WEST ORANGE, NJ — From the graduation choir belting out the loudest tune to parents crying tears of joy, West Orange High School held a large graduation under sunny skies at Suriano Stadium. It was an atmosphere of happiness and great cheer after a difficult year of remote learning. As all 584 graduates crossed the stage in three separate ceremonies on June 24 to accommodate CDC guidelines, the pain of the past year seemed to melt away. Graduates were seated with their families and spread across the field, with the diverse West Orange class, representing 54 nationalities, on full display.
Reflecting during her speech on her four years at West Orange High School, valedictorian Celia Murphy-Braunstein mentioned her fears of being preoccupied with the “what if” and “what could be,” preventing her from taking risks out of fear of making mistakes. But she ultimately learned that one’s goals should not come at the expense of one’s well-being and relationships with others.
“I’m still not immune to the pressures of the academic world, but instead of feeling dread, I’m inspired and challenged to let go of my preconceived notion of perfection and open myself up to change,” Murphy-Braunstein said. “We must be kind to ourselves and acknowledge our efforts. Instead of focusing on the past and ‘should haves,’ we can learn and improve and look forward.”
Murphy-Braunstein was surprised to be named valedictorian but is extremely proud of her accomplishments and hard work, as well as that of her peers, including getting through the trying year they’ve had due to COVID-19. On her way to Princeton University this fall, Murphy-Braunstein advised the senior class to try new things.
“Don’t be afraid to take risks. I know it’s easier sometimes to play it safe and not take risks, but take the class that might seem too challenging and just challenge yourself to take risks. Just try new things,” Murphy-Braunstein said.
During his speech, salutatorian Carlos Herbozo Osco spoke to the diversity of West Orange and heavily expressed gratitude to the community, students and teachers for his success, as well as that of his peers.
“The support from our community members is truly out of this world,” Herbozo Osco said. “Whether it was the ‘Adopt a Senior’ Facebook group, fundraising for our celebrated sports teams and extracurricular activities, or supportive lawn signs, we could always count on the West Orange community. West Orange prides itself on its diversity, and we are truly a reflection of the work at its very best at a time when it is needed now more than ever.”
The “Adopt a Senior” Facebook group, now in its second year, allows graduating seniors to post their profiles on the page so that a community member can “adopt” them, offering support, school supplies and anything else they may need.
To Herbozo Osco, becoming the salutatorian was unexpected. According to the graduate, this past year was difficult, as he and his peers had to adjust to virtual learning and many other changes. But he said it was all worth it just to be standing at graduation with his friends.
“I’m really happy,” Herbozo Osco said. “I’m proud of all of my achievements, I’m proud of my class and I can’t wait for this next chapter of my life, and I know my parents are happy too. I’ll be attending Yale University in the fall studying computer science, but this summer I’ll be working at my summer job.”
Like Murphy-Braunstein, WOHS Principal Hayden Moore gave sage advice to the graduating seniors during his address.
“My Mountaineers, when choosing a career path, identify an area that interests you, something that you absolutely love and are passionate about. Then direct your energy in that area and establish goals to reach those dreams. And remember, wherever your path leads, you are Mountaineers for life,” Moore said.
Celebrating the seniors, Moore mentioned that he was able to see the growth of the graduates, both physically and mentally. Moore said that they’re happiness makes the school feel like they’re moving a step forward toward the future and coming out of the pandemic. Despite graduating such a massive class, with 584 graduates, Moore said the size isn’t important.
“It’s the people that make up the place,” Moore said. “The students that I encounter in West Orange make it feel small and like a hometown, because I get to know all of them and their families. We’re a very intimate school and it feels more like a community, so when I see them go, I remember them when they were younger and their parents. It’s very familiar and bittersweet. I know the number is a lot, but it doesn’t feel like a lot.
“In my speech, I always tell them to have a growth mindset,” Moore continued, telling students to embrace new perspectives and ideas as they grow older. “I think if they always have that growth mindset, they’ll always find success.”
Student Council President and activist Anya Dillard, who organized a large Black Lives Matter protest in town and the town’s Juneteenth celebration, mentioned how extremely difficult it was to figure out ways to maintain her activist momentum during the pandemic, but she has certainly proved herself more than capable of handling it all. Dillard is attending the Honors College at Rutgers University–Newark this fall to major in journalism and video production, with a minor in criminal justice.
“It feels really surreal and strange, because I would’ve never imagined that this would be the year that it’s been and I can’t say I would’ve imagined my graduation being the way it was,” Dillard said at graduation. “But again, I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I can’t wait to tell this story of the past four years to my children and share the knowledge that I’ve learned. Today is a really great day.”
Class President Paulina Acosta described how difficult this year has been for her and her classmates, who had been fundraising since freshman year for events that had to be canceled due to the pandemic. The class was left to innovate and find new ways to bring the students together while keeping a safe distance, and to make this year feel special. Thanks to vaccine availability, the Class of 2021 was able to celebrate together recently, holding prom and now an in-person graduation.
“It’s crazy. I knew I was graduating but it never really hit me until today,” Acosta said. “When Mr. Moore said his final ‘Good Morning’ to us, I was about to cry. It’s bittersweet. I’m going to Northeastern in Boston and I’m going to miss home, but I want to go to Boston and experience something new. I’m going to miss home and I’m going to miss a lot of people because all of my friends are going to school here.”
During his speech, Superintendent of Schools Scott Cascone talked about the transition everyone must go through.
“In every transition, one can be presented with mixed emotions — a sadness for what is being left behind and a fear for what lies beyond the horizon,” Cascone said. “Embrace the future, embrace the responsibility, embrace the potential and embrace the role that you all will play, not only in living your best life but in striving to make this world a better place for all.
“Today is a day of triumph, a day of joy,” he continued. “You can see it in the smiles and the energy on the field, and it’s unmistakable. So, it’s a day that I feel very proud of. It’s been a long road, but we’ve walked it together and we’ve navigated it together.”
Photos Courtesy of Cynthia Cumming