Graduation Ceremony for One
by Debbonnaire Kovacs
Danny Saputra's "Ceremony for One" Danny and one of his Adventist "family members," Carol Courtney
On Sabbath afternoon, May 11, 2013, the tiny church in Richmond, KY was in for a surprise. Between Sabbath School and worship service, head elder David Frasier announced that Danny Saputra had something he would like to share. Members watched with interest as Danny, decked out in all the regalia of a master’s degree in computer science, went to the microphone. “This is my graduation day,” he explained in his strong Indonesian accent. Because Eastern Kentucky University’s graduation ceremony was on Sabbath, Danny came to church instead, sitting in his usual seat near the back on the right. No one knew what he had planned, but he brought his cap and gown and mantle to church and created his own ceremony of celebration.
Danny was known in the church as a quiet young man. The congregation was alert and curious to see him standing up front, telling them he wanted to share the story of how he had come to this point. “This church has been such a blessing to me. I never could have made it without the kindness and acceptance I’ve found here,” he said, and launched into his story. By the end, everyone in the room, including Danny, was choked up and wiping away tears. Here, with extra details provided in an interview with Adventist Today, are the highlights of Danny’s story—a testament to what God can accomplish with a few godly people and one boy’s persistence.
Danny was born in Palembang, Indonesia, the only one of the three children in his family to be born outside the United States. When he was 18 months old, his family came to the States to attend college at University of Kentucky. So it was in Lexington, KY that Danny first became known as the “bad boy with the bad attitude.” He says he was nearly kicked out of elementary school even though he was so small, but someone anonymously paid for him to be put in the Seventh-day Adventist elementary school in Lexington. His family were Adventist, but couldn’t afford the high prices for church schools in America. “I still don’t know who did that. I would like to be able to thank them,” Danny told AT.
But it didn’t cure his attitude problem. When he was in second grade, his family moved back to Indonesia, where his parents sent him to Adventist school again. He says the school there was not very good. “It was considered a warehouse school.” In Indonesia, children have to pass tests to get into schools, but “the Adventists took anybody.” The teachers did their best, but “there were a lot of bad kids,” and Danny, by his own account, was one of them.
“But school and church had a way of bending me. Also my parents, and Pathfinders. Pathfinders taught me discipline and a respect for other people.”
He also reported that in Indonesia, the common belief is that you can’t get into public school after going to church school (at least this particular school), because you can’t pass the entrance exams. “But my parents got me tutors. They sent me to ‘cram school’ to get me ready. I hated it, but it helped me a lot.” With the highest score on the entrance exam, he got into one of the best schools in the city.
By this time, Danny’s attitude had improved. His parents had high expectations for him, and his whole family, from his Ph. D. father, to his mother, to aunts and uncles, as well as his friends, the local church members, and his cram school teachers, had all dinned it into him that he was going to be a doctor.
Because of his high scores, most teachers knew of him as soon as he entered, and he was now known for his leadership and responsibility. Danny credits Pathfinders with this. “I was in my Guide class by this time, [he eventually became a Master Guide] and was responsible for my team, and for the people under me. Being a good leader is not just telling how to do something; it’s taking responsibility. If my team did something wrong, I got the harshest punishment. It taught me to be responsible.”
So, feeling he had failed his parents in elementary school, he was trying hard to do well, but the high school had classes on Sabbath, and Danny wouldn’t go. He asked his pastor to write a letter, and fortunately, his uncles had gone to the same school and had, as Danny put it, “fought the fight in earlier years,” so most teachers would let him do the homework from the Sabbath classes and take the tests on other days. But he felt he had to act better and do better work the rest of the week. And he got A’s. Even in one class which met only on Sabbath, economics, he received a 90 because he studied so hard, although he never attended one class.
Now, Danny owned his own education; it was no longer just something his parents were forcing him to do. And he succeeded to the point that he was given an application to try out for valedictorian, something he is proud of even though he did not succeed in gaining this prestigious position.
Now Danny faced his first serious failure—he failed the entrance test to get into medical school. He and his family were very disappointed, but he would be able to try again the next year. In the meantime, he decided to attend a computer school. But he was still determined to get into medical school one way or another. The school he attended was one of the toughest in Indonesia, with a dropout rate of 40%. And of course, there were classes on Sabbath. Most teachers would give exams on another day, but one held out.
The following year, Danny tried for medical school again, and this time he passed. Now he had a decision to make. Praying and trying to decide the right thing to do, he realized he really liked computers and his tough school. He was still interested in biology, and thought perhaps he could do something with bioengineering, but his school didn’t have anything like that. Still, in the end he stayed in computer science.
His friends were upset. “Why did you do that? You took that seat from someone else!” they said. (The place he had tried for would not be passed on to another person attempting to get into medical school.) Danny says he wanted to prove to his parents and himself that he could do it, but he felt that staying in his computer school was the right thing to do. He thinks now that it’s because of the plans God had next.
His life path took several bewildering turns. He was already in computer science instead of medicine. Now a prestigious job dropped into his lap, paying twice what other entry level positions offered—but higher management had some kind of falling-out and the contract was not renewed. Immediately, he was interviewed for a managerial position in the largest bank in Indonesia. For two months, he had weekly interviews and tests in various subjects. Many family members couldn’t believe he got as far as the final interview, since he is Chinese, a minority that is commonly, and sometimes violently, discriminated against in Indonesia.
But Danny got all the way to the board of directors. . . who told him training was on Sabbath and there was no recourse. “So I didn’t sign the contract.”
So his parents told him to find a school in America. They had saved for years, and would send him. He began looking, but in the meantime, friends offered him work helping to start a company. He told them he would help, but might be leaving anytime. They said that was fine. Danny helped to set up a company that is still going in Indonesia, but he was also sending letters to American universities. Two sent back “try again in spring” messages. While Danny was away on a different island, working, just two weeks before the term began, Eastern Kentucky University sent an acceptance.
Hastily, Danny had a friend send him his passport from his home city while he dashed to the embassy for a visa. Because he had been in the States before, he got one right away. Plane tickets were another matter. The only ticket he could find would get him to America after the beginning of the term. Packing in a rush, Danny got a call. His ticket had been cancelled. “However, we have a cancellation. We could get you another ticket, but it would mean you’d have to leave earlier. . .” Danny says he still finds it hard to believe the next words—the new ticket would get him to Kentucky the day before classes began. “I was 30 minutes late for my orientation,” he exclaims, smiling.
His parents had saved some money, and they gave him enough to get started. They assumed they would have to find a way to send him money every year. At first, Danny was told he would have to pay expensive out-of-state tuition; his parents’ money wouldn’t even have covered one semester. But he talked to his advisor, and there was just one graduate assistant job left. It cut his tuition in half, and has covered everything. His parents never had to send him money again.
Danny tallies up the unexpected blessings: he thought he wanted to be a doctor, but loves his computer work better, and “if I’d gone to medical school, I never would have come to America.” He had wanted to come much earlier, but instead he got here just when he was turning 25, which made him eligible for much cheaper housing, in a private apartment with no roommate. He asked for a lab position, but his grad assistant job, besides being much easier, paid him for more hours than he actually worked. He was put in charge of a summer robotics camp and now teaches the instructors.
He also found a little Adventist church a few miles away. His parents had always told him, that’s the first thing you do, everywhere you go. Find a local Adventist church.
As he stood, capped and gowned, in front of the small Richmond congregation—his American family—he choked up. “Everything just fell into place. God is so good! And I appreciate this church and these people so much! Adventists are so kind! Somebody took me to church every Sabbath because I didn’t have a car. If I need anything, you’re there. This is the kind of church you will enjoy going to. It’s small, you know everybody, you know when somebody’s in trouble, what problems we have, everybody speaks out about it.”
There were few dry eyes in the house. The impromptu graduation ceremony was small, but it was powerful. Danny Saputra got a standing ovation. So did God.