VINELAND – “I did it for them,” Vineland High School graduate Itzel Herrera wrote on her mortarboard honoring her extended family of mentors.
Her loved ones inspired her journey to Gittone Stadium where she was among the 538 graduates to be awarded a diploma on Wednesday.
“Over the past four years, these graduates have worked, studied, practiced, prayed, played, and grown in so many ways,” said Superintendent Alfonso Llano, addressing the challenges they’ve overcome.
A deadly virus forced students from the schools during their sophomore and junior years.
Now they pass through metal detectors to enter middle and high school buildings.
The 144th commencement featured “a higher level of safety than we’ve had in the past,” the superintendent said, noting the increase in shootings across the country. “We want to make sure we are taking every precaution to keep our kids safe.”
Graduates showed no fear when it comes to pursuing their dreams.
Yahira Cuevas, the senior class president, is the first in her family to attend college. Her parents de ella, when barely older than she is now, moved from Oaxaca, Mexico to Cumberland County where Cuevas excelled at her studies. She is heading to Arizona State University to study neuro-biological sciences and pursue a career in medicine.
Cuevas shared her pride in the VHS Class of 2022 diversity.
“We have some students that have come from different countries and have worked very hard in order to be able to receive their diplomas,” she said in her address.
In Spanish, the class leader said she was proud of them and congratulated their families.
When his world seemed smaller during the quarantine, John Howard focused on bigger dreams.
“Even through these trials and tribulations, I’m thinking about my future and it motivates me to keep on going through rough times,” said the graduate. “I don’t like to settle, I try to shoot higher and higher, I’m never satisfied.”
Around his neck he wore a necklace inscribed with the image of his late grandfather, Glenroy Howard.
“He taught me how to be a respectful man, he taught me how to live with God,” he said, touching the necklace. “I bring him everywhere I go, he’s my motivation.”
Howard’s plan is to earn a business degree and get his real estate and barber licenses.
“Entrepreneurship is the best thing for me,” he said.
Rodrick Zapanta was hard-pressed to detail all the honorary cords, medals, and stoles draped around his shoulders signifying his academic success. He was one of 16 seniors in the district’s Applied Math and Sciences to earn an associate degree from Rowan College of South Jersey before accepting a high school diploma.
“I am grateful that we were given that opportunity,” said Zapanta, who was also the VHS tennis team captain.
“It’s important to be well-rounded, I picked that up early,” he said.
Zapanta is enrolled at Rutgers University to study electronic/computer engineering.
“Life has a way of teaching you lessons,” student government association president Azia Rogers told her classmates.
She liked her four-year high school experience to trek along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.
“The bridge leads to a tunnel and you’re so anxious to get out of that tunnel that you’re not paying attention to time and distractions,” Rogers said. “I was not OK, but I held my ground and made it here today.”
She urged her classmates to be patient, humble, and true to themselves.
“When things get tough always go back and remember why you’re doing this,” Rogers said.
To reinforce the message, the class got a pep talk from a surprise speaker, Isiah “Pop” Pacheco.
“I was sitting in these seats four years ago,” Pacheco said. “I’m here to tell you today that anything is possible if you believe in yourself and education.”
He recounted how “hard work, perseverance and dedication” resulted in a scholarship to Rutgers University, where he earned his degree.
Then with a grin, he added, “I was recently drafted to the Kansas City Chiefs,” to cheers from the packed stands.
VHS Principal Suzette DeMarchi touted the achievements of the Class of 2022 including those in academics, athletics, and the arts.
“You are truly a resilient and amazing group of students; You have proven over and over that nothing is beyond reach,” she said. “Remember graduation day is not the end, it is just the beginning.”
The graduates left behind a gift for future VHS students. They funded a bench to be placed in the butterfly garden located near the VHS 11-12 performing arts wing entrance.
“After going through the pandemic, it really was important to us to make sure they capture those little moments,” Cuevas said. “Sit down, relax. and enjoy the time that they have with each other.”