By MADDY VITALE
Strong, determined and confident, students with the Ocean City High School Class of 2021 graduated Tuesday with memorable distinction as they navigated a pandemic, hybrid learning and the ups and downs of a challenging time in history.
Unlike last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when families were not allowed in Carey Stadium until the very end of the commencement ceremony, guests were once again back inside with a close-up view of their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and other relatives, while they achieved a monumental milestone.
In all, there were 320 graduates. High School Principal Dr. Matthew Jamison told graduates to remember this special time and know that their tireless efforts got them where they are today.
The students of the Class of 2021 are a special group of people, he noted.
Despite a pandemic, despite the challenges, “they achieved many great things,” he said.
“Throughout this time, the Class of 2021 met the challenges,” Dr. Jamison said. “They are tough. They are resilient. Their successes will go far beyond the walls of Ocean City High School.”
During the commencement ceremony, which began with a procession from Fifth Street and the Boardwalk onto the Carey Stadium field, seniors Emily Smith and Grace Gleason gave welcome and farewell speeches, respectively.
Emily Smith called the Class of 2021 an “incredibly successful class.”
“We have state champion sports teams, initiators of community service projects, incredibly talented performers, and even an award-winning news broadcast. We have musicians, writers, artists, athletes, academics, and everything in between represented in our grade,” she pointed out.
Emily continued, “But only with the combined effort of the entire class did any of us become this group of passionate kids.”
In 10 years, she said, “I’m sure I will be far more impressed with this class than I already am, and I cannot wait to see every one of us sharing our dreams with the world.”
She added, “While we came into this school alone, we leave it together, 1,378 days later, as a group of confident, passionate students prepared to enter the world with a sense of hard work and compassion. Congratulations again to the Class of 2021 and I’ll see you in our future.”
One message resonated during the ceremony: It was a message of hope, strength, endurance and perseverance.
Students overcame difficulties in their journey over the last year of their high school career during a pandemic.
That is something that makes them incredibly strong and special, said Schools Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Taylor, who is retiring in August.
Dr. Taylor gave her last speech as superintendent to the graduating class, after serving at the helm for 15 years.
“What you have gone through this year makes you special. You made it work best by trying,” Dr. Taylor said. “You made a difference. You are so successful. Being successful is not new to you. You have matured into the next generation of leaders.”
Grace Gleason put it like this in her farewell speech.
“I understand that because of the challenges of the pandemic many of our futures do not look the way we have planned them in our heads these past four years,” Grace said.
She continued, “Many of us college bound students are bound to a school that may have been last on our list; however, we can choose how to deal with the events that we didn’t choose.”
But, Grace emphasized, “Life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent of how we choose to handle it. Are we going to forget the perseverance and strength we embodied during the pandemic or are we going to recover from crisis and grow from crisis?”
She told the Class of 2021 to be “an example of strength and perseverance to your friends, families, and community, inspiring others as you go.”
Before the ceremony, as graduates lined up on the Boardwalk to begin their procession, friends Izzy Heng, 18, of Ocean City, and Brya Gardella, 17, of Corbin City, posed for photos with their family.
“I’m so glad we have beautiful weather,” Izzy, who is going off to Carnegie Mellon University to study business administration, said. “I have mixed emotions about today. I am sad, but I am also so happy we made it this far.”
Brya agreed and said she is happy and hopeful for the next chapter in her life.
Flynn DeVlieger, 18, of Ocean City, and Will Drain, 18, also of Ocean City, have been friends for 12 years.
Flynn will be going off to LaSalle University, while Will attends Rowan University.
“I’m very excited about the future,” Flynn said.
Will said he is looking forward to playing football at Rowan.
After the ceremony, seniors met with their families on the field and hugged, chatted and celebrated. There were gifts, flowers, balloons, and lots of laughter, smiles and joy.
Matthew Gallagher, 19, of Ocean City, and Katie Barlow, 18, also of Ocean City, walked together arm and arm laughing in the moments after the ceremony.
“I feel like we went through a lot this past year, but we got through it and it is awesome,” Matthew said.
Katie followed up with words that likely summed up the sentiment of many of her fellow graduates.
“It feels amazing,” she said. “It is the best finish to a crazy year.”