UNION, NJ — After last year’s virtual graduation, the 560 graduates of Union High School’s Class of 2021 were ready to kick things into high gear at the school’s 139th commencement ceremony on Saturday, June 26, on the UHS football field. The fact that it was a year unlike any other, one that relied heavily on virtual learning, in no way deterred graduates and their relatives from being overcome with emotion before, during and after the ceremony.
In his speech, salutatorian Nicholas Vasquez recalled how his mother had come to the United States from Columbia without knowing English, in the hopes of providing better opportunities for her children. She had become fluent in English, eventually becoming a bilingual speech pathologist. But there would be other battles, such as his father’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2019.
“To my father, you are and forever will be the strength that keeps me going every day,” Vasquez said on Saturday, June 26. “I stayed up countless nights, thinking about how his cancer would affect his life. Despite such shocking news, my father stood strong in his faith and in his belief that everything happens for a reason. I’ll never know why he got cancer, but what I do know is that my family and I are so much stronger because of it. He has been through two surgeries and many rounds of chemotherapy. I’m happy to say that he is in good health and has gotten so much better.
“He has shown me that when life throws curveballs at you, you must stay strong,” he continued. “My father has taught me that life’s complexity is what makes being human so beautiful, and I am forever thankful for that. Papi, you are a fighter, and I know you will be there to see me graduate from Harvard University in the next four years.”
Valedictorian Dylan DeFelipe, who will be headed to Cornell University on the pre-med track, spoke to the graduating class about the significance of graduation — about realizing that a part of their lives was coming to an end.
“Right now, you might feel the most excited you’ve ever been to finally leave,” said DeFilipe on Saturday, June 26. “But after the ceremony is over and all the energy dies down a couple of days later, the post-graduation sadness might finally hit you and you’ll find yourself missing all the good old days at Union High School.
“It feels great,” he added. “I think it’s nice and it’s a good day to celebrate all the hard work that paid off, and it’s nice to see my family here with me, who are proud. I hope the graduating class learned to just enjoy the journey and not focus too much on the destination.”
Union High School interim Principal Mark Hoyt had some salient words to share with the graduates.
“Always consider your actions, as you move forward with your education and your careers,” Hoyt said on Saturday, June 26. “It is easy to underestimate the effect that your words and actions have on another person’s life or attitude. Small gestures and actions can have either a negative or positive effect on others. All of you have the power to make positive changes in the lives of those that you encounter in the world. In a world where you can choose to be anything, choose to be kind. Choose to have a positive impact on people’s lives, and look for the good in others and in the world around you.
“I’m incredibly proud of the graduates,” said the interim principal. “They’re going to some very prestigious schools. I’m very proud of them and look forward to seeing them do excellent things in the future. I hope that the graduates are happy, and I hope they’re successful. They harness all this potential that they have to change the world and make it a better place.”
Interim Superintendent Gerald Benaquista also told those in attendance how happy he was for the graduating class, after such a tumultuous year.
“Just being outside — we’ve tried to give as many endings as possible to this class that we could, working our way through the pandemic and the constant changes of hearing different guidelines,” Benaquista said on Saturday, June 26. “I’m just really happy that they had an ending that last year’s class unfortunately didn’t get. It’s about the students and always doing whatever you can to make their years in school happy and successful. I’m hoping that graduates will remember us and give back to the future students. Promote kindness — this world has so many things going on. Being kind to each other is a big thing for me.”
The keynote speaker for the graduation was author Frantz Charles, whose first book is set to be made into a movie. A graduate of Union High School and William Paterson University, Charles gave back to the community during his speech by inspiring graduates and telling them that it doesn’t matter where you start, it matters where you finish.
“Being the keynote speaker felt amazing,” Charles said on Saturday, June 26. “I didn’t want to just motivate; I wanted to inspire and birth something into them to achieve greatness. My advice to graduates is that everything that they want to do, their dreams, are possible and achievable. Greatness is inside of you.”
Class of 2021 UHS graduate Olasunkanmi Ilori said he is determined to do even more after graduation.
“I want to attend trade school,” Ilori said on Saturday, June 26. “My parents want me to go to college, but I want to attend a trade school. Graduating feels crazy. We’re actually leaving the school we were attending for four years and it still hasn’t hit me, but it’ll hit me sooner or later. I want to see my class do bigger and better things. It’s the Class of 2021, so I know we can do better things. We survived a global pandemic, and, just that alone, we’re built differently. Our class is unstoppable, unbeatable and there’s nothing our class cannot do. Every other class will never be like the Class of 2021.”
2021 UHS graduate Kalani Hill called this defining moment bittersweet. Hill said she plans to attend Morgan State University in Baltimore and start her own business.
“I’m very excited to go, and I’m very happy that my friends and I made it, but I’m sad to leave all the memories that I’ve made and all the teachers that I’ve built a bond with,” said Hill on Saturday, June 26. “But I’m excited to get started with the real world. I’m going to college, and I’m going to start working on my career. I want to start a business, and I will be flourishing in life.”
Echoing the sentiment, 2021 UHS graduate Aaron Brangman said he thought of graduating as his segue into adulthood, adding he plans to attend trade school at Union County Vocational–Tech.
“Graduating today feels great,” Brangman said on Saturday, June 26. “It means new beginnings. I feel refreshed. I’m a little sad, but I’m happy. I’m going to trade school and have enrolled in an adult program in Scotch Plains. I’m attending Union Vo–Tech for HVAC.”
Like many, 2021 UHS graduate Emani Jackman said she also felt a mix of emotions. Leaving behind a school where she has made many friends over the past four years, she said she felt optimistic about starting a new chapter in life postgraduation. Jackman plans to attend Union County College this fall, majoring in forensic science.
“Graduating is a pretty good moment. I never thought that this day would come,” Jackman said on Saturday, June 26. “I’ve never expected my senior year to end up like this, but I’m just glad that I’ve made it through.”
Editor’s note: Emani Jackman is the younger sister of reporter EmilyAnn Jackman.
Photos by David VanDeventer