BELLEVILLE, NJ — Graduation returned to Doc Ellis Field on June 24 as Belleville High School’s Class of 2021 capped off four years of high school, with much of the last 15 months having been done in some form of virtual learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than a year after school buildings shut down, seniors were able to gather and honor their time as Buccaneers together.
Senior Class President Richard Gual Jr. reflected on his time at BHS in his speech at the ceremony.
“It’s ironic now how we would always talk and dream about the day when we could leave this school and how badly we wanted to close our Google Meet tabs for the last time,” Gual said. “All I can think about is how much I will miss this school and all of you. Although our last year was a little strange, I would say it ended with a bang. We all learned how to adapt and roll with the punches with this virtual lifestyle. Even when we were all worried that we weren’t going to have a prom, we worked together and made it happen.”
Four years ago, Gual said the Class of 2021 was disorganized and disconnected, not wanting to work together. But recently, they have come together through the experiences they have shared.
“I am so proud to say that our class is united, strong and better than ever before,” Gual said. “Facing the challenges brought on by the pandemic brought us together, and we rose to meet each obstacle as a team. It was such a satisfying feeling when I took a step back and watched all my classmates at prom having so much fun and being together. It really is amazing what we can accomplish together.”
Student Government Organization President Cybel Cobbinah is from Ghana and described coming to this country in her speech at the ceremony.
“My mother came to this country with literally nothing,” Cobbinah said in her speech. “I’m here in this land of opportunity with free education. What possible excuse do I have to not make it?”
Cobbinah is the first person in her family to graduate from high school and will be the first in her family to attend college.
“I want to commend our class for graduating this year, despite the obstacles we faced,” Cobbinah said. “At times I wish I could tell the younger version of myself, who was scared to even raise her hand in class, that everything works out fine. The younger version of myself was even scared at one point to say she was African but is today prouder of her culture and skin color than anything else. If you take anything from my speech today, please remember your origins and celebrate your own unique identity.”
Belleville School District Superintendent Richard Tomko said that, as he sat down to write his speech for the ceremony, he was unsure of what he would say.
“I can’t even imagine what you all went through this year as students,” Tomko said. “We can all sit here and pretend we know, but we don’t. So I am in complete awe of your resilience, your academic aptitude and your prowess just to get here this morning.”
BHS Principal Caleb Rhodes praised the seniors’ ability to overcome obstacles, of which there were many this year, when he spoke at the ceremony.
“Fifteen months ago, when we all left school, things were very uncertain,” Rhodes said. “We weren’t sure how long we’d be out, when we would be coming back, what the next year would look like or what our educational experience would look like for seniors. We’ve come through a lot this year. I truly hope that you take the lessons that you’ve learned with you.”
Elnandia Jean-Noel gave the salutatory address.
“This past year, we’ve shown that we can make it through tough times by standing here together,” she said at the ceremony. “We’ve shown that we can face any obstacle and still achieve our goals.”
Jean-Noel said that, when she was contemplating what she would say in her speech, she realized that she regretted spending so much time focusing on academics throughout her time at BHS, often missing out on extracurricular activities and events.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important for students to challenge themselves and get a head start on their future,” Jean-Noel said. “But there has to be more to life than studying for a test and worrying about getting perfect grades. During my high school career, I made sure I always went to class. But I didn’t go to many dances, I didn’t go to many hangouts, I didn’t give myself the time to grow socially outside of the classroom. I’m happy I learned this lesson now and not later, because I still have my whole life to live and have amazing experiences. Try to focus on enjoying the journey rather than reaching a certain destination.”
In her valedictory speech, Sofia Ruiz Murillo described how scared she was when she moved to Belleville from Colombia.
“I now realize that, had I not come here, I would have never had access to the amazing opportunities and experiences the U.S. has given me,” Ruiz Murillo said. “It’s not a secret that this year has been completely different than anything we have ever experienced. We missed out on a lot of exciting experiences, we struggled learning virtually, and our motivation began to dwindle at times. However, one thing that we can take away from this is the power of perseverance. Despite the unexpected hardships we faced, we found a way to keep moving forward. There will be many more obstacles, failures and mistakes ahead of us, but we must always remember to never give up.”
Photos by Steve Ellmore