EDUCATION PROVIDES THE KEY TO A NEW LIFE
Michael Duoto ’03 (DEd) has worked nearly his entire professional life in education. His chosen career path has served as a conduit for him to see the world.
Duoto, who grew up in Texas, taught in Bolivia, Colombia and Japan. He served as principal of the Singapore American School for eight years and headed an international school for junior high and high school students in Brazil. “I like the change in perspective,” he says of his travels.
He started USD’s Leadership Studies program while living in Singapore, waking up in the middle of the night to take some of his courses remotely. He recalls studying with military leaders, politicians and educators. “The program prepared us for running, I would say, a business,” he says. “How to work within the system: organization, hiring, management skills.”
Though he didn’t know it at the time, his educational path would eventually lead him and his wife, Jill, to changing the lives of two teenagers living in Afghanistan.
Jill grew up in La Jolla and, by 2002, the couple had returned to San Diego. Through word of mouth, they heard that high school students were struggling in math and science when it came to the SAT and ACT entrance exams. “Kids were falling through the cracks,” says Jill, who earned a bachelor’s in education from UC Berkeley and a master’s in education from San Diego State.
The pair formed High Bluff Academy, which started as a tutoring center and became an accredited school in 2011. Two years later, the first foreign student enrolled in the school. Konstantin Avdienko ’18 (BS/BA), from Russia, went on to earn his undergraduate degree from USD and now works for Qualcomm as a software engineer.
In March of 2022, Jill received correspondence from Mohammad Mohammadi, a teenager from Afghanistan who wanted to come to the United States to attend school. He discovered High Bluff Academy with a Google search that included the words “best international high school” and “boarding.”
“What he wrote was very moving,” Jill says. “How he found this little, tiny school of about 50 students was like finding a needle in a haystack.”
“It was my childhood dream to come to the United States,” explains the 18-year-old. That dream was seemingly shattered in August 2021 when, after 20 years of helping Afghanistan fight the Taliban, the U.S. pulled out of the country. For Mohammadi and his family, which includes six children, the Taliban takeover changed their lives.
Because his father is of the Shiite minority, Hazara, which is being targeted by the Taliban for ethnic cleansing, his father lost his hotel and transportation business, his home and his car. “Everything,” says Mohammadi.
Jill admits she was disappointed in the United States’ sudden evacuation from Afghanistan. “After 20 years, billions of dollars spent, you saw the videos of people hanging on planes, trying to escape the Taliban,” says Jill. “As an American, I was embarrassed.”
For months, Mohammadi and his mother walked mile after mile, trying to get passports. Eventually, Mohammadi and his 19-year-old sister, Aqilia, were successful and moved by themselves to Islamabad, Pakistan, where they lived
in a youth hostel.
Under Taliban rule, girls and women have faced a multitude of restrictions, including being banned from education and forced to wear face and head coverings in public. They also are forbidden to travel without male companions. But Aqilia had been encouraged by her father to pursue education, and via the internet, she and her brother have taught Afghani girls to speak English.
Meanwhile, Mohammad continued communicating with Jill, pursuing student visas for himself and his sister. On Sept. 30, after nearly 30 hours of traveling from Islamabad to Qatar to San Francisco, the pair arrived in San Diego.
“When we came out of the airplane, it was freedom,” says Mohammad, who is interested in studying computer science.
Aqila wants to become a journalist and return to Afghanistan. “Girls don’t have a voice in Afghanistan,” she says. “I want to tell their stories.”
The first thing brother and sister wanted to see in San Diego?
“The beach,” says Jill.
Mohammad and Aqila now live with the Duotos. They’re enrolled in classes and pursuing their dreams. “We lost our way in Afghanistan and Jill helped us,” says Aqila.
“I don’t know how to say thank you,” Mohammad adds. “We appreciate all her work.”
“I just felt a connection with Mohammad,” Jill says. “I said, ‘OK, I can help this one family.’”
The Duotos have also enrolled a 16-year-old Ukrainian refugee in their school.
“We’re not going to stop here.” says Michael. — Don Norcross
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