PASCO -- For six Tri-City high school seniors, it was a no-brainer that their final year being recognized by the Afro-Americans for an Academic Society would be their ninth consecutive.
Ellijah Gardaya, Shelby Long, Cassi Davis, Jayven Moore, Zachary En'Wezoh and Grant Woods were fourth-graders when they were first honored by the organization for having a 3.0 grade-point average or better. At that time, they likely were joined at the annual ceremony by at least a few dozen classmates.
The six persevered and made return appearances each year while others dropped off.
And then finally -- on Sunday afternoon before a packed theater at Pasco's Chiawana High School -- the group was in the spotlight together one last time, each of their faces beaming because they were able to keep their grades high for the past nine years.
Long, 18 and a Richland High senior, said it was their individual sports commitments that pushed each of them to getting good report cards.
"It was no option. We all play sports and have to maintain grades to play," she said, adding that good grades are needed for college.
But Davis, also 18 and Long's classmate, attributed it to their upbringings and said there really never was a question that each of them would be successful in their academics.
"I think we've all grown up in homes where our parents stressed the importance of education," said Davis, who is heading to Howard University to major in chemistry.
The six were among 34 graduating seniors who took the stage at the AAAS program to collectively receive about $40,000 in scholarships. A total of 325 students were honored at the ceremony and received a ribbon and certificate, said AAAS President Angie Ash.
The theme of this year's event is a quote from an unknown author: "Knowledge is truly a priceless thing ... once it is earned, nothing can buy it back."
The mission of the donation-driven organization, founded in 1976, is to motivate Afro-American students in the Tri-Cities community to achieve academic excellence. The program started with Pasco students, and expanded to include Kennewick, Richland, Benton City and Prosser schools in 1996.
Students from grades four through 12, who maintain a GPA of 3.0 or better for three consecutive quarters each school year, are recognized each May at the annual program.
The select group of seniors recognized for their nine consecutive years received cash awards and new laptops.
Gardaya, an 18-year-old Richland High student, will study engineering at Washington State University.
Long is going to the University of Oregon for business, then plans to switch her focus to law.
After graduating from Liberty Christian School, Moore, 18, will head to the University of Washington to study pre-med and major in either biology or chemistry.
En'Wezoh, 17, will go from Kamiakin High to Columbia University for business management studies.
And Woods, a Kennewick High senior, may be heading to a junior college in Southern California before transferring to a university.