Ponte Vedra High School graduated 361 students in a commencement ceremony that put the importance of stepping out one’s comfort zones in the spotlight.
Among those receiving their diplomas Saturday night were 32 graduates earning Summa Cum Laude honors as well as a host of others receiving recognition for Magna Cum Laude and Cum Laude efforts.
Principal Steve McCormick said graduation is a time to reflect on accomplishments but to also look toward the future.
He tried to alleviate “agitated seniors” wondering what to do when leaving the comforts of where they grew up.
“What matters most is not the outcome but the courage to take the next steps and move forward,” he said, borrowing a line from a letter penned by student Harry Jorgensen. “Best of luck in your next steps.”
Superintendent Joe Joyner, in his final graduation as the head of the St. Johns County School District, thanked students for letting him follow their progress from Day One, 13 years before.
“You were all in kindergarten when I became superintendent,” he told students, winding up for the punch line. “You were all pretty cute then. I don’t know what happened.”
School board member Kelly Barrera stressed the importance of doing the right thing and reminded students, as they move on to different things, that everyone wants to feel included.
“You may be tempted to say something mean and unkind, or you may have the opportunity to make someone feel better,” she said. “Create the mindset that the time is always right to do the right thing.”
Science department chair Steve Lyons, introducing Salutatorian Abhimanyu Ahuja, compared him to a “silent assassin.”
“He was all business, but he would laugh at my jokes, especially the funny ones,” Lyons said, referring to Ahuja’s presence and demeanor inside and outside the classroom.
“When I look at him I don’t see a quarterback, but I see someone I would trust as my doctor,” Lyons said. “I see a person who cares about other people.”
Ahuja will attend the Wilkes Medical Scholars Program at Florida Atlantic University and plans to become a physician.
He said his sister’s diagnosis with mitochondrial myopathy when he was in first grade, and how she dealt with her illness until her passing when he was in seventh grade, inspired him to be the person he is today.
“I drew upon my sister’s courage,” he said. “Her struggle has inspired me to serve humanity as a physician.”
Ahuja encouraged fellow graduates to never give up on their dreams and advised them to play the cards they are dealt the best they can.
“In the end it’s not how many times you fall, it’s how many times you get back up,” he said. “How you respond to adversity is what defines you.”
Social studies department chair Katilyn Collazo, introducing valedictorian Yooree Ha, said the “science girl” who should have been at least somewhat out of place in her Advanced Placement art history class was “extraordinarily unique.”
“Yooree sees what I see in so many of the great artists of the world,” Collazo said. “She sees rebellion in Marcel Duchamp, passion in Jacques-Louis David … but how? Yooree is a science girl. She’s going to study physics at Harvard.”
Ha said it finally struck her how fast the four years went after it seemed so to go by so slow for so long.
“Now that it’s over do we really want it to be?” she asked fellow graduates. “This community is special because once you’re a Shark you’re always a Shark.”
She gave shout-outs to friends with “big hair” and “big laughter,” as well as teachers who scared her but kept her on track.
Ha also thanked her parents who she said immigrated from South Korea and “quite literally gave up everything” for the family to be where it is today.
In terms of the future, she kept it simple: “College is going to be lit.”