LINDEN, NJ — Last year, Linden High School held a massive graduation at the Linden Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic. The huge event spurred media coverage and honored the graduates from 2020 during a historic year.
On Friday, June 18, Linden High School took to Tiger Stadium, where the community gathered in a ceremony to honor 403 graduates and their hard work for the past four years. Once again, this was a graduation unlike any other.
Offering a heartfelt congratulatory speech to the Class of 2021 was Linden Mayor Derek Armstead, who planned last year’s airport graduation. He touched on the similarities between the two graduations, as he expressed his hope for the graduates going forward.
“In some ways, it does compare to last year’s graduation,” said Armstead on Friday, June 18. “In fact, we thought we may have had to be at the airport again this year but, lo and behold, we’ve reached status blue and masks were able to come off and we were able to factor some semblance of normalcy again. So, we’re able to have an outdoor graduation, and the students are very excited.
“I hope that they carry with them the lessons that COVID-19 has taught them for the rest of their lives,” he continued. “My hope is that they realize the most important thing we, as human beings, need to understand is that we need each other more than we ever imagined. As bad as the pandemic may have seemed, worse can happen on this planet, and I think we all learned that coming together is the only solution for our problems.”
Decorated in orange and black, the large field was filled with graduating seniors, as well as undergraduate JROTC participants, school staff and dignitaries; families and loved ones were not allowed to enter the closed field, although they were allowed in the stands. After receiving their diplomas, the graduates also received individual, long-stemmed flowers.
In her speech, salutatorian Melissa Menzel spoke about her battle with a cancerous brain tumor during the pandemic and how she was able to push herself to keep up with her schoolwork. She won the Principal’s Award, which recognizes the outstanding character, school spirit and academic achievement best exemplified by an LHS student.
“(Graduating) hasn’t really set in yet,” Menzel said on Friday, June 18. “I’m still excited, and I’m just relieved that I can move on to the next step and my future. When it Yes.comes to what I’ve been through, I’m just a lot more emotional, because it’s just been a very long journey, longer than you could ever imagine. I’m just so happy that I got to the end of it and I’m on the other side now.
“After graduation, I’m going to Kean University,” she added. “I plan to major in biology — STEM teacher education.”
Valedictorian Jordyn Loftus, who won a multitude of awards, including the Excellence Award, told her classmates how she felt about graduating first in her class.
“It’s very exciting and it definitely doesn’t feel real, because we weren’t in school, and so this is definitely an exciting experience,” Loftus said on Friday, June 18. “After graduation, I’m going to Westchester University, and I’m going to be studying forensic science.”
Senior Class President and Best All Around Student Award recipient Makenzie Kuntz, who represented the Class of 2021 throughout a historic year, sat in the front row, cheering on her fellow students.
“It feels great to graduate, but it’s bittersweet, because we’ve been growing up together since elementary school,” Kuntz said on Friday, June 18. “So, to see us part, it hurts a little bit, but it’s so nice to see everyone graduating, and I can’t wait to see everything that we do.
“After this, I’m going to be attending Kean University, with my intended major of speech language hearing sciences,” she added.
Excellence Award recipient Mahmoud Shehata, who was ranked third in the class, said she was proud of everyone in her class.
“It feels good to graduate.… It’s a very good atmosphere, and it’s a lot of great speeches being heard,” Shehata said on Friday, June 18. “After graduation, I’ll be attending NYU and majoring in pre-med.”
Senior Class Vice President and Excellence Award recipient Emily Sznurkowski talked about her plans after graduation.
“I’m super excited and I’m proud of us all. I can’t wait to see what we’ll do after high school,” Sznurkowski said on Friday, June 18. “After graduation, I’ll be attending Montclair State University, and I’m majoring in TV and digital media, with a concentration in sports media and journalism.
“Being senior class vice president was especially hard this year, being mostly virtual, having our meetings, trying to plan our prom and all of our senior activities, but, in the end, it was all worth it,” she added.
Nahuel D’Elias, who was ranked fourth and received the Academic and Excellence awards, said he was nervous about his plans to move across the country and start the next chapter of his life.
“Graduating kind of feels surreal,” D’Elias said on Friday, June 18. “I’m moving across the country to California. I’m going to USC, so it’s actually very nerve-racking. Spending 13 years in the Linden community, it feels surreal that I’m graduating. I’m nervous for what’s to come.
“I’m planning to study business administration, so I kind of want to venture out and have my own business,” he added. “I’m going to focus on music industries at USC, so, hopefully, I can be a record executive or something like that. Dream big.”
When LHS Principal Yelena Horre gave her commencement speech, she told everyone how sad it was to see them go. She also compared this ceremony to last year’s graduation.
“We’re here today celebrating the Class of 2021 in really an amazing way, after a really tough year. It’s the first commencement ceremony under the lights in a very long time, but I think they deserve something special,” Horre said on Friday, June 18. “Last year, we were interrupted, but we made it work. Wherever we graduate and whatever it looks like, there’s still love, pride and they’re always Linden Tigers, wherever they are. But this is traditional, and we’re happy to be back.
“I can’t describe it,” she continued. “It does something to my heart every year. Some of these students I’ve known since they were little.… I’ve seen them change and become adults, and I can’t wait to see what they do. They’re like my children and it’s bittersweet, because they’re leaving us, but there’s a lot of love and a lot of joy.”
Superintendent of Schools Marnie Hazelton agreed with Horre.
“Today was wonderful,” Hazelton said on Friday, June 18. “After the pandemic and the last 16 months, this was spectacular. The weather held up. It wasn’t too hot, it didn’t rain, the students looked fabulous and we’re just over the moon with excitement for our students. This feels like a mother bear watching the cubs go off. In this case, Tigers. But I’m looking forward to hearing about some of the fabulous things that I know they will do in the future. I’m excited and proud of them.”
Photos Courtesy of Gary Miller