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The Class of 2021 has never known life without “Finding Nemo” or “SpongeBob SquarePants.” They’ve never had to rewind a VHS tape or contend with text message limits. They are as old as the first Apple iTunes store.
And they never could’ve imagined living through a global pandemic during their senior year.
On Tuesday, they got the chance to celebrate, surmounting every challenge that came their way at in-person graduation ceremonies — an event that was unimaginable a year ago. Miami-Dade County Public Schools began its weeklong marathon of 65 graduation ceremonies with Coral Gables Senior High School.
The commencements featured speeches from Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade County School Board members, school principals, graduates and Alonzo and Tracy Mourning, who spoke to graduates of their namesake high school. Graduates who chose to stay home were recognized virtually with their name and photo on a slideshow, while graduates who showed up got to walk across the stage with their diploma covers and pose for a photo a few feet apart from their principal — without a handshake. Masks were worn and the microphone was wiped after every speaker.
Coral Gables High
Students in Coral Gables’ 71st graduating class marched in under a sprawling tent at the Miami-Dade Fair and Expo to “Pomp and Circumstance.” Speakers included Student Council President Sara Rabell, Senior Class President Sofia Rebull, School Board Member Mari Tere Rojas, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and Principal Tony Ullivarri.
Carvalho, who started his tenure as superintendent in 2008, said throughout the day that he felt he was graduating with the seniors. This is the first class he’s watched as superintendent go from kindergarteners to seniors.
In his speeches, Carvalho reminded graduates how young they were (“Yeah!” by Usher was the No. 1 song when they were born) and quoted a “modern philosopher” — the rapper Drake. Calling the crowd of young adults the “wire generation,” he said they are brave, aware, compassionate and intellectually superior to past generations. Continuing, he told students they’ve mastered the art of game playing but are destined for big things.
Rebull, the Gables High senior class president, recalled the stress of high school during the pandemic but added that they brought back homecoming and enjoyed class trips and pep rallies.
“Trust me, I know that getting here wasn’t easy,” she said.
About 150 graduates were recognized virtually, with their names and some graduate photos on the screen. The rest in a class of over 700 graduates got to walk across the stage and move their mortar board tassels to the left.
Ullivarri said 98% of registered seniors are officially graduating. Of those, 50% will be first-generation college students, and 458 seniors already have college credits. Gables’ Class of 2021 earned $26 million in scholarships.
The school played its alma mater before proceeding to the universal graduation anthem: “Graduation (Friends Forever)“ by Vitamin C.
MAST @ FIU Biscayne Bay
The Class of 2021 MAST@ FIU Biscayne Bay campus reunited for the first time in over a year at Ocean Bank Convocation Center at FIU. With a smaller graduating class of 97, they held a more intimate ceremony.
There were only a handful of virtual graduates; most walked across the stage. They were announced with the college they plan on attending.
Principal Matthew J. Welker put the year into perspective. When he began his career, there were no computers, no cellphones, no copy machines, no internet.
“The idea that we could identify, treat, and create a vaccine for a never-before-seen virus in less than a year was not only incomprehensible back then: It was impossible,” Welker said. “Not to mention the improbability of creating a distance learning platform to educate thousands of children in their homes, or the logistics that would be required to consistently feed families in a large metropolitan area like Miami, and yet we did it. We did it because we harness the collective power of human thought and ingenuity.”
He said the Class of 2021 earned more than $13 million in scholarships, the highest for any class yet.
Student Government Association President Nikola Desnica celebrated his fellow classmates.
“We created a culture of acceptance, playfulness and respect. We embraced each other’s differences and quickly figured out that they are what connects us,” he said. “If I can give you any piece of advice, it is that you cherish the values we gained here for the rest of your lives. Maintain your integrity, your kindness, your hard work, and always stay true to yourselves, the beautiful, weird, interesting and loving people you are. If we can do that, I have no doubt we will do amazing things.”
Coral Reef High
Coral Reef Senior High School graduated 730 seniors Tuesday. Graduates will be moving on to 240 different schools, ranging from vocational to the Ivy League.
Five graduating seniors will serve their country in the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Space Force, Air Force and Navy.
Senior Class President Kalil Chebbi spoke about the difficulties of going to school during the pandemic. But, he said his class was fortunate to be able to graduate in person with their peers, unlike the class of 2020, of which his older sister is an alumni.
“Today, I walk the graduation stage for both of us,” Chebbi said.
Principal Nicole Berge-MacInnes told students she was proud of what they’ve achieved in the face of the unprecedented obstacle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This may not be the story you wanted, but it is the story you helped create. And, a story you should be proud to tell. I want you to know that I see you, even behind the mask. Every single one of you. Those who have excelled in academics, in sports, in leadership, in community service. And, especially those who have succeeded despite challenges. You have achieved something monumental by getting to this day, and I’m so glad I get to see it.”
Berge-MacInnes ticked off a list of the class of 2021’s achievements, including fielding four National Merit finalists, 15 National Hispanic and African American Recognition Program recipients, and the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald Silver Knight winner Jalynn McDuffy, who won the accolade in Art.
“Not only did you learn, but you excelled,” Berge-MacInnes said.
Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High
Alonzo Mourning, the former Miami Heat star, praised the 387 students of Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High for prevailing in the midst of the pandemic and the social unrest brought about by the death of George Floyd, the Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer.
“We witnessed lives lost. We witnessed social unrest, systemic racism with tremendous economic downfall. But with all that has happened, we’re still here. You’ve endured it,” said Mourning, who spoke at the commencement ceremony at the Miami-Dade Fair & Expo. “Our next generation of Americans, you make up the fabric of our country.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Carvalho, who told the graduates: “I know the past year has been a difficult one, trial and tribulation, but now there is triumph.”
Tracy Mourning, the founder of Honey Shine, a mentoring program for Miami-Dade elementary, middle and high school girls, also spoke of resilience and the graduates’ accomplishments. She shared what it was like to lose her mother last April and the way that her faith has allowed her to remain steadfast in her belief that life is about serving others.
“When I think about this class, I just think about all of the opportunities that are ahead of you. What I’ve come to understand in life is those moments where we are challenged the most are the moments that truly make us who we are supposed to be,” she said.
Brian Lafortune, student body vice president, recounted how the challenges of the past school year have brought his class together. He recited lines from his song, “ATM The Song.”
“As I stand here, I don’t see classmates,” he said. “I don’t see strangers. I, instead, see a family that is bound by the same love.”
The class has completed more than 90,000 community service hours, garnered more than $4 million in scholarships and will be attending more than 100 colleges and universities across the country.
Miami Arts Studio 6-12 at Zelda Glazer, Design and Architecture Senior High, Southwest Miami Senior High, iTech @ Thomas A. Edison Educational Center and Westland Hialeah Senior High also held graduation ceremonies Tuesday.
Miami Herald intern Emily Rivera contributed to this report.