UNION, NJ — A boisterous crowd gathered at Union High School’s football field for its 140th commencement ceremony on Saturday, June 25, braving the 90-degree weather to celebrate the graduating Class of 2022. Sitting on the field, seniors became alumni after listening to speeches from Principal Mark Hoyt, Board of Education President Mary Lynn Williams, Superintendent Scott Taylor, salutatorian Pedro Torres and co-valedictorians Pooja Danak and Winifred Oyem.
“This has most definitely been a stressful year for all of us — a stressful few years, honestly,” Hoyt said to open the ceremony. “Each of you has changed significantly over the past four years. You’ve not only changed physically, but also academically, socially and emotionally. While change is rarely easy for us, it is a necessary and inevitable part of life. I want to encourage you to take the lessons you have learned during your time in Union schools and use those lessons to handle changes in your life with the same tenacity you’ve shown the last four years.”
Williams said she was planning to open her speech with a joke, but her youngest son, who graduated from UHS in 2019, told her that no one in the Class of 2022 would think she was funny. Instead, Williams said she was intimidated looking out at the graduating seniors.
“The energy you exude, the potential you possess; you’re bright, talented, focused and ambitious, and despite the ups and downs and unexpected circumstances you’ve been faced with, your strength and perseverance has been nothing but remarkable,” she said.
Williams thanked the district’s teachers, staff, community and families as well.
“As young adults beginning this next chapter of the real world, there is an expectation that you have the responsibility of making the world a better place,” she said. “There is an expectation for you to use everything you’ve learned and be examples, advocate for those who have no voice, stand up for what you believe in and always be kind and empathetic, and never be a bystander for injustice. When you become old and unfunny, listen to your children. Trust me, they’re going to be much smarter than you.”
Torres did open with a joke, saying that he knew no one wanted to listen to the school’s “three biggest nerds talk for 30 minutes,” and kept his speech as short as he could.
“This has been a chaotic four years,” Torres said. “It seems that everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. But ultimately, despite COVID, an inconsistent administration, constant lockdowns and a lack of bathrooms, we still managed to graduate. And boy, is that a feat to conquer.”
He commented that perhaps UHS doesn’t have the most united student body, and that some students maybe wished they had gone to a different school, but that their graduation speaks to the willpower and integrity of the class.
“We faced some dark times,” he said. “We faced some times that made us wish we were back in kindergarten playing tag at recess, that made us question if this was all worth it. Trouble and tribulations you face are always going to be there and are always going to be a part of you. But this is an opportunity to start fresh, to take those experiences and learn from them.”
There is normally only one valedictorian per graduating class, but Danak and Oyem tied at the top of the standings with a 5.19 weighted grade-point average. They were named co-valedictorians, and both gave speeches at the ceremony.
“We were on Zoom for two years,” Danek said in her speech. “In those two years, engagement, community and humanity were worth fighting for. It is important to note that those things are not lost. For two years, we lived on a computer screen. The brick and mortar that stand to your left was a building, an empty one. We lived out lives synchronously and asynchronously, as the world shut down and out schooling was interrupted for the first time in any of our lives.”
When she began as a student at UHS, Danek said, getting as close to a perfect GPA as she could was all she thought high school was about. As she came to find out, she said, she was wrong.
“I realized that education is more than a number or a school, and Union High School is so much more than that building,” she said. “Life is more than the simple accomplishments of goals. The journey is where learning and growing truly happens. While academic achievement was my focus, what I didn’t know were all the adventures that came with it: new friendships, new opportunities, new experiences that I never knew would become core memories. When looking back at my high school years, I’m not going to remember that paper I stayed up all night writing. I’m going to remember the football games, the pep rallies and the spirit weeks.”
Oyem thanked her family, friends and fellow graduates for the four years she spent at UHS, before telling them she believes in their futures.
“I believe in where you may be going — to university, to community college, to trade school, to the workforce, taking a gap year, heading into the military or even if you’re unsure,” she said in her speech. “I believe in you and what you can accomplish. If you’ve never heard it before, or if you’re heard it a million times, I’ll say it to you now: I see you and I’m proud of you. You guys survived high school, and that’s hardly a given. I wish you success in all of your future endeavors.”
Photos by Steve Ellmore