asking, how can I help people and make the difference I want to make?”

With community service as the focus of her senior project, Lohese organized the delivery of CHS’s annual gingerbread houses to nursing homes and children’s hospitals. It was a good introduction to giving back – and a lesson that if you want to see something happen, you might have to do it yourself.

With confidence in the “Power of We,” the catch phrase of a 2016 Lions Club contest winning speech, Lohese enlisted fellow CHS classmates to help paint a mural in the school representing unity and togetherness. Students of all grades were welcomed to participate, with Charlie Davidson designing the mural.

“It was probably my happiest day of school ever, definitely senior year, with everyone painting,” she said.  “Every time I walk by it, I think, that’s my legacy, right there.”

To comprehend how a teenager can already be thinking of succession, you must understand where she comes from.

Emigrating at the impressionable age of 13, Lohese and her younger brother left their native Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa to reunite with their parents in Vermont.

Fluent in both her native tongues, Lingala and French, Lohese had studied English in school but was in the top of her class in math.

“The girl who was the strongest student in math became nobody in America,” Lohese reflected in one of her numerous essays, this one on her painful memories of the early days at CHS. “Sometimes, I was excluded from groups because I did not speak the language, so I was viewed as unintelligent. I had to dig deep inside and refuse to accept the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

She and her brother were enrolled in the English Language Learners program, which assigns a language teacher to English-learning students in the normal classroom. She studied every day, even on school vacations and over the summer.

And she also learned about American culture.

“When coming to a new country, you focus on learning everything new, she says. “I began neglecting my own identity. You don’t feel comfortable as yourself – because you’re trying too hard to be one or the other.”

As her English comprehension improved, so did her grades, renewing her confidence and identity as a Congolese student living in the U.S.

“I can’t get rid of one; it would change my identity,” she said. “Both need to be balanced.”

Colchester High School senior Dorcas Lohese enlisted fellow CHS classmates to help paint a mural in the school representing unity and togetherness. Students of all grades were welcomed to participate, with Charlie Davidson designing the mural. (Photo by Sarah Parsons West)

Flourishing academically and socially, Lohese joined the track team and then cross-country. Public speaking, writing, AP Calculus, and French-V became enjoyable subjects, which she passed with perceived ease.

In August 2017, Lohese was asked to speak to the school board about the district-wide ELL program challenges. She told her story, helping her audience empathize with her struggles, and conveyed the ELL program’s secondary goal: to help learners feel included, not inferior.

Lohese is most grateful to English teacher Elizabeth Albright, ELL teacher Susan Rosato and guidance counselor Julie Pastore for guiding her path to graduation.

“I don’t think I’d even be where I am, if they hadn’t helped me see so much more,” she said, likening Albright to a second mother and her classroom as a home.

Lohese also appreciates the personal support offered by CSD superintendent Amy Minor, who she said recognizes each student’s potential.

“It often takes another person and a community to pull you up and help you shine,” she said. “She’s so humble; one day I want to become like her.”

As graduation approaches, Lohese’s final presentation as NHS president will be the Teacher of the Year award, at the Class Night celebration.

“As long as you’re alive, you have the ability and power to leave a legacy and make a difference,” she said. “You can start now; you don’t need to be a certain age.”

Lohese will attend the University of Vermont, believing it will offer her a good balance of academic and leadership classes. She offered words of advice to her fellow students as they all look toward their future.

“The love for your gifts and goals must be stronger than your fear of failure,” she said. “You’ll look back on what you’ve accomplished – and realize the failures are what make your story interesting.”