With more than $3.8 million in scholarship money, the Vilonia graduating class of 2016 made history Saturday and they are ready to begin writing the next chapter in their lives.
The color red stood out at 10 a.m., Saturday, May 14, in UCA’s Farris Hall as the graduates crossed the stage.
Matt Sewell, high school principal and Tim Bullington, assistant principal, called the 241 names of the graduates including the 54 students graduating with honors. Randy Sanders, president of the Vilonia Board of Education, handed out the majority of the diplomas.
Seniors officiated throughout the ceremony, taking their turn at the microphone, addressing their peers. Austin Watt gave the invocation. Jedidiah Myers and Tucker Richmond served as the graduate speakers. Both Myers and Richmond talked about writing new chapters in the book of life.
“It’s time, now, for us to part ways and write the final chapter on our own, Myers said. He encouraged his peers to keep moving forward no matter the speed. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., he said, “If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”
Today, marks the end of a chapter in our lives, but more importantly it marks a new beginning of pages yet to be written, Richmond said. “This new book contains each and every single one of our futures and we must take it on at full steam,” he added. “Our entire lives are in our hands and we must make the most of this opportunity. On this journey, we must all realize that no one in this world owes us anything whatsoever. We never get what we deserve. We get what we earn. For some, this fact may be hard to swallow but it is reality. You are in charge of your own livelihood and the forger of your own path.”
He encouraged his peers to “push forward and to innovate.”
“I know we are too great to settle for mediocrity,” he said. “We all have the ability to create an incredibly bright future for ourselves.”
He encouraged the graduates to do their best and not let distractions and challenges hinder their success. He also shared his thoughts and encouraged his peers to “guard your reputation as if it were your greatest asset.”
“Do not fall prey to easy schemes promising a fast buck,” he said. “Hold yourself to a higher standard. If you develop a reputation for high standards and have a great work ethic, your reputation will precede you and you will always be able to find work.”
He also passed along some advice, he said, his father always has told him.
“A good reputation will follow you everywhere you go, but a bad reputation will run ahead of you no matter how far you go,” he shared. He concluded by saying “So, class of 2016, here is to all the great accomplishments yet to come.”
Graduation may have been sweeter to a handful of students due to some challenges that occurred in their lives during the months leading up to graduation. For instance, Casey Williams, who was named as the 2016 Arkansas Youth Humanitarian, and who received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy was stricken about two months ago, March 14, with a virus that attacked her central nervous system leaving her unable to move. At one point, she said, she couldn’t wiggle her fingers or toes and her jaw was drawn to one side. She also lost all muscle memory from the waist down.
“Walking across the stage meant a lot, to me, because I graduated,” she said. “But, it meant even more because two months ago, I didn’t know if I would walk again.”
Although she missed more than a month of school, she ended up graduating with honors exceeding a 4.0 GPA and ranked 7/241. “I don’t understand why God does what he does,” she said. “But, he is writing me quite the story and I am ready for the next chapter.”
Due to the health scare, Casey plans to defer going to the naval academy a year. In the meantime, she will attend A-State getting some of her college credits under her belt.
Sarah Gwatney was seriously injured, April 16, in an automobile accident on her way home from a graduation party. She hit a tree on the drivers’ side of her vehicle. She doesn’t remember what happened but has been told she probably fell asleep.
She was airlifted to the hospital with multiple injuries including a concussion. She is still suffering with a fractured vertebrae in her neck. She walked across the stage, to receive her diploma, wearing a neck brace. Following the accident, she said, no one was sure how well “my brain was going to work.”
“I am just so grateful to be able to walk with my class,” she said. She is also making preparations to attend college and plans to pursue a career in the medical profession.
Andrew Sees was diagnosed with leukemia in January. Since, he has spent time hospitalized and taking chemotherapy treatment. A teacher, Julie Bridges, comes to his house twice a week, he said, helping him with his work. For that, he is very grateful.
“I didn’t know if I would graduate. I didn’t think I would be able to come at first (to graduation) and walk across the stage,” he said. “But, my doctor postponed chemotherapy a week so I could come.”
He hopes to go onto college and go into a physical fitness related field.
In the benediction, Benjamin Payne said it was not only the closing prayer but also the opening prayer for the rest of life. He said the class was blessed with a great school, great teachers and a solid foundation.
The 2016 graduating class made history, according to school officials, as the largest graduating class in history. In 2015, there were 213 students in the graduating class including 47 honor graduates with students awarded more than $3.3 million in scholarships. In 2014, there were 209 graduating seniors—41 that graduated with honors.