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Mid-Columbia graduations: A time to reflect

Thousands of graduating seniors from high schools in the Mid-Columbia and students who obtained graduation certificates at Columbia Basin College accepted congratulations, cheers, hugs and smiles Friday night.

Speakers borrowed lines from a movie pirate and shared inspiration from their Avon lady, thanked parents, teachers and even veterans of D-Day to express their gratitude for the opportunity to make something out of their lives.

Graduations continue today with ceremonies for graduates at Pasco High, Kennewick High, Kamiakin High, Southridge High, Liberty Christian, Kiona-Benton City High, Grandview High, Prescott High, Umatilla High and Washtucna High.

-- Richland High School

Richland High School's Class of 2008 endured four years of campus construction and three new principals.

But all that quickly became the past as the school's 393 seniors and eight foreign exchange students graduated to air horns, whistles and camera flashes in a packed Toyota Center.

David Bergsman told his classmates that despite what happens in the future, they all have the potential to be successful. "But you can't all be too successful or we'll be jealous at our reunion," he said.

Bergsman was one of 12 valedictorians for the green-and-gold Bombers. He was joined by Andrea Brigantic, Daniel Chiang, Galia Deitz, Stefan Dernbach, Carrie Dotson, Matthew Hendricks, Dana Hulke, Jenevieve Lackey, Laura Sampson, Thomas Sanford and Stephanie Wright.

Salutatorian was Sean Johnson.

Together the class earned more than $1.3 million in scholarships.

"To put that in perspective, that's enough money to buy gas to go from here to Yakima and back," said Principal Gordon Comfort.

Dernbach said he turned to YouTube for examples of motivational speeches, and quickly was assured that his would not be the worst graduation speech ever given.

Dernbach pointed out that in spite of all the challenges they faced in the last four years -- from bomb threats and a lack of parking to guns and cell phones in school -- they made it through to graduation.

"Tomorrow, throw away the plans and the rules ... and just continue to do what you are passionate about," he said. "I just hope the world is ready for us."

-- Hanford High School

Janelle King was stressed out over her valedictorian speech.

She spent weeks, months even, trying to come up with something life-changing to say, she confessed to the crowd Friday at Hanford High School's graduation.

She settled on a simple message that was a theme of the afternoon: "We are at a turning point in our lives where we start our futures and set forth to conquer our dreams and ambitions. So go get them. Don't let anyone or anything hold you back."

Other valedictorians were Steven Dai, Wandrille Hubert and Samantha Simiele.

Nearly 300 seniors received their diplomas during the afternoon ceremony at the Toyota Center in Kennewick. Seniors in bright purple robes marched in to cheers and honks from air horns, and then laughed and clapped as speakers shared funny stories and touching memories of their years at Hanford High.

Teacher Marcie Belgard, who stood on a step stool to reach the microphone, urged them to let go of the past but hold onto the important lessons they learned in high school.

"Many of us will, very soon, be saying goodbye to our friends and families," said salutatorian Gretchen Ellefson. "It may be painful for a time, but before we know it, we will see our new opportunity to be who we are."

-- Othello High School

The Othello High School Class of 2008, decked out in red and black caps and gowns, moved Friday to the band's selections from Grease, turning the school's football field into a swaying checkerboard.

But while the 160 graduates rocked out to Summer Lovin', those in the stands bundled up in blankets and winter coats against the chilly weather.

"Last year it was about 104 degrees," said Principal Matt Stevens. "We're thankful somebody turned the heat down."

Twin valedictorians Erica and Michelle Wheeler addressed their classmates together.

"Delivering this speech together was never a question," Michelle said, adding that they wanted their last high school memory to be the same.

The sisters remembered their years together through elementary, middle and high schools, and thanked their teachers, friends and family.

"Mom and Dad," Michelle said, "we're sorry to say, but your babies are all grown up."

-- Connell High School

About 90 graduates passed beneath purple-striped poles to take their place at the front of the family and friends who had come to see the class of 2008 graduate from Connell High School.

A few decorated their mortarboards with glittery writing, but one senior topped them, shaving "08" into the back of his head.

All seven valedictorians and the salutatorian offered advice to their classmates.

Valedictorian Camie Edler said she's dreamed of the privilege of speaking at graduation -- but facing an overflow crowd at Esser Field she was wondering why, she said, laughing.

"If we think and live righteously, happiness will find a place in our lives," said valedictorian Candice Nielson.

Valedictorian Rachel Pierson challenged her classmates to not only help themselves to be great but also to help others.

Other valedictorians were Lindsey Borgens, Jarom Davidson, Ariel Empey and Ashley McCary. David Rowley was salutatorian.

Many of the graduates carried in a red rose to fill vases near the stage in remembrance of classmates Brauk Bushong, who died in a four-wheeler crash six years ago, and Joshua Rankin, who died last year after his SUV rolled after he apparently fell asleep at the wheel.

-- River View High School

Finding the perfect speech topic was a challenge for River View High School co-valedictorian Courtney Hansen, so she decided to use numbers to recount memories with her classmates.

"I could even call you family," she said during her speech at the graduation ceremony in Finley.

After 2,340 days of school together, including 750 hours of elementary school recess and 27,000 minutes of middle school P.E. classes, graduates are starting a new part of their life's journeys, she said.

About 75 Panthers crossed the stage before a full gymnasium, including co-valedictorian Donald Galatis.

"Your book of life is full of blank pages waiting for you to pen your tale," he said.

Class salutatorian was Kyle Buck.

During the senior class video, baby photos and senior pictures flashed onto a screen at the front of the gym, eliciting whoops, claps and laughter from the audience.

Faculty speaker Dennis Traver left the graduates with a few words of advice: "Look for good friends, be a good teammate and find a good mentor.

"As you start your adult life, keep your eyes, hearts and minds open."

-- Columbia High School

Columbia High School's 51 seniors took time during their graduation to present flowers to their parents and give tribute to World War II veterans before celebrating their graduation before friends and family in Burbank.

"Let us not forget the sacrifice they made so we could be here this day," said Michael Blanc in noting for his fellow seniors that June 6, 1944, was the D-Day invasion by Allied Forces into German-occupied France.

Strong winds that knocked out power to the campus in Burbank early Friday caused school officials to move ceremonies from the football field into the gynmasium.

Salutatorian Jonathon Rickords described the seniors' 13-year learning odyssey a "long adventure on the yellow brick road," but said it was more like "the end of the beginning" with more challenges ahead.

Rickords then borrowed a pirate line from Capt. Jack Sparrow: "Now bring me that horizon."

Valedictorian Joshua Lott reminded the group how tough the Washington Assessment of Student Learning exams were then quipped that "the tassle is worth the hassle."

Principal Kyle Miller told the graduates, "You have grown and you are ready," as he presented the diplomas.

"Never stop learning and never stop questioning," he offered as parting words.

CBC GED and high school completion

If it weren't for the Avon lady, Kathy Stidham might never have gotten her general equivalency diploma.

That was in 1973, and at 18, she already had been married for three years, she told a crowd of about 150 students in royal blue caps and gowns in Columbia Basin College's Gymnasium on Friday night.

Those students were there to receive their GED certificates, and Stidham said she hoped they'd go on to set the kind of example her Avon lady set for her. CBC awarded GED certificates or high school diplomas to 538 students this year.

Stidham said she had dropped out of school and gotten married at 15, and by the time the Avon lady knocked on her door, she had become a slob.

"I didn't get dressed until after General Hospital was over," she said.

But her local Avon lady got Stidham cleaned up, taught her to drive and took her to CBC to get her GED.

Then she went on to become a nurse, and later a nurse practitioner.

Stidham said she'd like to see those receiving their GED certificates Friday follow in her footsteps.

"This is the first step in the big journey you all are going to take," she said. "No one can take away your education. It's sacred."

* Also graduating Friday were seniors from River's Edge High, Sunnyside Christian High, Mabton High, New Horizons Alternative High, Moses Lake High, Kingspoint Christian, Royal High School, Waitsburg High and Walla Walla High.

* Reporters Sara Schilling, Michelle Dupler, Kristin M. Kraemer, John Trumbo, Ingrid Stegemoeller, Laura Kate Zaichkin and Annette Cary contributed to this report.

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