The Class of 2020 in Their Own Words
As commencement ceremonies are revised, student graduation speakers hone their voice
Graduation looks very different in 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Pennsylvania moved to close schools for the remainder of the year, starting on April 9. In-person classes were halted, and students finished their academic year online. The graduating class of 2020 didn't get to have a traditional ceremony. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with your entire class, with hundreds of family members in attendance nearby was simply not an option.
Ceremonies have been changing over the years on their own, however. For example, only half of the schools that responded to our call chose the valedictorian or salutatorian as a featured speaker. Many schools around the country have been either moving to a Latin honors system featuring Summa Cum Laude honorees, having students apply to be speakers themselves, showcasing student and faculty choices, or some combination of those tactics.
Many student commencement speeches feature a quote. Using words of wisdom from someone well-known and respected is a common tool to add a dose of credibility to prepared words. These quotes can help to frame a speaker's own thoughts and distill a complex message into memorable pieces. This year's students highlighted quotes from Maya Angelou, Thurgood Marshall, Derek Jeter, Winston Churchill, Muhammed Ali, Charles Dickens, David Bowie, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Thornton Wilder, Lou Holtz, The Dalai Lama, Ferris Bueller, and Drake to name a few.
So we're doing the same. Here are small excerpts from dozens of the top local students across Erie County in their own words.
Unlike any other graduating year, it's not just our family and friends pouring out love and congratulations. The entire world is celebrating the class of 2020. The world needs our love, hope, and energy. While I am hopeful that graduates around the country will rise to the occasion, I know for a fact that my sisters will. — Bella Agresti, Villa Maria Academy
Never stop asking questions, never stop learning, and never stop trying to better yourself. Being motivated and having the focus to achieve your aspirations make success a much more realistic end product. Although at this moment in time, finding motivation may seem difficult. We feel lost, trapped, and filled with confusing emotions, not only because of the COVID-19 shutdown, but also because our routines — that we've all become so accustomed to — have ended because of graduation. — Kenny Berlin, Harbor Creek High School, Summa Cum Laude
Please learn from those around you, because just as I learned an immense amount from my teachers, I have also learned from my peers. They have taught me what is and what isn't friendship, how to work together, and what true compassion is. I would say that I and many of us have changed as academics, athletes, performers, friends, and people in general as a result of the company we have had during the last handful of years. — Miranda Bly, Mercyhurst Preparatory School
The last three months have been less than ideal for everyone. And this is certainly not how the seniors were expecting to end their high school experience. However, three months is such a small fraction of time if we choose to look at the bigger picture. We have our entire future ahead of us, which I hope is much more exciting than these last three months would have been. — Lily Brak, Harbor Creek High School, Summa Cum Laude
We have dealt with fires, three different principals, the Erie community talking negatively about us, and now COVID-19. We have come together, and we took on every obstacle that has come our way. Although it has been an eventful four years, it has also been great, and we are ready to take on what is next in our lives … A lot of us thought we would never make it to where we are now, but we did! And now it is time for new and better things. — Angela Breter, Erie High School Valedictorian
I know that our impact on the world will be prominent. But in that vein, I think it is worth highlighting that this prominence can only be felt if we take the time to make our voices heard. I urge each of you to employ the full force of the tools you have been provided to amplify your voice and take a stand for what you believe in. In doing so, I feel confident that you will never fail to find new and positive ways of impacting your community. — Cassie Carr, Girard High School, Summa Cum Laude
To my classmates, our valiant efforts, impressive successes, and memorable friendships are not all for nothing. Everything we did over the past four years still has meaning, and the lessons we learned will carry on with us to our future endeavors. Our graduation marks the end of our high school years, but more importantly, it marks the beginning of the rest of our lives. — Abigail Caviglia, North East Valedictorian
I speak for the vast majority of the class when I say that we would much rather be in a classroom right now — we'd never have thought we'd be saying that. The cancellation of many important moments in our high school career has left us feeling heartbroken and robbed. But I invite you all to look at this situation from a different perspective, where instead of dwelling on what we missed out on, we look back and celebrate what we did get to experience as students at Harbor Creek High School. These memories should be the basis of what we remember from our time spent here. — Dan Dabrowski, Harbor Creek High School, Summa Cum Laude
We love our families and have been blessed to grow closer with them during this time, but we have another home, one located at a place most of us have grown up in for the past 13 years. One where we used to see our friends each and every day. One with unforgettable memories we will never get back. One where we faced hard circumstances like the one we continue to face today and one that has built ourselves into the men and women here today. General McLane has become our home and this class has become our family.
— Timothy Fair, General McLane, Summa Cum Laude (Student Choice)
During this entire process, we've not only focused on the task at hand, but have also been able to take the positives from every situation. It may be hard to understand right now, but I can assure you that we will grow stronger as people and as friends from what we are dealing with as of late. Like I said, We've learned that taking the positive from every situation is so important. That mentality has been necessary during these times, and is also a skill that we will take into the next chapter of our lives. — Tyler Habursky, Harbor Creek High School, Summa Cum Laude
Be persistent in achieving your goals. If you give up in the middle of trying, you would have nothing left. Even though by the end you still might not achieve your goal, the fact that you have tried hard can console you. "I have put all my effort, that's enough." This may sound ideal because it is hard to succeed. Only a few talented people can succeed easily. Most people have to exert a lot of effort to succeed. The reality is tough, though. Even though you try your best, you may still gain nothing. However, if you give up at first, you are definitely not getting anything. — Anran (Lyle) Huang, Mercyhurst Preparatory School
This fall, my perspective shifted. We, as a class, embodied the idea of translating our opinions into meaningful action as we shared our perspective on the changes that were being made to our environment, our school, our family. I remember opening Instagram one afternoon, astounded by the number of people who didn't think twice about putting their opinion into positive action … We were doing it because we cared. Because we were taught that having an opinion is fine, but doing something constructive with it is what makes it valuable. We have learned that exhibiting pride, honor, and respect will encourage people to listen to you and that is the way we should treat people. — Lacey Jo Hunter, Collegiate Academy speaker
Because of our hardships, it made this class stronger, more successful, and more passionate about our lives. The class of 2020 will not be defined by this virus that is going on, but by our unity. I am proud of every single one of my classmates, and I am proud of what we have become. — Nathan Jones, Girard High School, Summa Cum Laude
Between the stresses of classes and the impending SATs, we still found time to have fun and even got to attend our first and only prom. Whether it was in the classroom or on the field, we began to discover our true passions and build unbreakable bonds with our FHS classmates. Junior year was the beginning of the end of our FHS careers. But as Fairview Tigers, we'll make every single day count. — Caroline Kraus, Fairview High School, Summa Cum Laude
Despite all of the setbacks corona[virus] gave us, we graduated. Now is not the time to be sad. Now is the time to rejoice. We were hit with a challenge and we faced it head-on making us stronger. Now the changes and challenges that we will be subject to in our next steps — whether that be in college or the military, or in a job — we all will be prepared and ready for whatever comes at us. — Glory Linebach, General McLane, Summa Cum Laude (Faculty Choice)
Please also keep in mind that the things we did in high school do not define us for the rest of our lives — and an international pandemic certainly doesn't either. Life will be what you make of it, so I challenge each one of you in the class of 2020 to leave no door unopened, no stone uncovered, and no opportunity unchecked. — Lucas Mosher, Fort LeBoeuf Valedictorian
This is our time to use what we have learned to bring light into the darkness. Now more than ever, we need to spread the idea of togetherness and family. We may be required to be physically apart but we can still connect through kindness. Whether we are placing motivational signs on display, making small donations to charity, or simply checking in on a friend or neighbor, we are impacting our community. — Rachel Nesgoda, Iroquois Valedictorian
Others may take these "unexpected" times as a sign to quit. Not the class of 2020. We take "unexpected" and we turn it into the chance to keep moving forward. Together, we take "unexpected" and turn it into the opportunity to cherish the memories we've had throughout our years here at McDowell. Every day we came to school and every time we represented McDowell, the class of 2020 stepped up to make the most out of the moment. I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say I have created so many unexpected memories I never want to forget and so many unexpected friendships that I never want to lose. Mcdowell's class of 2020 really is the toughest out there. Once we graduate, there is nothing that we can't push through. Amidst difficult times, we can create our own opportunities to be innovative and inspiring. – Adriana Nikolova, McDowell High School
I had to make the decision to put myself out there, follow up on that email, and ask for other work after finishing my tasks. I forced myself to get out of my comfort zone, try something new, and out of it came a stronger, wiser, and more unique me, although I still have my moments. Graduates, use your insight to put energy into something different, something challenging and meaningful to you as you enter your next chapter in life. Lead. Set examples in whichever path you choose. We learn from doing, not only listening. — Alexa Pierce, Collegiate Academy speaker
We, the class of 2020, are leaving here today with a sense of pride. Pride in knowing that we are about to enter the ring ready to fight our fight. We are leaving here today knowing that we are stronger than we ever could have imagined. We will not give up in the years to come, we will continue to show great resilience, and we will show everyone what fighters are made of. We have so many to thank for preparing us so excellently for this huge step we are about to take. — Olivia Sanders, Villa Maria Academy
School is a lot more fun when you take away all the learning and the work. I know, I know, learning is important. And that's the reason why we were here. But think of all the great memories you have with your friends, and how none of them happened when you were focused in class. But let's not take away from all the wonderful teachers we had. I only went to one high school. So I don't know many other teachers from other schools. But I can confidently say that I wouldn't replace a single teacher at Fairview. — DJ Smith, Fairview High School (student choice)
Since elementary school, we have been asked the question, "Are you brave enough?" The context of this question has changed as the years have progressed, and went from "are you brave enough to make new friends" or "to stand up to the bully," to "are you brave enough to try out for the varsity sports team or to overcome senioritis?" And finally, today, we are faced with the question: "Are you brave enough to face a global pandemic?" I would like to answer it. Yes, we are brave enough. — MacKenzie Smith, Iroquois speaker (faculty choice)
Use your voice. The world needs leaders, people who aren't afraid to stand up for what they believe in. Speak your mind proudly and confidently, and others will follow. Don't jump on the bandwagon of groupthink and herd mentality. Have original thoughts and be proud of them. Go out into the world and lead with character and integrity. Show the world how strong we can be in the face of adversity. And most of all, never give up on who you are just because of who other people think you should be. — Halle Swasing, Seneca Valedictorian
I figured that the best way to explain what I have to say is to relate it to a puzzle. As we all know, every single one of us is faced with struggles in life. We all have our own battles, and struggle with challenges completely different from the person sitting next to us. At these moments, when life throws problems in our direction, take a step back, because these are the most defying moments of our life. When a struggle comes your way in life, no matter how big or small, be thankful. Be thankful because this struggle gives you the opportunity to see so many things from a new perspective. A struggle gives you two choices. You can choose to feel defeated and give up, or you can see it as an opportunity to grow, conquer, and learn. – Katelyn Testa, McDowell High School
Some of you may call this the worst times of your life but many people are dealing with similar concerns. Such as "will life ever be the same?" And "when will this all end?" But in light of those concerns, life still continues. At times, we may feel that all hope is lost, but there's always some gift of hope waiting around the corner. And it's just a matter of seeking it out for ourselves. Our attitude about these drastic life changes is what determines our outcome throughout it all. — Joseph Wargo, Iroquois Salutatorian
We can compassionately use the knowledge we have gained to help others, whether by inventing a scientific device, educating people who would not have access to proper schooling otherwise, or bringing joy to people through works of art. With such a wide variety of talents, the possibilities are limitless. — Tyler Warzynak, Mercyhurst Preparatory School
Our class may be small, but we have sure made an impact at our school and in our town. We have accomplished many things throughout our time as YellowJackets, and although it is tragic that our time together had to end so unexpectedly the way it did, I am so proud to be a part of the class of 2020. I am going to miss my time spent in those hallways, but I am confident in saying that I left a wiser, stronger, braver, and most importantly kinder person than when I entered those doors because of my fellow classmates. — Sydney Wetzel, Girard High School Senior Class President
High School is a time in our lives when we begin to experience and have the opportunity to explore the world we are so eager to enter. Each of these past four years has been a stepping stone, leading us and preparing us for our bright futures. Every year has brought us fond memories that we will reflect on throughout our lives. — Lauren Weindorf, Fairview High School, Summa Cum Laude
In the coming years, remember that you all hold the power to create change, regardless of what position you hold or how much power you possess. Especially in turbulent times like these, we need people who can leave behind a better world, people who can serve as models for posterity as they continue the advancement of human achievement. — Kevin Xu, Collegiate Academy speaker
Thank you to the many principals, teachers, counselors, and school administrators who assisted in compiling these excerpts, and a sincere thank you and congratulations to the class of 2020.
Nick Warren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org