HOUSTON – Travis Hill-Williams has always considered himself an optimist.
That attitude was put to the test in August when Hurricane Katrina forced his family to flee New Orleans and make a new life in Houston just as he was starting his senior year in high school.
But even one of the most destructive storms in history wasn't enough to dull his outlook, and he is about to graduate from Houston's Jones High School in the top 10 percent of his class.
"I consider it a blessing that Hurricane Katrina came. I met new friends. I hold them dear to my heart," the 17-year-old said. "It has been a wonderful experience even though it was in the face of catastrophe and disaster."
Hill-Williams will be one of more than 100 Katrina evacuees set to graduate this weekend from the Houston school district.
"They've hung in there and adapted to a completely different place," said Superintendent Abe Saavedra. "They stayed focused in their studies, made friends and became an important, integral part of our schools."
"We're glad they came," he said. "We've worked hard to give them a good education and a good start to the rest of their lives."
About 158,000 students were displaced when hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into the Gulf Coast, and 36,000 enrolled in Texas schools. The Houston school district is home to about 5,000 of them, more than any other district in the country. In all, Houston took in about 150,000 evacuees.
Hill-Williams plans to study computer engineering at Prairie View A&M University.
After Katrina hit on Aug. 29, he and his mother were evacuated by a helicopter to a field near a causeway and were briefly separated. He eventually made his way by bus to Houston's Astrodome, which became a shelter for thousands. He was reunited with his mother there a few hours later.
"I always see that without obstacles in your past, you never advance," he said. "Sometimes you need something to give you the will, to give you the power to exercise your mind, body and soul."
Adele Rogers, principal of Jones High School, called Hill-Williams a self-motivated and innovative student. She said evacuee students worked hard to adjust to their new surroundings.
"It's a miraculous recovery that they have made," she said. "They have done wonderful jobs of adapting. I'm just proud to have been there to assist them in their dreams."
Dalissa Robertson, 18, who is graduating from Scarborough High School, said she is hoping her experience can motivate other students. After Katrina hit, Robertson's family spent four days waiting for rescue on an interstate bridge.
At Scarborough High, she became the senior adviser to its dance troupe and a member of the National Honor Society. She has earned more than $10,000 in scholarships and plans to attend Southeastern University in Louisiana.
"Just because you went through a negative situation, you can overcome," she said. "You can do anything if you put your mind to it."