Graduating seniors in the Sharyland school district got to experience their final high school rite of passage after the school year was interrupted by a pandemic that shut down school districts across the nation.
After closing all their school campuses in mid-March, the Sharyland school district held outdoor graduation ceremonies for the graduation class of 2020 from all three of their high schools.
The commencement ceremonies, held at the Richard Thompson Stadium starting on Thursday, June 11, Friday June 12 and Saturday June 13, celebrated the seniors from Sharyland Advanced Academic Academy, Sharyland Pioneer High School and Sharyland High School, respectively.
“This brings closure to everything that’s happened,” district Superintendent Dr. Maria M. Vidaurri said at the SPHS graduation ceremony. “We’ve been without our kids for more than two months and they missed out on several moments like prom and the senior banquet. We wanted one last big get together to say we are proud of how they represented Sharyland ISD and we’re so proud of how they were so resilient through this pandemic. Our students have a story to tell now.”
Sharyland, like other Valley school districts, announced last month they would hold outdoor graduation ceremonies following state and local recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As part of the precautions, social distancing was enacted with students and attendees seated six feet apart from other people, masks were made mandatory to wear and temperatures were taken at the entrance of the stadium.
The graduation ceremonies started the day Hidalgo county Judge Richard F. Cortez addressed the recent spike of COVID-19 cases throughout the Valley in a joint press conference with the other Valley county judges. Vidaurri said the joint press conference made her worry if the commencement ceremonies would be able to continue as planned.
“We double checked with local health authorities to ensure we were still following safety guidelines to ensure this was still safe,” Vidaurri said. “It’s been such a huge turmoil to our class of 2020 with everything they had to miss and their whole senior year being disrupted in the way it was. We’re super excited we were able to at least offer a face to face graduation to our students to express to them how happy we are and celebrate them one last time.”
As part of the celebration, each commencement ceremony concluded with a fireworks show that played during the fight song. The fireworks came from the Sharyland High School softball field and dazzled the crowd, creating one last high school memory for students.
“We wanted to do something that was a little bit different, a surprise for our students to say, ‘shine bright, we are so proud of you,’” Vidaurri said.
The graduation ceremony is a celebration that was long overdue, outgoing school board President Jose “Pepe” Garcia said. He attended the ceremony as both a school board trustee and a parent as his daughter was part of Sharyland Pioneer’s graduating class.
“We’re honored and grateful they get to walk and receive their diplomas tonight,” Garcia said. “I didn’t think this would happen. We’ve always established traditions here in Sharyland and tonight, we’re going back to our roots by celebrating this momentous occasion in our home turf. It’s exciting that they’ll walk on their home stadium and relive these memories.”
Many of the speeches from students at the Sharyland Pioneer commencement ceremony reflected on the hardships students endured not just during this last semester, but throughout their 12 years of education.
Salutatorian Juan Angel Luera Hernandez recalled being homesick when he and his family moved to the Valley from Mexico and felt out of place.
“It seemed like no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t fit in because of my accent, I couldn’t afford the latest video games everyone at school kept talking about or my parents couldn’t take me to parties because they were too busy working,” Hernandez recalled. “Those things made me different. I knew I should be thankful for living the American dream, but why did I cry every night?”
Ultimately his mother would be the one to teach him why it was important to continue moving forward with his education.
“I saw my mom crying because she, like me, wanted to go back home to Mexico and I told her we should tell my dad about this since I also wanted to go back,” Hernandez said. “Instead, she hugged me and kissed me on the forehead, and went to work the next day. I didn’t understand why she did that until I grew up. Yes, life can be painful, but with purpose, we can endure suffering, [my sibling and I] were her purpose. Now, she and my family members and friends who have supported me all these years, are mine.”
Hernandez will be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall along with his twin.
“Our time together is almost over. I know not all of you can relate to my story but there’s a message I want you all to remember,” Hernandez told his classmates. “No matter how far you have to travel, or how hard life is or impossible the path ahead seems, as long as you remember who you are, and you have a purpose, you can achieve anything.”
In his speech, Valedictorian Gabriel S. Sanchez described his senior year as “unexpected.
“Not everyone predicted the wild and crazy thing that would befall on us this year,” Sanchez said. “We didn’t think we’d see our graduation get entangled in a worldwide pandemic. We not only missed prom and valuable school time, but the friends we grew up with. It’s hard to accept the reality we find ourselves in today, but we shouldn’t be remorseful.”
“Pioneer opened our eyes and we got to experience many new things at Pioneer. We had freedom we never knew we’d get. We got to attend clubs and sports and organizations, gained a sense of responsibility and learned our actions are one we must learn ourselves and work to get where we are today,” Sanchez said. “We learned not only the virtues of hard work, but to push through the unexpected.”