They played pomp and circumstance during the processional at Friday’s commencement and the graduates wore the traditional caps and gowns, but this procession also included uniformed corrections officers, a sign that this was not your standard graduation day.
This was the state’s Juvenile Justice Commission’s annual high school commencement, and these young people have made their way past obstacles most of their peers never have to face. For keynote speaker Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, his first JJC graduation left a big impression.
“The fact that they could overcome all of those obstacles and achieve success and then hear from other student who’ve done the same thing and are now at Columbia, are now at Rutgers, are now making a quarter of a million a year, that’s amazing, so it was fantastic,” he said.
Alumni like Ethan, a 2015 graduate of the program who’s now in graduate school at Columbia.
“I know what it’s like to be stripped of your freedom and family and pride and all of the suffering that accompanies those losses, but you’re left with a massive advantage over anyone else out there,” he told the graduates. “You have enough free time in here to learn anything and enough youth left to get out there and execute on all of it.”
Graduation doesn’t mean immediate freedom for these young people, but for most of them, it’s a first important step out the door, and the enthusiasm shown by family and friends spoke to the hope and the optimism that comes with these diplomas.
“Success isn’t about money or power,” said 2018 graduate Divon. “It’s not about what other people want or expect. It’s about accomplishing the goals that you set for yourself in life. It’s about how to stay true to people who are true to you, to your core values. But success isn’t just about diplomas, or awards or your own glory. For me, it’s about sharing everything you’ve been given and everything you’ve learned in your life with those less fortunate than yourself.”
There really was a lot of love in the room. These families have traveled this road with these graduates and it has not been straight or smooth. Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver echoed the sentiment.
“Congratulations,” she enthused. “I love you all. Believe me. I love you all.”
Most graduations represent a culmination. Friday was very much about new beginnings and 60 young people making a pivot toward positivity.