High school graduation is a rite of passage in every young person’s life.
It’s the time when the typical four years of high school end in celebratory fashion, and also recognizes a student’s work in the average 13 years it takes to complete a K-12 education.
The classic “Pomp and Circumstance” will ring throughout the Sioux Falls Arena for more than eight hours Sunday as the Sioux Falls School District sees more than 1,500 of its seniors from four high schools walk the stage to grab their diplomas from school officials.
Seniors will celebrate with their friends and family for much of the weekend and take stock of their accomplishments.
Here’s what four Sioux Falls seniors had to say about the symbolism of graduation in 2022, and their future plans after commencement on Sunday.
Susana Gebrekidan at Washington High School
Susana Gebrekidan, 19, is grateful she’ll be able to walk the stage Sunday when she graduates from Washington High School.
Gebrekidan will be the first person in her family to graduate from high school in the U.S. She and her family immigrated here from an Ethiopian refugee camp in 2009, after leaving famine and political unrest in their home country of Eritrea.
If Gebrekidan and her younger siblings, brothers Esirom and Rahabot, and sister Hermela, had stayed in Eritrea, they wouldn’t have freedom of speech, access to education or other rights, she said.
As the eldest child and a first-generation immigrant student, Gebrekidan said she had to create multiple personalities to fit in at school, activities and at home, which meant “I had to be more.”
“I’m sure every immigrant child understands,” she said, adding she wants people to understand that immigrants “lose just as much as they gain” when they leave their home country and enter a new one.
During her time in school, Gebrekidan stayed involved in a variety of activities: debate, tennis and chemistry club. She was also a founding member of the Black Student Union at WHS, and president of Young Progressives at WHS.
“I’m the type of person where if I’m not doing something, I feel anxious,” Gebrekidan said of her active nature. “That’s my mindset. The more I joined things, I had a schedule, and the more I felt like I was always on a roll and always had something to do. There was always something to look forward to.”
Her parent, dad Tekle Gebre and mom Mizan Abreha, are both proud to see Gebrekidan graduate, she said. Her dad encourages her to graduate from college next. Gebrekidan plans to attend Augustana University to major in international relations with a focus on political science.
“Any barrier you cross that we haven’t (crossed), we are going to support you,” Gebrekidan says her mom Mizan tells her.
“Having this conversation and thinking about my experiences, it’s a lot that went into graduating high school,” Gebrekidan added. “Probably more than most can say. I’m humbled and thankful to be (here). I’m glad I got to have the experiences I did, regardless of how hard they were. God thought I was strong enough to get over them.”
Fernando Perez at Jefferson High School
Luis “Fernando” Perez Perez, came to the U.S. three years ago from Guatemala with his family. He attended Washington High School for two years until Jefferson High School opened up last fall.
One of the biggest challenges he met was learning English. He said he struggled at first, but is still learning and improving his speech every day.
His bilingualism has made Perez a perfect peer tutor for new English speakers in pre-algebra and English classes.
Helping his peers as a tutor, and taking classes that let him visit other classrooms in the district, has inspired Perez to become a teacher one day. He said he’d like to teach Spanish, or English as a second language.
“I like to make an impact on (students), help them and try to make them come to school to study,” Perez said. “Because I went through those experiences to learn a new language, which is English, I would like to teach it as well.”
Perez has proposed graduation as a goal for himself since he came to the U.S., he said. But since he doesn't have U.S. citizenship, he’s not sure when he’ll be able to go to college. He’s trying to get financial aid and citizenship worked out so he can go to college one day.
Perez looks forward to celebrating graduation with his family with a little party, traditions and Guatemalan food.
“Advice for people like me: if you try your best every day and you look forward to things you want to accomplish, you will be able to accomplish that goal,” Perez said.
Sayou Gayetaye at Lincoln High School
Graduation is going to mean a lot to Lincoln High School senior Sayou Gayetaye.
Gayetaye said she’s gone through a “whole bunch” of struggles with school. She is the oldest of 13 children in her family, who range in age from 2 to Gayetaye’s age, 18. She works 35 hours a week at Aldi as a stocker and cashier, and has worked there since December.
She also works at her family’s store, Mercy’s Beauty Supply. At Mercy’s, Gayetaye sells beauty products and styles hair, specializing in braids and other styles that don’t use chemicals. She’s been working there since she was a little girl.
When she’s not busy working two jobs or spending time with her large family, Gayetaye uses whatever extra time she has during the school day, after school or in the middle of the night to catch up on homework and assignments.
Four years of high school hasn’t felt like four years to Gayetaye, she said, noting time has flown fast. She's is surprised it’s already May 2022 and has lots of advice for younger students.
“(High school) is not like middle school and elementary school where (you can) play around,” Gayetaye said. “You have to get yourself together. Otherwise you’re going to hold yourself back in the future. You have to utilize every free second you have, and not waste any time on stuff that’s not important. Time is something you don’t get back.”
Graduation also means that Gayetaye can pursue her dream of going to cosmetology school to become a hairstylist.
“I am proud of myself for making it this far, really,” Gayetaye said. “I’m ready for a different atmosphere, and to make new connections.”
She’s also looking forward to visiting some of her family who still live in Liberia within the next year or two.
Blake Hammer at Roosevelt High School
Roosevelt High School senior Blake Hammer has been busy this school year.
Hammer attended classes at the Career & Technical Education Academy on the north side of town during his fall semester, and this spring semester, he’s been completing licensed practical nurse (LPN) coursework at Southeast Technical College (STC) for high school dual credit.
He’s also worked as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at Good Samaritan Society on Marion Road for a year now after finishing a CNA course at STC last summer. For a year and a half before that, he was a dietary aide in the kitchen.
The inspiration for Blake Hammer’s career path came from his parents, Bessie and Tony Hammer. Bessie Hammer works the night shift as a registered nurse, Blake said, and is the former director of nursing at Good Samaritan Society on Marion Road, and Tony Hammer is a CNA.
“Stuff they taught me from their experience in their careers rubbed off on me and made me a good fit for nursing,” Blake Hammer said.
His parents taught him the importance of caring, because they care for patients every day in their jobs, Hammer said.
“I feel like I want to repay that by helping others who are in need if I can,” he said. “I know where my morals are… because what I want in life is to help others that can’t help themselves.”
In school, Hammer stayed focused on his academics and always tried to do his best on studying, homework and exams. He had a close-knit group of friends through the years, too.
“It’s sad that we’re going separate ways to colleges and careers,” he said. “People I know today (are in my life) thanks to my time in high school.”
This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Why graduation is special to these Sioux Falls Class of 2022 graduates