Edmonton's Class of 2021: Words of wisdom from our COVID valedictorians

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The pandemic that derailed life for all of us in the spring of 2020 continued through two new waves into 2021. For kids in Edmonton’s public and Catholic school systems, that has meant changes to learning, changes to how they socialize, and has forced them to adapt. What has all that meant in the life of teens? Valedictorians from more than 20 local high schools summed up some of the emotions and turmoil of the past year in their graduation speeches, excerpts of which the Journal presents here.

Corey Ly, McNally High School

Corey Ly is McNally High School’s 2021 class valedictorian, who spent the last 13 years at Edmonton Public Schools in the Chinese bilingual program. In addition to excelling academically, he also dedicated his time to a variety of extracurricular activities, such as volunteering in the community, organizing school events, leading clubs, cross country running, and curling. After high school, Cory plans on studying engineering.

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“It’s been common to hear phrases like ‘we did it’ or ‘we made it’ in commencement ceremonies of the past, but this year, those words bring a deeper meaning. We are the first class in over a century to graduate high school after more than a full year of learning through a global pandemic. In fact, COVID-19 has been a part of our lives for almost half of our time in high school. A year-and-a-half ago, we wouldn’t have thought twice about hanging out with friends, attending a large family gathering, or giving someone a handshake or a hug. Given that schools in Edmonton almost always stay open through dozens of centimetres of snow and -40 C degree weather, no one could have expected that we would be sent home for the remaining months of Grade 11 — and many parts of our senior year — by something we couldn’t even see. In spite of the countless hurdles and obstacles we’ve encountered over the past 13 years, this pandemic certainly being one of them, we did it — we made it.”

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Nora Nicholas, J.H. Picard

Nora Nicholas is the 2021 school valedictorian for École J.H. Picard Catholic High School in Edmonton.
Nora Nicholas is the 2021 school valedictorian for École J.H. Picard Catholic High School in Edmonton. Photo by Larry Wong /POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Nora’s involvements at Picard include the athletics program, the fine arts program, and the student council. She was a member of the 2019 city champion soccer team and performed in the school’s musical production of Anything Goes. Nora will begin a pre-requisite year of post-secondary study next year at Campus St. Jean, eventually moving into the bilingual bachelor of commerce program, with a major in human resources.

“Though it’s true that our high school experience was unlike any other because of the pandemic, I believe it’s also true that our high school experience was unique because we are us. Over the three years we spent together, I’ve come to know many of you. I’ve made some lifelong friends here at J.H. Picard, and I know that many of you have as well. Though I might not know each of you on a deep level, I know enough to say this about our grade: We care so much about what we love.

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“We are not a ‘let life pass you by’ type of grade. We have feelings and opinions about things, and we aren’t afraid to speak up when we have something to say. Our passion is something to be proud of. It’s something to hold onto for the rest of our lives. Some of us found that passion in schoolwork, while others found it in the arts, or sports, or social justice. And though it’s true that our passions might change as we get older, no matter what we decide to pursue, we will always feel that spark in our chests. And it was together that we learned how to nurture it and let it grow. We learned to turn it into motivation and give us a reason to wake up in the morning. We learned how to find something we love and not let go.”

Jeremy Russo, Archbishop O’Leary

Archbishop O’Leary valedictorian Jeremy Russo. Submitted photo
Archbishop O’Leary valedictorian Jeremy Russo. Submitted photo jpg

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Jeremy has been heavily involved in the school community, including the students union, the improv team, and the school’s performance academy. Jeremy has also taken part in the school’s swim team — placing in city championships. On more of the academic scale, Jeremy has received honours all three years of high school. He will be studying at MacEwan University in the bachelor of arts, focusing on a major in psychology, with aspirations to become a pediatric psychologist.

“It’s easy to be wrapped up inside all of the negative aspects of life, but let’s start appreciating the positives. Unity, family, the excitement of a new chapter in our lives. A new road. Of course, graduation, and the feeling of seeing your friends here today — finally completing this journey together as a team …  a family. Do you remember walking into the school for the first time? It may have not been the exact way you were expecting it to be. But now, after three long years of this crazy adventure, know that as you walk out of the doors for the last time that you can make it exactly how you were expecting it to be.

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“You have most likely heard the term ‘grades do not define you — a number does not define you,’ a rank on a sports team does not define who you are. Or who you can be. A number on a scale does not define who you are. And who you can be. So certainly, the class of 2021 don’t let two digits and a percentage sign be the one thing blocking you in your way to strive towards your true potential. And if people say, ‘Wow … you have changed!’ take it as a compliment, because you didn’t change, you just found yourself.”

Shike Orimalade, Lillian Osborne

Shike Orimalade is the 2021 valedictorian at Lillian Osborne High School in Edmonton.
Shike Orimalade is the 2021 valedictorian at Lillian Osborne High School in Edmonton. Photo by Larry Wong /POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Born in Kent, England, Shike started her education in England with dreams of becoming a successful physician, scientist, and researcher. When she was 11, she moved with her family to Edmonton. She won awards in mathematics, poetry, and Latin. In junior high, she was given the School Founder’s Award. For post-secondary, she plans on going into an honours degree at the University of Alberta in neuroscience.

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“We have all been rock, and the beautiful thing about rock (well, carbon really) is that it becomes a diamond under pressure. We’ve also been fire, red, hot passionate about the things we believe in, and fire is a gift because it clears pathways for new ideas to establish themselves. We’ve also been like the air, entering and filling up spaces that were once closed to our presence. We are a multi-faceted, multi-elemental, iconic group of people, and no matter what your next is, I hope you believe what is true, that you have the tools and the strength to overcome anything that life may throw at you. We are survivors of the year 2020. When we are not so sure of our path, we can be like water flowing in every direction, absorbing the lessons of life. When we see a need for change in the world, we can be like fire consuming, burning, and clearing the way for the planting of new life seeds. When the storms of life shake our world, we can be like rock, strong, firm, and immovable, and when we feel overlooked, we can remember the air, invisible, quiet, but ever presently essential.”

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Abena Kena, Mother Margaret Mary

Mother Margaret Mary High School valedictorian Abena Kena on June 18, 2021, in Edmonton. Greg Southam/Postmedia
Mother Margaret Mary High School valedictorian Abena Kena on June 18, 2021, in Edmonton. Greg Southam/Postmedia Photo by Greg Southam /Greg Southam

“This academic year has been one of the most challenging due to the pandemic. Being tossed from online to in-class learning was no easy feat. All of us have experienced emotional, psychological, social, and physical isolation, which increased stress and anxiety. However, we all took on the challenge of adapting to remote classes in the best way possible to come out on top.  The pandemic did not erase these achievements, but it enhanced them — amplifying our dedication to what we love most about this school.

“Look at us, class of 2021, with our diversity and respect for one another. We must enter life with the attitude of holding those who may not look like us or be in the same situation as us in the highest regard. We may look different, but we are all God’s children; therefore every one of us is made in the same image of God.”

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Bretten Wiebe, J. Percy Page

Bretten Wiebe is the valedictorian at J. Percy Page shown outside the school on June 16, 2021, in Edmonton. Greg Southam/Postmedia
Bretten Wiebe is the valedictorian at J. Percy Page shown outside the school on June 16, 2021, in Edmonton. Greg Southam/Postmedia Photo by Greg Southam /Greg Southam

Bretten has a passion for math, biology and graphic design which developed over his years in high school. He loves basketball, volleyball and handball, from which he learned many lessons and gained memorable experiences. He is currently enrolled in MacEwan University, where he will be taking courses toward a bachelor of design this fall.

“It is so easy to get stuck in this mindset that you are not enough. But who should define what is considered to be enough? We likely all have a different answer to that question, but regardless of what it is, know this: there is nothing you cannot be, nothing you cannot do and nothing you cannot have. Why? Because a lack of success will only become a failure if you allow it to defeat you. If you make the conscious decision to throw your hands in the air every time that you drop the ball, then that is when you will truly fail. Instead, I challenge you to pursue your passions, to work hard and to take chances, even when you don’t feel like it. I am confident that each of you have the skills to succeed, but… do you have the guts to fail?”

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Sarah Daniel, Archbishop MacDonald

Archbishop MacDonald valedictorian Sarah Daniel. Submitted photo
Archbishop MacDonald valedictorian Sarah Daniel. Submitted photo jpg

Sarah is a proud graduate of Archbishop Macdonald High School and an active member of her school community. Over the past three years, she has been a part of Mac’s cross country team and the soccer team. Sarah is also a member of student council and has maintained Summa Cum Laude throughout high school. She has volunteered with Edmonton’s Bissell Centre and values giving back to the community. Sarah plans to continue her studies at the University of Alberta this coming fall.

“We graduate today with a pandemic under our belt. At the core of our identity as Marauders is one of adapting, and it is one to be proud of. We have conquered pivot after pivot, and this capability to rapidly shift gears will be a powerful force of change. Equipped with all the tools that we require, I have no doubt that this graduating class will make a meaningful impact in this world. Our paths will likely diverge, some of us may take gap years, others might enter the workforce, and many will pursue university. But to these different destinations, we all carry the same diploma, and it is one furled tightly with promise.

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“No matter what endeavour we may pursue, let us not lose hold of the life and energy we have as youth. In the words of Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.’ ”

Emma Mydlak, St. Oscar Romero

Valedictorian Emma Mydlak at Oscar Romero High School in Edmonton on June 18, 2021. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia
Valedictorian Emma Mydlak at Oscar Romero High School in Edmonton on June 18, 2021. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia Photo by Ed Kaiser /20093570A

Emma is an Edmontonian, born and raised. She is the current president of student council, previously the secretary, acted and did tech in the last two drama productions, played in stage band all three years, and wrote for the Cappies team. Emma accomplished high academic standing consistently, obtaining awards in many cores and fine arts, achieving high rankings in province-wide ski races outside of school, and is a published Cappies critic.

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“Who we are is shaped by the hardships we face. We love, we lose. We learn, we forget. But deep down, we are true to ourselves. We are the fighters, the believers, the change-makers, the dreamers, the ones who never give up. We are the world’s future, and we cannot be silenced. We changed our lives to ensure that we can still achieve our dreamed futures in the midst of a global pandemic. We are tenacious, fearless, and determined. Nothing is holding us back from changing the world. Nothing will ever hold us back from making this world home for everyone. We learn together, we grow together, and we change the world together.”

Johanna Lau, M.E. Lazerte

Johanna Lau, the valedictorian for M.E. LaZerte School’s graduation, in Edmonton on June 16, 2021. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia
Johanna Lau, the valedictorian for M.E. LaZerte School’s graduation, in Edmonton on June 16, 2021. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia Photo by Ed Kaiser /20093541A

Johanna is M.E. LaZerte’s valedictorian for the class of 2021. As the chairwoman of Edmonton Public School’s student senate, she works with youth across Edmonton to ensure students have a voice in their education. Johanna is co-founder of Voices of LaZerte, a youth-led anti-racism committee. With Jing Ying Martial Arts, Johanna competes internationally to represent Team Canada. She also assistant-instructs lower-belt classes and performs martial arts and lion dance in the community to share her culture and contribute to Canada’s diverse mosaic. In her spare time, Johanna enjoys writing music and hanging out with friends.

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This fall, she will be attending McGill University in Montréal in its bachelor of commerce program. After her undergraduate degree, she plans to take the LSAT and hopefully become a corporate lawyer, a dream since she was nine years old.

“This pandemic has been a halt to regular life, yet there is still so much time ahead of us to write our stories, play our roles, and sing our songs. And if even a global pandemic won’t stop us from advocating for what we are passionate about, you best believe that our generation will be a generation of change.”

Excerpt of grad song by Johanna Lau:

We’re graduating through a pandemic
Yeah that kinda sucks but I guess it’s
Not so bad when you think about
All the time we’ve had to figure ourselves out

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This moment’s only temporary
After all we live through history
Save these stories for a future that awaits
Where we don’t all have to be six feet away

There’s no rush
Just keep pushing on
There’s no rush
We still have time to become someone

We have time to write our stories
This is just the start and they will see

The change
We’ll make
At the end of the day
It’s a journey not a race

We paused
Our lives
To try to stop a virus
But at the end it’s compassion that’s contagious

Though we’re physically apart
Remember the friendships we sparked
Before we all depart
On our journeys
To make our mark

And when we finally press replay
On our lives we’ll look back on the
Days where we vibed and dreamed to pass time
Now those dreams are ours to design

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Georgia Simkin, St. Francis Xavier

Valedictorian Georgia Simkin at St. Francis Xavier School in Edmonton on June 18, 2021. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia
Valedictorian Georgia Simkin at St. Francis Xavier School in Edmonton on June 18, 2021. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia Photo by Ed Kaiser /20093564A

For being only 17, Georgia has a lot of titles. Honour student. Vice-president. Volunteer. Co-founder. And now human of Edmonton Catholic Schools. Georgia has a 95 per cent average and has been accepted into the Oxford University’s medicine intensive program for aspiring high school students. She is representing her graduating class as the vice-president on her grad council. She volunteers her time on the Stollery Youth Advisement Council and is co-founder of an Edmonton-based company that supports local businesses called YEG Box. She is #ECSDfaithinspires.

“One of my favourite quotes is ‘Ambition is never content even on the summit of greatness.’ I want you to think about that for a moment. Make no mistake, it is you that is reaching this summit. Grad class of 2021, you have had to show more versatility, dedication, and resilience than any other class before you. When the world said it was not safe to learn in class, we pivoted and learned new ways to study. When the world said we cannot be with our friends, we showed compassion and understanding and found new ways to stay connected. When the future seemed uncertain, we remained hopeful and driven to achieve our goals. There are some who have questioned our education, but education is more than books and in-person learning. We have learned about overcoming obstacles and maintaining focus as we have studied, crammed, and quizzed each other, wrote diplomas (or not), and learned to always cheer each other on whether it is a tournament or school production. As we stand on this summit of greatness, that we have worked so hard to achieve, look around and see all that you have worked so hard for. During a pandemic, you succeeded in your education, you supported your friends, and many of you have even participated in global social change. So be proud, but do not be content, we are equipped with more tools than any other graduating class, and you can achieve your goals. ”

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Danielle Ratcliffe, Queen Elizabeth

Valedictorian Danielle Ratcliffe at Queen Elizabeth High School in Edmonton on June 17, 2021. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia
Valedictorian Danielle Ratcliffe at Queen Elizabeth High School in Edmonton on June 17, 2021. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia Photo by Ed Kaiser /20093552A

Queen Elizabeth’s Danielle Ratcliffe has long been passionate about math and science, and has enjoyed participating in science-related competitions and events over the last few years. Outside of school, she enjoys the piano, going on long bike rides, and travelling to new places (pre-pandemic of course). She’s excited to be attending the University of Alberta this fall to begin a bachelor of science in animal health with a major in food animals.

“The term ‘unprecedented times’ seems to be everyone’s favourite these days, and for good reason too — these times really are unprecedented. At only 17 I may not be the most experienced person you could be receiving advice from, but since I’m already here I might as well give it a try. We’ve established that the future is something that we won’t ever have complete control of, so why do we place so much pressure on ourselves when it comes to something that isn’t guaranteed anyways?

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“As we graduate high school it’s easy to stress about what you’re going to do next, whether that is going to university, starting a new job, or moving away from home. The future is unpredictable and you never know when a major world event will come and change all of your plans, so I encourage you to focus on what you CAN control: this day, even this exact moment right now. How we choose to act in the present is the only real thing we ever have control over. That two-and-a-half-hour English class may have seemed painfully long at the time, but all of a sudden here we are ready to graduate high school. If we learn to live in the moment, not only do we prevent life from passing us by, but we come to appreciate the little things that make it worth living in the first place. It could be making someone laugh, or taking a risk, or doing something that makes you happy — these are all things that we can choose to do, right now.”

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Iryna Vaslyuk, Austin O’Brien

Iryna Vaslyuk is the 2021 school valedictorian for Austin O’Brien High School in Edmonton.
Iryna Vaslyuk is the 2021 school valedictorian for Austin O’Brien High School in Edmonton. Photo by Larry Wong /POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Iryna immigrated with her family from a tiny Ukrainian city called Zolochiv. When they settled in Edmonton they were quickly taken aback by the thriving and welcoming Ukrainian community and that is when she began attending the Ukrainian bilingual program which she has now completed. She earned awards in highest average in biology 20 and 30, math 10-20-30, and English 10-1 and 20-1. She has contributed to the life of the school through her volunteering at the French booth during multicultural day and at the yearly Holodomor commemoration. She has recently volunteered at the University of Alberta Hospital. This will undoubtedly support her career aspirations as she prepares to join the University of Alberta’s bachelor of nursing program.

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“If you asked me years ago, I would have told you that every high school is the same. Yet, years later, my perspective has changed. Austin O’Brien became more than a place you go to copy down notes or write a few tests; it became a community, a family. One that is compounded with people who care and cherish one another. One of diversity, inclusivity, and strength. Whether you were involved in drama productions, a member of a band, on a sports team, or the leadership team, no matter your background or language, at AOB, we all felt welcome. It is here where we felt a shift from childhood into adulthood and here where we grew as individuals and truly discovered ourselves.

“High school became the place where lifelong friendships were forged, and countless memories were made. This building embodied an experience truly unlike anything else. It is nothing like middle school or our experiences in junior high, as here we formed our own opinions, political standings and diligently crafted our hopes and dreams. Separate from the opinions of our parents, we became independent and truly grew into ourselves. We began focusing on our future, considering whom we want to become and finding our voice with little guidance or help. And as much as we want to grow up and fly out of this place, looking back, we will miss this point in our lives. In simplicity, because nothing else will match it, nothing else will be quite the same.”

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Tawfeeq Mannan, Old Scona

Old Scona valedictorian Tawfeeq Mannan. Submitted photo
Old Scona valedictorian Tawfeeq Mannan. Submitted photo jpg

Tawfeeq is a full IB student at Old Scona Academic, born and raised here in Edmonton. He has excelled both in school and outside, having participated in competitions ranging from Edmonton Debate Regionals to the Canadian Geographic Challenge National Final (where he represented Alberta). His wide variety of interests have led him to take on many different roles in his community, including president of his school’s Geopolitics Club and executive member of the High School Model UN Club. He has also been a member of his school’s cross country team in past years. Outside of school, Tawfeeq is active in the Bengali community, having both participated in and volunteered for several community-run events.

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He will be going into engineering at the University of Alberta starting this fall, and at the moment, has his eye on computer engineering. He says he’ll probably try getting into the co-op program and finding some jobs abroad to get a nice combination of work and travel experience.

“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.” – Neil Gaiman

“That is the quote that we as a class picked to be our grad quote this year. It’s easy to see that it’s a quote meant to inspire us and speak to us, but I think it’s interesting to think about it in another sort of way, and that’s this: why is it that we picked this quote over the others?

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“Did we really just see the word ‘mistake’ three times and our brain chemicals went zing and compulsively attached ourselves to the quote? Maybe. But I think there’s something between the repeated ‘mistakes’ that resonates with our experiences in particular. It’s the idea that no matter how rough things are going for us, no matter how many times we’ve screwed it all up, we’re still here, on our feet, ready to take on another day. That’s one of the things that I think has bound us together as a class over the last three years, and it’s something I want to reflect on before we have to leave each other so soon. I’ll be honest with you all, things really haven’t always gone great for us, and our future doesn’t exactly look to be smooth sailing either. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t looked adversity in the eye and had it stare back into our soul. And do I even need to mention COVID?”

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Rhiannon VanderMeulen, School of Alternative Education

School of Alternative Education valedictorian Rhiannon VanderMeulen. Submitted photos
School of Alternative Education valedictorian Rhiannon VanderMeulen. Submitted photos jpg

This year’s valedictorian has been a student at Fresh Start Westmount, Alternative Education, for the past two years. Rhiannon VanderMeulen transferred to self-paced learning in Grade 11. She wanted to complete her high school requirements at her own pace and knew she had the motivation to do it. She loves art, crocheting and spending time with her dogs. After high school Rhiannon wants to be an entrepreneur and open her own business.

“I am so amazed to have finally reached this goal in my life. It is an honour to share a few words with the graduating class of 2021. I am so thankful for the time I spent here yet, just like my peers, I am equally as excited to see what the future may bring! We have all worked so hard to get here, each with our own unique circumstances. We have all experienced an array of ups and downs these past few years. Finishing high school during a pandemic has proven to have some challenges. What this demonstrates is that no matter how hard our struggles are, our determination can overcome anything. Nonetheless, with the help from our families, friends, teachers, advisers, and counsellors we can finally say we did it, we graduated!

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“As I write this speech, I cannot help but smile knowing that we did it! The future is our clay and how we mold it is up to us. We get to make the decision of where we go next. Dream big, work hard and just as our teachers taught us, always trust the process. We are ready to explore the world and decide for ourselves what we think of it. So here we are, the graduating class of 2021. We are ready to head out and mold our clay into success!”

Reese Jones, Vimy Ridge

Vimy Ridge valedictorian Reese Jones at the3 school on June 17, 2021 in Edmonton. Greg Southam/Postmedia
Vimy Ridge valedictorian Reese Jones at the3 school on June 17, 2021 in Edmonton. Greg Southam/Postmedia Photo by Greg Southam /Greg Southam

Since Grade 7, Reese has attained nonours with distinction each semester. Throughout her high school years, she achieved highest academic standing in both social studies 20-1 and math 20-1, and was awarded highest overall academic standing in Grade 11 and Grade 12, leading to her nomination for the Michael A. Strembitsky Award. In the sport of lacrosse she has played in five Canadian National Championships, winning four bronze medals and one silver. She was has received an athletic and academic scholarship to continue her education next year and play NCAA Division 1 lacrosse.

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“What first seemed like an extra week of fun at spring break quickly turned into an enormous amount of adversity. Whether you stocked up on toilet paper or baked banana bread religiously, learning online provided our biggest challenge yet. And as we’ve jumped back and forth this year, from Google meets, to in-person learning, and then back to the computer, I feel as if we deserve the biggest round of applause ever.

“Nobody could have predicted the turbulence we experienced constantly throughout our junior high and high school years, and I congratulate us all for surviving it. So no, our time here has been everything but smooth sailing, however I believe that nothing could have prepared us better for our future. Life is unpredictable, full of adversity, and the only way to combat life’s challenges is to be flexible. For my dancer friends, I know flexibility has never been an issue; For everyone else, maybe a little more of a challenge, but the only certainty we can know going forward is that life will be uncertain. And if anyone has experience in the uncertainty department, it is the class of 2021. Famous coach John Wooden summarizes it best when he says, ‘Flexibility is the key to stability.’”

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Katrina Montero, Holy Trinity

Katrina Montero is the 2021 school valedictorian for Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Edmonton.
Katrina Montero is the 2021 school valedictorian for Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Edmonton. Photo by Larry Wong /POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Katrina has been heavily involved in Holy Trinity’s school community in a variety of ways. She was an actress in the school play and one-acts, a stagehand, a member of the improv team, jazz band, worship band, drumline, and a combo band made by and made up of fellow students. Apart from these, Katrina also volunteered at the school through HT Heroes whenever Katrina could, and also as co-president of Holy Trinity’s student council. Katrina’s future educational plans include attending UBC Sauder School of Business for the bachelor of commerce degree.

“Everyone has their ‘ideal’ life,’ their ‘if I was’ or ‘if I did this instead’ thoughts and fantasies. But the thing about ideals is that we can only imagine them to the extent that we can imagine. Tell me, who could have imagined that they’d be taking class in their bed…room. That hand sanitizer would become my best friend or that one day if I wanted a snack during class break, I could make one. Which one of you imagined that we would be graduating during a global pandemic, because can you please manifest something better? These past few years have taught me that what we consider to be possible is as inconsistent as a Microsoft Teams connection. My point is, nobody expected things to turn out like this; so why hold ourselves to what we expect? Who cares what others think about you or what you think about yourself? Reality is very different than what we imagine it to be.

“Finally, as we sit here together but apart, I want to wholeheartedly wish the best for you all. Wherever you choose to take life, I hope it treats you well. Our year was cut from a different cloth. What we experienced is a high school life that other people can’t even begin to conceive. So go on and write your stories in full. This portion may conclude but your book is far from over, continue and create the next arc in your story. To everyone here, I’m glad I got to share this chapter with you.”

Vrusha Patel, Alberta School for the Deaf

Alberta School for the Deaf valedictorian Vrusha Patel. Submitted photo
Alberta School for the Deaf valedictorian Vrusha Patel. Submitted photo jpg

Vrusha, now 20 has lived in Edmonton since she was 10 years old. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, her family, her partner and her friends, painting, cooking, travelling the world and sports such as volleyball and badminton. She says one of her key accomplishments is graduating high school with a diploma while raising a baby at the same time. One day, she hopes to become either an elementary school teacher and work at the Alberta School for the Deaf or become a businesswoman, running her own business. The future is bright!

“I am very honored to do the valedictorian speech for the graduating class of 2021. When we all first entered through the front doors of Alberta School for the Deaf, none of us believed that today’s graduation ceremony would come; and now here we are. I think you would all agree that it feels like everything happened in the blink of an eye! With the ups and the downs over the past four years. ‘Some have a story, we made history!’ We are graduating during a pandemic! We did much of our schooling online, learning in a whole new way.

“I am giving advice to the future graduates; keep following your dreams, and passion. Whatever your paths lead you, always live your life to the fullest and listen to what your heart desires for.”

Keziah Ann Catacutan, Louis St. Laurent

Valedictorian Keziah Ann Catacutan at Louis St. Laurent School in Edmonton on June 17, 2021. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia
Valedictorian Keziah Ann Catacutan at Louis St. Laurent School in Edmonton on June 17, 2021. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia Photo by Ed Kaiser /20093558A

While Keziah grew up in Edmonton, she was born in the Philippines and immigrated to Canada at age four. Keziah was the recipient of the French 10 award, choral 10 award and was on the principal’s list each year in high school. Keziah is eager to study immunology and infection at the University of Alberta with the goal of becoming a dermatologist.

“We had no guarantee as to what this year would look like. With hopes of tradition, we were met with a new normal — bitter ode to real life. But perhaps I can offer some words from my favourite movie. As Peter Quill once said: ‘…you think life takes more than it gives, but not today. Today it’s giving us something. It is giving us a chance.’ I know it is easy to get caught up in what this year could have been: the year we were supposed to make senior memories, walk across the stage, and go to the graduation banquet — the climax of our high school stories. But our time will come. With no traditional ceremony to validate our accomplishments, allow me to do so. Congratulations, class of 2021! Take pride in those long hours studying, doing homework, completing assessments, and navigating the quarter system. It wasn’t easy pivoting through the chaos of online and in-person learning, managing to live safely within a global pandemic, or sacrificing more than we had ever hoped to get here today. I hope you will grow to understand the value of being given a fresh start everyday.”

Ahmed Siadomar, Ross Sheppard

“I think this is the first time in decades that a graduating class is correct in saying that their year is the most unexpected year yet. I don’t think any of us could have predicted how our Grade 12 year would look like when we first started high school. The world has changed so much in such a short period of time, and I know how difficult it has been. But I have witnessed the ability for us to work together in spite of the pandemic. It reminds me of how every morning before my math class, the desks would be sprayed with disinfectant. Do you remember the sticky desks?! And my teacher, Mr. Gartke, would wipe the desks dry for us every single day. Sometimes, if one of my classmates came early to class, they would help him dry a desk or two. But by the end of the quarter, anyone who was there would help dry the 30-something desks together. There was nothing to gain from helping out, and it was never required nor expected. Yet we were able to come together in a time where social interaction has been limited. Even if the pandemic forced us apart, in a way, it ultimately brought us closer than before.”

Adriana Guinto, Cardinal Collins Catholic Academic Centre

Cardinal Collins Catholic High School valedictorian Adriana Guinto on June 18, 2021, in Edmonton. Greg Southam/Postmedia
Cardinal Collins Catholic High School valedictorian Adriana Guinto on June 18, 2021, in Edmonton. Greg Southam/Postmedia Photo by Greg Southam /Greg Southam

Adriana immigrated to Canada from the Philippines in October of 2020 and began her studies at Cardinal Collins Catholic Academic Centre — Clareview in November and she has not looked back since. She was able to attain her Alberta high school diploma in less than a year, managing an extremely full, academic schedule with grace and compassion.  In conjunction with being honoured as this year’s valedictorian, Adriana was also awarded the ELL Most Outstanding Student Award. Adriana has goals of being a medical doctor, starting with a bachelor of science degree.

“Dear graduates of 2021, if there’s a lesson I can share with all of you from this journey, it is none other than deciding to be fearless and courageous, and I think all of us would agree. Before, I thought confidence was the key, but I thought wrong. If you fear nothing, you’ll be naturally confident, as lack of confidence is primarily a result of fear of failure, fear of the unknown and fear of what not. Hence, confidence is a byproduct of fearlessness.

“It was six months ago when I arrived here from a country far different from this. I was filled with awe at how beautiful this country is. However, alongside that awe is my fear of not being able to fit in and being accepted in a culture different from mine instilled within me. It was not easy, to say the least, but I always say to myself that we are all children of God. And as it is, not all children look and think alike, some are more talented and gifted in various ways than others. Not all children have the same capabilities, we all have our weaknesses and strengths, and if God has made me what I am, then I am who I am, feeling no inferiority or superiority to anybody, but simply give the best of what I am, enjoy life and God will do the rest.”

Julianna Graham, Harry Ainlay

Harry Ainlay High School valedictorian Julianna Graham outside of her school in Edmonton on June 17, 2021. Ian Kucerak/Postmedia
Harry Ainlay High School valedictorian Julianna Graham outside of her school in Edmonton on June 17, 2021. Ian Kucerak/Postmedia Photo by Ian Kucerak /Postmedia

Julianna was born and grew up in Edmonton. She has been active in sports, currently competing with Penguin Swim Club as well as the Harry Ainlay swim, track and cross country teams. This September, she will be attending the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in the applied science program (engineering!).

“And, of course, it wouldn’t be fair to forget Miss Rona’s World Tour! Our graduating class is one of a kind; our entire Grade 12 year was during a global health crisis. We’ve dealt with added stress, unforeseen change and uncertainty, but despite these obstacles, we’ve continued to work hard and to enjoy our last year of high school, together, as much as we could. Us graduates have also shown our amazing energy, independence and motivation while learning online from home. Even if, once in a while, class time became extra sleep time, or if every day became pyjama day, adapting to online learning certainly wasn’t an easy transition.

“Throughout this pandemic, we’ve shown ourselves that we can get through times when hope dwindles, when disappointment, fear and doubt surround us. And now, we’re ready to take on the future with confidence in ourselves, in our abilities to get through difficult, even crazy times. We’re leaving Ainlay with a wealth of knowledge and skill — pertaining to academics, activities and, most importantly, to life.”

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