Kimball High School seniors and their families rejoiced on Saturday when students officially got to turn their tassels. The Jaguars celebrated their class of 2021 in two graduation ceremonies at 9 a.m. and noon that day, the first in-person graduation the school has participated in since 2019 due to restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though some logistics were still modified to follow social distancing guidelines – along with an added battle with the day’s extra-gusty wind – Kimball High did not deter from celebrating its 300+ seniors in full at its 10th commencement at Don Nicholson Stadium. Sending the students off along with Kimball staff were Tracy Unified Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Julianna Stocking, TUSD Board Members Zachary Hoffert and Nathalia Erskine and Associate Superintendent of Businesses Services Rob Pecot, who will be taking the reins as superintendent in 2022.

“Class of 2021, you are closing one chapter of your lives and opening another. In the meridian of this transition, you have faced an unprecedented pandemic, the likes of which none of us alive have ever had to face before. Over your lifetime our world has changed dramatically. We have become a society of extremes,” said Kimball High Principal Ben Keller after senior class president Karina Casanovas presented her graduating class. “I ask that as you become adults, be careful with the extremes. Remember the attributes of humility and temperance, be a little more patient, extend a little more grace, look for the unifying elements that we all share, and you will have more peace and greater fulfillment in life. Please know that I pray for your continued success. Congratulations, class of 2021.”

Kimball’s Associated Student Body vice president Araceli Navarrete served as the emcee for the day’s festivities. She led the Pledge of Allegiance and introduced every guest speaker that came to the podium.

The high school had not one, but two co-valedictorians to showcase: Natan Aklilu and Anne Jeline Mariano, who both took their time to share their experiences, offer words of encouragement and cheer their fellow students on during their sendoffs.

“Looking over the faces of our class seated here today, I see students from countless backgrounds – each with their own stories, their own paths that led them to this very moment,” said Aklilu, who was the first to speak. “I could have never guessed that my path would lead me here. But one thing I know for sure is that none of us made it here alone. I want to take a moment to thank all of those who have served with helping hands on our climb to the top, from the Kimball staff working to provide us with an amazing high school experience, to the parents supporting us no matter what, and even to the friends we sit with now, that made this whole process feel worth it.”

Aklilu, who moved to Tracy in fourth grade as a child of Ethiopian immigrants, said that he had heard stories of the “land of opportunity,” but he didn’t believe the stories until he lived his life to this moment. He described himself as the new kid who feared where life would take him years before to now speaking as the co-valedictorian of his graduating class.

After thanking her parents, friends and teachers, Mariano shared a personal story with her class about her own struggles during her high school career in hopes that her experience would help her fellow students.

“I never planned to tell my whole class, but I felt that it was necessary to share. Ever since sophomore year I have been struggling to keep an optimistic view of the future. I've been to therapists because I truly wanted to get up, and I was an all-time low. I realized that the constant pressure onto myself and the comparisons I made with other people, greatly damaged my mental state,” said Mariano. “Now it’s crazy to think that I'm here up on this stage speaking at my graduation as co-valedictorian. I truly hope that this brief piece on my life can serve as an example that there is hope in the future…As we progress through college and adulthood and face new challenges, I want you to think back to this moment. Remember that you have accomplished so much already at this young age, and the future is filled with so many opportunities. Remember that we all have each other's backs and that you're never alone in your journey.”

Congressman Josh Harder (CA-10) served as the distinguished guest speaker of the day’s event. He spoke of the hardships that students faced in the past year while also praising the Tracy community for coming together to support the students and each other.

“I'm sure, reaching this day hasn't been easy. In fact, I know it's been incredibly hard. There's no sugarcoating what each of our students has been through over the last year. But you've gotten through it – through the endless zooms, disappointing cancellations and, I have no doubt, some very anxious parents along the way – and you came out the other side, with a diploma in your hand,” said Harder. “I hope you take a second to reflect on that achievement. Nobody else in our country's history has gone through what you all had to do to get to this very special day.”

After everyone had a chance to speak, Pecot certified the students on behalf of TUSD and invited them to walk across the stage and receive their diplomas from Erskine and Hoffert. Casanovas led the class in turning their tassels once everyone was seated.

“In many ways, this pandemic may have prepared us for the real world better than any high school class could have,” she said. “We were born through a time of realization and growth due to the age of technology and discovery. We possess both the means and the motive to incite change.”

• Contact Tracy Press at tpnews@tracypress.com or 209-835-3030.

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