NJ’s Class of 2021 in their own words

Dorothy S. Bass
Micah Ingram-Townsend, KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy

Over the course of the last month, New Jersey’s high schools have celebrated the graduations of the Class of 2021 with plenty of wise words and proclamations. No less wise have been those from students themselves in the commencement speeches by class presidents, valedictorians, and others, many of them reflecting on what has been remarkable school year in their communities, schools and families. The following are excerpts from a few of those students’ speeches, submitted to NJ Spotlight News by their school principals.

Matthew Campo, Woodbury High School

Everything about our high school experience changed on March 16, 2020. At that time, we thought we would be home on a minibreak for just two weeks and soon things would be back to normal. Little did we know that the world around us would come to a stop and still has yet to totally resume.

Schools closed, all but essential workers were told to stay home, and we quickly learned the value of toilet paper. We attended classes remotely with no end in sight. It seemed like all the questions we had were being answered by a Magic 8 Ball. Will we be back in school soon?…“Outlook not so good.” Will I ever get to take my SATS?…“Reply hazy, try again.” Will we have a football season?…“Ask again later.” It seemed like the Magic 8 Ball’s answers were more realistic than what we learned from the news.

‘The beginning of the school year was chaotic and we all felt overwhelmed. … But we overcame the obstacles of remote learning…’

Soon the question changed from “When will we be back in school?” to “Will our Senior year be spent online from home?” The policies and procedures put in place for the fall were overwhelming and confusing. It seemed like things changed each day. The beginning of the school year was chaotic and we all felt overwhelmed. After all, the memes don’t lie — we were all doing our homework from bed, sleeping during class and pointing our cameras at ceiling fans.

But we overcame the obstacles of remote learning, such as hearing “Can you guys put your cameras on?” all day long. Or learning to turn our work in at precisely 11:59 p.m. And don’t forget, we have perfected the art of the flip grid.

Eventually we were able to return to the building part time and words like “cohort” and “asynchronous” became part of our everyday vocabulary. We were able to see teachers and friends in person again…. sometimes even without our faces covered by masks.

Our class came together, improvised, adapted and overcame a huge obstacle. While no one could have envisioned a global pandemic impacting our senior year, we truly made the experience our own and made history in the process.

Micah Ingram-Townsend, KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy 

Micah Ingram-Townsend

Walking through the halls of NCA was something magical to me. Everyone was always talking, playing or laughing. The halls exuded JOY! Now, don’t get me wrong, we had our days, but WE, as the class of 2021, a family, always came out on top.

For all of us to be here today we broke through the walls of excuses; we overcame the mountains of self-doubt. We have surmounted every — and I mean EVERY — challenge and test that has been set in or on our path. Each of those obstacles has brought us to this VERY moment. WE are HERE in our seats, caps and gowns, prepared to take our next steps. I’m so proud of you, 2021!

Madeline Ott, Cumberland Regional High School

This class is truly like no other. We were forced to quickly adapt to virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and overcome the loss of a full year away from friends, sports, theater, clubs and more. But I am beyond proud to say we still made the absolute best of it. For example, both tennis teams were division champs, the girls track and field team placed second at counties, the baseball team had a 4-home-run inning! All fantastic accomplishments that every single participant, here or not, should be proud of.

‘Whether it is utilized in goals, athletics, or passions, personal grit sculpts our version of triumph.’

Although senior year was not what we expected, lifelong friends and memories were still made. I’ll never forget prom night with Korrine, Peyton and Alida. Or on our senior trip when Zyana and I sprinted back to the hotel in flip-flops while holding onto our Popsicles and chicken tenders for dear life three minutes before curfew.

Grace Gleason, Ocean City High School

None of us would have ever thought that those exciting two weeks away from school in March of 2020 would have ever turned into months of being away from school, but they did. None of us thought our junior prom, our spring sports seasons, and our concerts and plays would have turned into online school and Zoom calls, but they did. And none of us would have ever thought that our senior year, our final year that comes wrapped in a bow of Friday night football games, homecoming, exciting college decisions and prom, could ever be less than the expectations in our head, but it was.

‘…I refuse to linger on the negatives but instead to invite everyone to join with me in leaving our expectations of the past, in the past.’

However, my point in recalling those disappointments from the pandemic is not to linger on the negatives because in fact I refuse to linger on the negatives but instead to invite everyone to join with me in leaving our expectations of the past, in the past. And for those of you who may have suffered crushing, unspeakable loss, know that we will hold space for you whenever you’re ready.

We have seen time and again that life will make us question every expectation and preconceived idea. So instead of allowing our circumstances to dictate us, we need to dictate our circumstances. All of us have emerged with a new skillset. And I can say that with certainty as we are sitting here because we pushed through every situation and made it to this next step in life.

Akash Bobba, West Windsor-Plainsboro South

Akash Bobba

From unthinkable loss fueled by a pandemic, to civil unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd, to unprecedented division sowed by a divisive election, this last year has undoubtedly been painful and difficult for us as Pirates and for our nation at large.

For me to tell all of you to go off and embrace the world in stride given these circumstances, would be for me to ignore the nuance that we as society need now more than ever before. And so with that said I have two simple pieces of advice for us, the Class of 2021.

Number one, appreciate the complexity in life.

We live in an age where simplicity reigns supreme, where 30 second TikToks and 280-character tweets come to define our identities. This increasing willingness to simplify even the most complex narratives into sensational tidbits, perpetuates misinformation and in the process divides the communities, families, and relationships we cherish.

What’s the solution, you might ask? Seek discomfort. If there’s anything South has taught us over these last four years, it’s that the answers we deserve demand discomfort. From solving polynomials in Algebra II to breaking down Jacksonian democracy in APUSH, our quest for an understanding was often complex and difficult, challenging us as Pirates to think past the superficial.

It’s in an application of these lessons that we must similarly embrace a mindset of informed skepticism. Where we can develop our own authentic world views by embracing new perspectives with an open mind and questioning what we don’t quite understand.

Basil Iacampo, West Morris Central High School

All of this — sports, music, theater, clubs, academics — is accomplished because of our legacy: we are the class that perseveres. We, the graduating class of 2021, have persevered in our efforts. It’s clear to note, however, that I’m not speaking about just these past 15 months, or West Morris’ COVID efforts, because I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about that recently.

As I reflect upon every year of schooling with many of you sitting before me, I think that all we’ve accomplished has been so because a problem was presented before us, and we overcame it. And we, as a class, continue to do that each and every year, every month, every day.

Daniella Mendez, Hopatcong High School

Daniella Mendez

We are here to commemorate not only our graduation but the success of overcoming one of the most strange and unconventional situations we have experienced. During these past two years, our class endured lost moments, virtual learning, and lack of motivation.

I’d like to thank the administration and our teachers for putting their best efforts to make our senior year as normal as possible. For that, I commend you all — the students, teachers, and loved ones for being there for us during this time.

Perseverance is to continuously work on achieving your aspirations when all odds are against you. From the knowledge I’ve gained throughout my high school career, nothing can be compared with the power of perseverance. Whether it is utilized in goals, athletics, or passions, personal grit sculpts our version of triumph.

Rachel Yan, East Brunswick High School

In the past 3,462 hours, we’ve traveled through an escape room just like this one, filled with its own victories and blunders. We’ve encountered countless puzzles: Who is truly the greatest American? At what angle do we launch a projectile to hit Mrs. Eastep? What does Queen Gertrude really think?

We’ve battled challenges and navigated through competitions. We’ve stood up from failures of bad days, injuries, and intrusive doubts. And we’ve been stumped by those impossible “puzzles” that weren’t meant to be solved: What am I truly interested in? What do I want to do in the future? Who am I really? There was always a new puzzle to crack or another existential question to consider, no matter how many things we’ve already solved. But still, we made it out.

Just like solving an escape room, achieving our future will require patience and time. It demands diligent effort to crack the next puzzle. It seeks courage and curiosity to venture through another door or solve a new riddle. It calls for cooperation, for teamwork with a band of detectives, or for help and advice from someone well-versed in the puzzle of life.

Victoria Wei, Montville High School

Despite going to school from home for the past year, I don’t think I could survive being actually home-schooled because of how much I rely on my classmates. There’s nothing quite like the camaraderie of struggling through the same courses. I can’t count how many times I’ve asked my friends to edit my essays, clarify project instructions, or send me study notes. Of course, giving is better than receiving. I often joke that I leech off my friends but it’s really more of a mutualism. Proofread unto others as you would have them proofread unto you.

‘I’ll need to remember not to let competitiveness force me into isolation, because goodness knows we’ve had enough of isolation.’

This all sounds obvious, and it is, but I have to remind myself of the importance of these kinds of relationships as I enter college. I’ll need to remember not to let competitiveness force me into isolation, because goodness knows, we’ve had enough of isolation.

Mackenzie Kelleher, Shawnee High School

After witnessing so much loss, and living in a world where people were stripped of the ability to embrace their loved ones or cheer from the stands of a full stadium, I realized how many small moments actually account for such large amounts of happiness and purpose in our daily lives. As I’ve watched the world change in ways I never knew possible, it has become increasingly important to look out for these minute moments, to take them in, and to hold on to them.

Looking out at all of you now, the kids who I’ve spent the last four years and more beside, a multitude of these small moments come to mind, and the truth that has taken me so long to face confronts me: We’ve grown up.

Thomas Rebstock, Shawnee High School

Thomas Rebstock

When I realized in September that I was going to give a graduation speech, I didn’t know what to talk about. So, I began asking people what they thought I should say. And I always received the same replies: “Don’t talk about COVID, that’s what everyone will talk about”; or, “Every speech is about the virus, we’ve heard it a million times.”

When people talk about COVID, they often talk about how it would bring us together as a class, about how we would be remembered as the senior class who lived through the pandemic. People always make sure to mention how resilient we are as a class, but I’m not too sure how much resiliency it takes to roll over, log in to school, and then go right back to sleep. But we are more than just the “masked class” of COVID. We are a class who dreamed about high school long before it began, and our last 16 months may not have been what we dreamed about as kids, but so much more came out of our experience.

Amelia Laubsch, Cumberland Regional High School

You have all been granted this beautiful opportunity to start fresh and make your life into what you want it to be, so I urge you all to make the most of that opportunity in three ways.

First, be successful by your own definition. Throughout my life, my goal was to be successful, which is probably true for you as well, but my idea of success is not measured by wealth, status, or material possessions. When I encourage you to be successful by your own definition, I wish for you to be happy with your life. Your success may be with your family, career, education, or some combination of all three. I hope that your accomplishments mean something to you and that you do not let anyone else’s ideas of success get in the way of your aspirations.

Second, I admonish you to make a difference. Making a difference, by definition, is to cause a change. This definition is vague for a reason. This is because making a difference doesn’t need to happen on a large scale. If you can make a difference in one way or in one person’s life, you have caused a change, and that is important.

Third, and most of all, enjoy the journey. You have all worked so hard to get to this point in your lives and you will continue to work to be the person that you want to become. While embarking on this journey after graduation, enjoy the little things. Stop and smell the roses because time is precious and memories last forever.

Rebekah Barnhardt, Audubon High School 

Rebekah Barnhardt

Entering high school, new challenges and adventures awaited us. Having been prepared for the changes by our teachers, we were finally stepping onto a high-intensity roller coaster. In the beginning, our high school experience was normal; we joined sports teams, made the cliche paper towel stands in woodwork, joined clubs, and had our first high school pep rally. Going through the motions of dealing with relationships, the stress of grades, and the ever-increasing homework load, we were riding smoothly… or as smoothly as high school can be.

‘Gradually we started to adjust to the darkness, training our eyes to see the light.’

But then along came some technical difficulties. Much like the Everest ride in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we were soon plunged into darkness, unsure of how to navigate the new system of online learning. Our teachers too, only saw black… especially when looking at their screens during class over Zoom. Sports events, prom, graduation — the uncertainty behind any of these occurring kept us in our seats on our ride through high school as we waited for the next drop or turn to come.

Gradually we started to adjust to the darkness, training our eyes to see the light. But thankfully, this wasn’t necessary for long. Soon enough, our ride through the dark was over; coming out into the sunlight we found ourselves looking at two class trips, the powderpuff game, the prom, and even graduation. With the technical difficulties behind us we could continue smoothly riding our roller coaster through until the end of the year.

Samantha Jackman, Matawan Regional High School 

Today I will not focus on the last year and a half. Words and phrases like “pandemic,” “COVID-19,” “challenging times,” and “unprecedented” have been spoken about and discussed at length. You will not hear me mention them again today. I promise.

At the ripe old age of 18 years, there is much I have yet to experience. But if there is one thing I have learned thus far, it is that we each have the power to influence the people around us. We’ve all been told to dream big and shoot for the stars. But I encourage all of you to remember the importance of the path and its steps, along with the destination. One of my favorite poets, Maya Angelou, wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Nathaniel Samuel, Hoboken Charter School 

Nathaniel Samuel

The past two years have been difficult for us all — with educating ourselves about a virus that took the world by surprise. We had to adapt to life at home, which wasn’t so bad after all, even when it seemed difficult.

I think the major part for me was not seeing each and every one of you. I’m happy that we found ways to stay connected. This pandemic has taught me to appreciate what I have. Because at the end of the day, no matter what happens, we are still HCS family, and I truly appreciate everyone here.

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