If there was an overriding common theme to all seven of Jersey City’s high school commence ceremonies last week, it was diversity and the social challenges graduating students will face when moving out into the wide world.
This was not any official theme, since the city’s seven public high schools cover a wide range of social, ethnic, and economic groups in a community seen as one of the most diverse in the nation.
While the speeches of each school’s valedictorians (first in class rank) and salutatorians (second) recalled specific memories reflecting their four-year rite of passage, each also took a glimpse at the future and the potentially troubling world into which they emerge. Each speech echoed some powerful personal emotion.
“The nation is divided…but Jersey City is diverse.” – Ebiani Alfonso, valedictorian at Snyder High
“Every generation has its challenges,” said Reshma Modi, valedictorian of Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School. “At this time, a fear and confusion has been extended to us. But we are brought together by fears that tear so many others apart.”
She described this graduating class as one “that gets things done” and will embrace the challenge of the future and succeed.
Ebiani Alfonso, valedictorian of Snyder High School, also viewed the wider world into which the class is graduating.
“The nation is divided,” she said. “People are separated from each other. But Jersey City is diverse, and people have been exposed to other cultures. We may not all be the same, but we’re all together.”
Michael Fahim, salutatorian of Dickinson High School, also spoke about diversity and how each student needed to embrace challenges.
“You have to get out of your comfort zone and try new things,” he said, then quoting Bill Gates, “Take advantage of every moment.”
Luc Paul Adams, salutatorian of Snyder High School, said the students defied the dour expectations some people have about Snyder, a school with some of the poorest students in the district.
“Every school has its challenges,” he said. “But we need to defy the stereotype of our school.”
Statistics show that Snyder’s graduation rate rose this year, after several years of decline.
Alfonso of Snyder High said, “Each journey will be difficult,” she said, but noted that exposure to art and education has given them opportunity to succeed.
Although students cheered in each high school, many also came to the edge of tears.
“We can’t turn back time,” said Melanie Mae Calderon, valedictorian of Dickinson High School. “The friends we’ve made here can never be replaced and will always be with us along with the lessons we learned.” Calderon will be attending Rutgers University in the Fall.
She described high school as a valuable “fragment of her life,” out of which she learned to be open to challenges. “The positive and negative experiences allowed us to learn,” she said.
Nicole Padilla, valedictorian of Liberty High School, called graduation as “taking the next step.”
“There were many valuable lessons we learned here,” she said. “Liberty is a small school, so we were always close knit and always supportive with each other.”
She described her classmates as a very talented group of students, and she advised them to “Say yes to life, leaving nothing back, and when you leave life, accomplish want you wanted to accomplish.”
A family issue
Cherry Lam, salutatorian of McNair, talked about her family.
She said her parents moved from China to Hoboken, where they started a fast food Chinese restaurant.
“Throughout my childhood, my father worked in the restaurant, opening up at 10 a.m. and coming upstairs to where we lived at two in the morning, spending a few hours with us,” she said. “He would go to sleep at 4:30 a.m. and get up at 7:30 a.m. and would still offer to take us to school.”
Her mother, she said, worked just as hard, on her feet working 365 days a year, which later resulted with physical problems in her legs.
“My dad could not come to my eighth grade graduation or my brother’s high school graduation because he could not get out from work,” she said.
But her parents, she said, supported her efforts and wanted her to make a better life for herself.
“My parents are my life,” she said. “And everything I do is for them.”
Superintendent of Schools Marcia V. Lyles, along with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and other dignitaries, headed from one graduation ceremony to another, carrying a positive message for hope of the future.
“You’re taking the next step in a long journey,” Fulop told the graduates. “Make a commitment to make not just a better city, but a better world.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com