In May, we worked with high schools across the country to honor the Class of 2020 and #GraduateTogether. This first-of-its-kind virtual graduation ceremony—Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020—offered the perfect punctuation to an unprecedented and challenging school year.
The prime time celebration brought together educators, families, celebrities, and national leaders to recognize and appreciate the resilience of our students. The night was filled with videos, photos, and personal messages from high school seniors, educators, and families meant to uplift, celebrate, and honor this year’s graduating seniors.
As part of the national graduation, we included some outstanding high school commencement speeches from across the country. Now, we are recognizing them as part of the ongoing celebration! We are happy to announce awards to five high school graduates as part of the #GraduateTogether Student Speaker Awards contest. Chosen by XQ, PEOPLE, the Entertainment Industry Foundation, and the LeBron James Family Foundation, these five inspiring graduates closed out a truly unique school year with words of wisdom and encouragement. Check out the sensational prose and inspiring words from these amazing graduates!
Graduates Who Inspired Us
From California, Tennessee, and Colorado—these graduates brought messages of unity and hope to the Class of 2020. “It has been remarkable to watch these young people, in the face of unprecedented challenge, demonstrate courage and resilience beyond their years. In doing so, they have given every American reason to be hopeful about our future,” explained Russlynn Ali, co-founder and CEO of XQ. And, it’s true. These students spoke about their personal stories—in narrative and poetic speeches—and reminded us that we are better when we come together.
Priscilla Arceo, Santa Ana High School, Santa Ana, California
“Class of 2020, we are going through something that even perfect vision couldn’t have predicted. But we are doing it together. We have become more creative, more resourceful, and most importantly, we have become more resilient…We all have our stories. For some of you, your parent may not be alive to see you graduate; for some, you are the first in your family to ever graduate from high school; and for others—like myself—we wanted to give our graduation as a thank you for our parent’s hard work. No matter the situation, we have succeeded in being here, in getting here, and today, all I want to say is hold hands with your loved ones and celebrate who you are.”
Ximena Escobar, Gladstone High School, Azusa, California
“This too will come to pass. I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason, and that life is now. If we decide to live in the ifs, the would have’s, or the past—we’ll end up hurting ourselves. We’ll also never see what life is teaching us and we’ll never see the good out of this circumstance. It sounds cliched to say, but even though we are distant, we are connected.”
Janay Kelley, White Station High School, Memphis, Tennessee
“Let’s pretend to lift our caps and flower our gowns because we did it. Know that when I am staring at you through this screen, I am thinking about the next day when I’ll be able to touch your hand. And I wonder if you feel the same as me. And ain’t that a good thing, to see yourself so much in other people, that you look full when you look in the mirror that your lonely becomes less lonely.”
Matine Khalighi, Smoky Hill High School, Aurora, Colorado
“If I can say anything to the Class of 2020, it’s that let’s use this time to focus on giving back to others. It is the most impactful thing we can do…We live in a world that is so focused on the individual but look at the world right now. This pandemic is going to have lasting effects. Help is needed now, more than ever before, so Class of 2020 this is not the time to sit back. Let’s focus on what we can do right now instead of what we can’t—find local initiatives, charities, sign up to volunteer. Make masks or make meals, but make it your job to see what you can do to positively influence our communities.”
Justin Walton, Oakland School for the Arts, Oakland, California
“Before I get into my speech, I want to talk about why I wrote it and what inspired me. When I found out that we weren’t going to be going back to school and I wasn’t able to finish my whole senior year, I had a lot of different emotions and feelings. Really, I just couldn’t believe that the last Thursday in March was the last day of school. I didn’t really process the fact that we weren’t going back to school. I decided to sit down and really write about what I was going through and writing about what all these other seniors were experiencing.”
Leaders of Tomorrow
The inspiring words from these graduates reminded us that even though we live in an uncertain world, young people are the leaders of tomorrow. And these graduates prove that those future leaders are level-headed, inspiring, and ready to take on any challenge.
“The graduates of 2020 have demonstrated perseverance and a strength of spirit that will benefit all of us as they prepare to lead us forward,” remarked Nicole Sexton, president and CEO of EIF. We are deeply moved by how this country was able to come together to send off the Class of 2020 with this once-in-a-lifetime graduation and awed by the resilience and perseverance of all our students.
Dan Wakeford, the editor-in-chief of PEOPLE put it this way: “These seniors demonstrated their intelligence, introspection, determination, and wit, and though only five can win, they’ve all earned our respect. We’re so proud of them and excited to see where they go from here.”
Congratulations to the Class of 2020! We can’t wait to see what you do next!