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Marana High School Salutatorian Diya Patel didn’t sugarcoat the challenges of the last year in her graduation speech last week.

“I think most people would agree with me when I say that this has been a dreadful year,” Patel said. “Graduation speeches in the past have included stories of proms, formals and football games. However, this year we had to adjust to a brand new way of life full of Zoom calls, masks and COVID tests, which consisted of massive Q-tips being shoved up our noses. Instead of reminiscing on a joyful high school experience, we are all sitting here today, collectively taking a deep breath and just being grateful that we’re finally here.” 

Patel, like so many other students, longed for a year of normalcy, but instead lived through a pandemic. Patel and fellow Marana Unified School District graduates expressed the woes of trying to graduate while juggling a series of changes beyond their control caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“This past year, the Class of 2021 proved that we were some of the most adaptable and resilient students, from starting our senior year online to numerous schedule changes, various learning models, social distancing, and many other obstacles outside of school,” said Mountain View High School’s Senior Class President Aurora Vandriel at Tuesday’s ceremony. “However, we still managed to persevere through it all so that we can be sitting in the exact seats we are in right now.”

Vandriel also acknowledged the loss of her greatest supporter and friend, her mother, in her graduation speech. With a pandemic, the loss of family and friends was all too normal for the Class of 2021.

Many graduates acknowledged the challenges they faced and recognized their achievements at last week’s ceremonies. Some students, like Valerie Ray from MCAT High School, not only had to deal with fear and uncertainty due to COVID-19, but also life’s other challenges. In what she calls her “over-personal speech,” she shared her episodes of homelessness, moving during a pandemic and how the combination of all of that plus “stinky, smelly COVID” sent her on a downward spiral, from which she rose to stand where she was on the stage, a graduate. 

“All of you here today have your own form of unfair cards, and still yet here we all are at the same graduation ceremony,” said Ray. “I’m sure a handful of you find it difficult to be proud of yourself and the same goes for me. It’s easy to dismiss our tokens of honor, but for this honor, the amount of support that got me out of my spiral, I can’t dismiss. If you take anything from my elongated and over-personal speech, let it be this: Be proud of yourself. Be cocky, be boastful. Be obnoxious, be exasperated. Don’t be humble about this, because despite all the crap we put up with and went through, at the end of the day we’re all here and we all did this.”

MVHS Student Body President Hannah Sheely called on her graduating class to be leaders in their communities, as the past four years had “proven how important competent leadership is, how regular people willing to step up are needed, and how to expose and separate true leaders from people in leadership

positions.”

“I honestly believe that if we can make it through these past four years of high school in general, crazy world events, and social unrest, we can surely survive the years to come and succeed,” Sheely added. 

The graduating class of 2021 faced not only a pandemic, but existing and continued problems, including climate change, as well as social, racial and economic inequalities. However, they seem prepared to take on any challenge. 

Early on in life, Marana High School Valedictorian Rocio Sanchez-Salcido learned to adapt to the circumstances and the pandemic was no different. 

At the age of 3, Sanchez-Salcido moved to Marana, without knowing English. She was raised in a household that primarily spoke Spanish and had to take English as a Second Language courses. 

“I remember practicing all those songs about the days of the week and the months of the year when I came home from school, and eventually, I was a pro. This is the first time I learned that I could truly do anything I want as long as I stay persistent and most importantly try,” said Sanchez-Salcido. “My first piece of advice for all of you is you can accomplish anything you set your mind to through hard work.”

She also empowered those who may feel different, as someone who faced bullying for simply having a name too difficult or too different to pronounce. She recalls sophomore year when a substitute teacher called her, “Roto.” 

“I don’t know where they got that from, but that’s not what hurt,” said Sanchez-Salcido. “What hurt were the comments that followed, the comments like ‘normal people don’t have names like that.’ And who could forget all the times I heard comments about how people like me wouldn’t amount to anything, because of my ethnicity. The painful days where jokes made me feel less than. The days where snide comments and stereotypes made me insecure.”

During her speech, Sanchez-Salcido reintroduced herself as Rocio Guadalupe Sanchez-Salcido, and uplifted those who feel different. 

“It is our differences and unique traits that make the world a more beautiful place,” said Sanchez-Salcido. “Our generation will transform the world by focusing on inclusion, cooperation and celebrating the beauty in our individual uniqueness…. I could have easily let the mean comments and stereotypes push me down and cause me to lose faith in myself, but I never gave them the power to.”

Marana Unified School District celebrated 788 graduates from across all three high schools last week, with more than half self-reporting their intention to pursue a higher education. At Marana High School, 204 seniors earned about $11.5 million in scholarships, a record amount for the school.

Future graduating classes may not face the same challenges brought on by the pandemic, but they could learn from the Class of 2021 in their ability to hope and persevere.

In her speech, Patel shared the words she would address in a letter to herself in August.

“You’re going to survive, all you need to do is have hope,” Patel said. “This year is going to be filled with what seems like a continuous amount of challenges, there are going to be many different roadblocks and wrong turns that make this difficult journey seem never ending. But just know that at the end of the year you will no longer care about the schools that rejected you, even though you think that they are your dream schools. You won’t even remember the test that you failed, although in the moment, you’ll be convinced that they’ll ruin your life. Instead, you will be celebrating that you made it through a year where you had a plethora of challenges thrown your way and you were capable of surviving every single one.”

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