Riverhead’s Class of 2020 celebrates graduation, marking an end to a senior year ‘unlike any other in history’

Perseverance can often be a common theme at commencement ceremonies. Graduates face any number of obstacles in their journeys to wearing the cap and gown and receiving a diploma: the late nights studying, a challenging course, balancing extra curricular activities and sports.

For the Class of 2020, perseverance took on added meaning as their school year and the world around them seemingly changed in an instant.

On one day in early March, classes were proceeding as usual. The next, school temporarily closed, until that temporary became permanent and distance learning became the new norm.

“Our senior year has certainly been unlike any other in history,” said Riverhead High School salutatorian Zachary White, who will attend SUNY/Binghamton. “We are living in unprecedented times. But that has not stopped us from persevering.”

Salutatorian Zachary White. (Credit: Tara Smith)

Mr. White’s speech was broadcast online Friday evening during a virtual graduation ceremony. The coronavirus pandemic that has forced large gatherings to be canceled meant Riverhead High School could not hold its typical, in-person ceremony. Friday’s ceremony followed the similar script of a typical graduation, but each of the speakers recorded their speeches in advance.

Beginning Monday morning, the graduates received their diplomas during brief, in-person ceremonies at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field. Empathizing with the graduates, High school principal Sean O’Hara said this is never how he expected to end his first year as principal.

“If we think about all of the recurring themes in all the speeches from our virtual ceremony, we know that we can all grow during times of uncertainty and discomfort,” he said, praising the graduates for their resiliency.

Members of the districts administration and board of education who usually attend the ceremonies were noticeably absent during the ceremony to allow graduates to have three guests attend. Four sessions, with groups of approximately 40 graduates, were held Monday.

Four more will be held Tuesday and four Wednesday. The state had implemented a cap of 150 people on high school graduation ceremonies.

“Today, perseverance has never been more important,” Mr. White said in his salutatorian speech. “We are living through a pandemic and it’s important to remember that even thought things may be difficult now, if we all follow proper protocols, then we will get through these hard times faster. Even now, as the country beings to reopen, we have to continue to be safe or we might end up back at square one again. Staying home is hard. I’ve certainly felt the effects of being stuck inside without seeing anyone. But, we must remember to persevere, because it can mean the difference between life and death.”

Mr. O’Hara called the Class of 2020 “resilient and courageous” during the virtual ceremony.

“You have supported one another, cheered for one another and like a blue wave, you are strong and become stronger with each experience,” he said.

Mia Roces, the class treasurer, presented the class gift. She spoke about how the graduates in the Class of 2020 were born during another time of national tragedy: Sept. 11.

“We are now graduating in the midst of a terrifying global pandemic,” she said.

She spoke of a connection between the two events: “The fearless frontline workers.”

She said when selecting a class gift, it was important for the student government officers to leave something that not only represented the class, but also “the heroes among us.”

Mia said the class gift would be a donation to Peconic Bay Medical Center. Honorary bricks will be installed at the hospital and a plaque commemorating the gift would be placed in the high school, she said.

Valedictorian Christina Yakaboski, who will attend Lehigh University, also thanked the health care professionals and essential workers. In her speech, spoke about embracing vulnerability, which she said is a strength, not a weakness.

She encouraged her fellow graduates to step out of their comfort zones.

“Step away from perfection and show the world who you really are,” she said. “Ask for help when you struggle. Tell everyone about the obstacles you overcame to get to graduation today. And most of all, accept others when they open up to you.”

Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said the Class of 2020 “will always hold a very special place of honor in the district’s history.”

She told the graduates that they “are being called upon to see the world and your role in it differently.”

Valedictorian Christina Yakaboski. (Credit: Tara Smith)

The lure to return to status quo will be strong, she said. She encouraged the graduates to seize this moment and rise to new and greater heights.

“Think bigger, think grander,” she said.

Antonio Diaz, a Riverhead Class of 2007 alumnus, delivered the commencement address, sharing his personal story and some of the struggles he had to overcome during his high school and collegiate years. He encouraged the graduates to not be afraid of failure.

He outlined life lessons to the graduates, such as living life with a purpose, turning losses into lessons and striving to be the best you can be.

“Be comfortable being uncomfortable,” he said. “Put yourself in uncomfortable positions, because that’s really how you grow.”