WEST ORANGE, NJ — The pleasant weather enhanced the excitement in the air, as the West Orange High School graduating Class of 2017 walked onto the field one last time. Expressing their individuality with decorated caps, which included the names of colleges students will attend, flags of ancestral countries and LGBT pride colors, the students stood united in royal blue caps and gowns, showcasing something they will have in common for years to come: their Mountaineer pride.
On June 22, West Orange High School hosted its 122nd annual commencement to celebrate its 491 graduates. The commencement exercises featured several speeches by faculty and members of the West Orange Board of Education, who expressed how proud they are of the students and encouraged them to use the skills they learned at WOHS to do great things.
In her address, salutatorian Mariel Go said her peers have inspired her through her academic journey.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t get to know all of you and hear your stories,” she said. “Even then, I know that, no matter who you are, you were part of my high school experience — an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
“You have helped to give me my voice,” she continued. “Set an example and impact the community. Use your gifts and your voice to inspire and love others. Speak out against injustice, and remember your roots.”
Valedictorian Derek Lim took a jovial approach in his address, which he began by taking a selfie with his peers. Lim, captain of the cross-country track team, then proceeded to take a quick run on the track, earning loud applause from his peers. In his address, he discussed the lessons and opportunities that the school has provided, saying they will help graduates in their future endeavors.
“It may be hard to see it at times, but these are some of the best years of our lives,” Lim said. “We will all look back at something from West Orange High School in the future, the freedom, beautiful racial and ideological diversity, opportunity, learning in every sense.
“It is a natural function of society to delineate or organize people into groups according to importance. Today’s society uses fame, fortune and popularity as measurements that define your individual achievement and thereby your place in the world. But, this is a paradox. How can society define an individual’s achievement when the composite values and experiences developed over a complex lifetime cannot possibly align with those which are cumulatively accepted by an entire society? Thus, each of us should strive to be a relative superstar: someone who continuously defines their own goals throughout life so that they can find their infinitely sophisticated and constantly changing, truest happiness,” he said.
The salutatory and valedictory addresses were followed by the presentation of academic honor medallions to the 23 students who composed the top 5 percent of the class. These students will be attending some of the country’s most prestigious universities, such as Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University and University of California, Berkeley. Lim will attend Cornell University and Go will attend Rutgers University.
To the graduates, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky passed down the two pieces of advice he had received from his grandmother.
“Number one: Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Doing what’s popular is not always the right thing,” Rutzky said. “Number two: When you make a decision, think that the most important person in your life … is standing next to you. If that person would be proud of your decision, then it’s a good decision. Please do it. If that person is not proud of your decision, please don’t do it.”
Board of Education President Sandra Mordecai also gave the students some advice, after telling them how proud she is of their accomplishments.
“My sons once stood where you are and we are so excited and proud of you. You have engaged in community service, and met academic requirements. You have laid a foundation to achieve your goals and dreams,” Mordecai told the graduates. “Find something you are passionate about and pursue it, standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before you. Go out, do good and change the world.”
WOHS Principal Hayden Moore addressed the graduates like a proud father watching his children grow up.
“This class has raised the bar at West Orange High School, and I hope your experience here was positive, that you felt safe and welcomed, respected and challenged,” Moore said. “Stay focused and persevere. Follow your heart and dreams. I wish you health and success, and never forget you are a Mountaineer who climbs every challenge and summits every mountain.”
Through the almost two-hour ceremony, the students patiently and excitedly waited for the presentation of the diplomas. As students walked onto the stage, they were met with loud applause from their peers and families in the audience. A few students danced, took off their gowns, did special handshakes with close friends and one even did a backflip.
Posthumous diplomas were given to the families of Nikhil Badlani and Mackenzie Sarah Fitschen, two members of the Class of 2017 who were unable to cross that stage. Nikhil Badlani died in 2011 when a driver ran a stop sign and hit his family’s car; Mackenzie Fitschen, a WOHS cheerleader, died of cancer last year.
The students’ mothers, Sangeeta Badlani and Dawn Fitschen released doves at the ceremony to remember their children.
In a broader sense, the birds fleeing from the cage represented all of the graduates: leaving the security of the walls of their high school to take the world by storm.
Photos Courtesy of WOSD