The Santa Maria Joint Union High School District celebrated the class of 2021 with in-person graduation ceremonies on Thursday and Friday, finally uniting members forced to remain apart for more than a year.
Students spent months of online learning, with seniors returning to campus in April for the first time since March 2020, but divided into groups to follow social-distancing guidelines due to the pandemic.
On Thursday evening, Ernest Righetti High School sent its 490 graduates out with a bang by setting off fireworks and launching streamers at the end of its graduation.
“What a beautiful sight: the class of 2021 is here all together in the Warrior house,” Righetti Principal Karen Rotondi said. “While we couldn’t give you the senior year you desired or deserved, you are graduating with tools for your life’s toolbox that will help you soar to a life of confidence, strength and success.”
Student speakers, including valedictorian Claire Alford and Associated Student Body president Audrey Herrera, reflected on spending their senior year in a pandemic.
“This has been an odd year. For the first time ever, we heard teachers say things like ‘please talk more’ and ‘no, you cannot drive through McDonald’s during class,’” Alford said. “Sometimes you just have to keep showing up until things work out.”
Despite the pandemic and its obstacles, many graduates maintained a positive outlook on the experience.
A Righetti High School graduate waves to her family from the field after receiving her diploma during the school’s graduation Thursday evening. (Serena Guentz / Noozhawk photo)
“While COVID affected us a lot, we also got a lot of good out of it,” said Righetti graduate Avory Taylor, mentioning that it prompted more compassion and motivation for her class.
Graduates also expressed what they had learned from the pandemic.
“The class of 2021 showed people that the pandemic did not define us, but helped us to get to where we are today,” Herrera said in her farewell address. “I feel we all learned something very valuable; we were taught to live every moment like it’s our last.”
On Friday morning, 568 graduates were decked in teal or black caps and gowns as they walked across the stage during Pioneer Valley High School’s 15th annual commencement ceremony.
Valedictorian Claire Alford smiles as she address her fellow graduates at Righetti High School Thursday evening. (Serena Guentz / Noozhawk photo)
Before starting her welcome, Pioneer Valley Principal Shanda Herrera gave graduates a 30-second “moment of crazy” to call out and wave to their families in the filled bleachers. In return, families and friends cheered and showed off decorations, signs and confetti.
According to Herrera, graduates from the school earned over $984,000 in scholarships.
“We’re the class of 2021. Wherever we go, success will follow,” said salutatorian Roann-Mae Lampitoc.
Other student speakers at Pioneer Valley included valedictorian Evelyn Robles, Associated Student Body co-presidents Carlos Cordova and Gabrielle Sepulveda, and senior class president Sinai Barajas.
“Even in a year defined by difficulty and loss, you kept fighting like the champions that you are,” Robles said to her fellow graduates. “The world looks up to us as the next generation of change-makers who will fight the injustices of today to fuel a more equitable and inclusive tomorrow.”
The student speakers reflected on the pandemic and the past four years of their high school career, as well as what success meant to them.
A graduate holds up peace signs as he walks into the Pioneer Valley High School stadium for the Class of 2021 graduation Friday morning. (Serena Guentz / Noozhawk photo)
“Success is not how fast you receive it, nor is it perfection, but success is the actions we commit in order to get there,” Sepulveda said. “Considering our circumstances, we came together and made the most out of our imperfection, which I find to be successful.”
On Friday afternoon, approximately 568 graduates, sporting red caps and gowns plus Saints masks, marched into the stadium for Santa Maria High School’s 128th commencement ceremony.
Principal Steve Campbell noted the challenges faced by the class of 2021 in reaching graduation day during the pandemic, adding Friday symbolized a conquest.
Still, Santa Maria High’s graduates plan to pursue further education ranging from Allan Hancock College to Harvard University. Others intend to enlist in various branches of the military.
This year’s graduating Saints have earned more than $1 million in scholarships, Campbell added.
“Congratulations class of 2021, you’ve made it. I think you know that we’re extremely proud of you,” he added, before telling them “now go out there and do great things.”
Several graduates decorated their caps with fun decorations, to show off where they’re going to college, or to honor family members. (Serena Guentz / Noozhawk photo)
Graduate Christina Regalado spoke about the past and future, and was followed by classmate Isabel Cruz, who delivered a similar speech in Spanish. Salutatorian Andres Ramirez-Enriquez also addressed the crowd.
Regalado noted that the abrupt closure of schools in March 2020 meant students could no longer go to a place they took for granted, and a place that served as a haven for some.
It also served as lesson “to cherish each and every moment because in a flash it could be gone,” she added.
Valedictorian Jesus Martinez offered an unusually short speech. “Thank you,” he said, before returning to his seat to applause.
As the ceremony occurred, drivers passing by the southern end of the stadium on busy Stowell Road honked their horns in support of the graduates.
Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully contributed to this report.
Santa Maria High School graduates receive diploma covers from Superintendent Antonio Garcia and Principal Steve Campbell on Friday. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)