Columbia High School graduates the Class of 2020

Ibtihaj Muhammad speaks to the Columbia High School Class of 2020 during the virtual graduation ceremony.

MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Columbia High School’s graduation ceremony looked a little different this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced high schools and colleges across the country to adapt their annual commencements for the internet. But the virtual ceremony, lasting an hour and a half and featuring CHS’ usual speakers in addition to a plethora of guests, was still able to highlight the Class of 2020.

“The high school diploma that you have earned is symbolic of many things,” CHS Principal Kalisha Morgan, standing outside the school dressed in her own cap and gown, said in her portion of the ceremony. “They are symbols of support given by families and teachers. They are symbols of hard work in the classroom, on the stage, and on the athletic fields and courts. They are defining symbols of your time at CHS. You are more than test scores. You are more than GPAs. You are more than the class who finished high school at home. You are the passionate activists that started the year with a protest for our Mother Earth, and you are the activists who march for black lives. You are resilient. You are strong. You work hard to stay positive. You work hard to support each other and we could not be more proud of you.”

Activism was a theme throughout the speeches during the CHS graduation, with both senior class President Jessica Canning and student council President Dylan Herbert mentioning the protests and walkouts they have participated in over the last four years.

“We walked out as freshmen when Donald Trump became president. We marched for our lives as sophomores against gun violence and in solidarity with the students in Parkland,” Canning said. “Inspired by Greta Thunberg, we walked out as juniors to demand action against climate change. As seniors, we have organized and led protests for Black Lives Matter after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. We learned at CHS that our voices matter and that we, especially as youth, can inspire change in the world around us. We have walked out of Columbia a lot over the last four years. Today we are walking out of Columbia again, virtually this time, with appreciation for the past four years and excitement for what is to come.”

In her speech, Herbert said her class is going to see a lot of changes in the next year.

“We have no idea what’s going to happen next year, but I really think that this is a good thing,” she said. “With the election coming up and with the Black Lives Matter movement pushing for changes in equality, I think that we’re going to see a lot of changes, and we are going to be at the forefront of those changes. It may be daunting, it may be scary, but we are the strongest and most equipped to handle these challenges.”

Columbia’s annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony was canceled this year because of the pandemic, but to make up for it past inductees recorded messages for the class of 2020, some of which were played during the ceremony. Max Weinberg, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Mark Bryant, Andrew Shue and Elisabeth Shue all gave words of encouragement, along with elected officials, including South Orange Village President Sheena Collum, Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee and Sen. Cory Booker.

Superintendent Ronald Taylor, in his first graduation ceremony as the head of the district, told the outgoing seniors what he wished he had learned at his high school graduation.

“The first is how important effort is,” Taylor said. “Many times we think about our talents, our innate abilities and our interests, but we don’t think a lot about how hard we work, our grit, our tenacity, our stick-to-itiveness, and how that can carry us further than our talent.”

He also encouraged students to be kind to others.

“How you treat people is so important,” Taylor said. “People will often forget the words that you say to them, but they will remember the feeling that you gave them from your interaction. So as you go through life, pause. Spend an extra second shaking someone’s hand and looking them in the eyes, connecting with them.”

In a montage of graduates sharing their choice of what word describes the Class of 2020, many chose resilient. Herbert repeated it in her speech.

“A lot of adults said when I was younger that we are the generation that is going to change the world and make it a better place, and I didn’t believe them,” she said. “But now I can see how strong we are and how resilient we are. I’m watching people write speeches for rallies and go to protests all while doing homework and finishing high school. We are strong and we can do this together.”