Hightstown High School seniors' spirits were as high as the clouds in the sky Tuesday morning, as they set off to chart their course for life after high school.
The nearly 400-strong Hightstown High School Class of 2017 gathered for the last time at the Sun Bank Arena in Trenton, marking the school's 102nd graduation exercise.
Three graduating seniors - Christian Paul Cordero and Dennis Enrique Panama, who are entering the U.S. Marine Corps, and Abraham L. Flores, who is entering the U.S. Army - strode into the arena ahead of the classmates, carrying two U.S. flags and the New Jersey state flag to applause from the attendees.
And then, as the Hightstown High School Band played the familiar "Pomp and Circumstance," the high school faculty marched onto the court. They were followed by the 398 seniors who made up the Class of 2017.
The seniors - boys in blue caps and gowns and girls in white caps and gowns - stood in line patiently as they waited for their turn to enter the arena. One boy stood in line with his hand on his hip, and then he took a "selfie" with his smartphone as the line began to move.
Some of the seniors decorated their mortarboard caps, mostly with the names of the colleges they will be attending.
But a few were a little more creative and struck out on their own - "Dreams without borders, gracias mama y papa," "I made it" and "I still have no idea what I'm doing."
It was the first time that school officials had allowed the graduates to decorate their mortarboards.
Once his classmates were seated, class president Awu Rizvi greeted them. He told that their 12 years of hard work and dedication had led them to this moment, which they should all share and cherish for the rest of their lives.
"We have the ability to make change," Awu said. "With diploma in hand, the seniors have a chance to make the world better for their parents, their friends and the community.
"Look out, here comes the Hightstown High School Class of 2017," Awu said.
Class Salutatorian Hao Yu, looking out onto his classmates from the podium, said this was not the first time that he had been in the Sun Bank Arena. He played tuba in the high school band, so the arena was familiar territory - although he admitted that he did not like playing "Pomp and Circumstance" for a steady 20 minutes at previous graduation ceremonies.
Hao then told his classmates that he could have been living a much different life in China if his parents had not immigrated to the United States. His mother was a physician and his father held a Ph.D., yet they sacrificed all of that security to take chance in this country.
"I can't thank you enough for being so selfless, I really can't," Hao said to his parents.
He told his classmates that parents have the best interests of their children at heart. Parents set up their children for the first 18 years, and then it is up to them. But parents will always be there, he said.
Taking the podium to offer his remarks, class Valedictorian Aditya Shah said the Class of 2017 was "transformational." Its 398 members are destined to become the movers and shakers of the nation, he said.
Citing the lyrics to rapper Kanye West's song "Stronger," which appeared on his CD entitled "Graduation," Aditya said he thought of the tune when he was asked what he would tell his classmates.
The words to the song - "Work it harder, make it better, do it faster, make it stronger" - are words to live by, Aditya said. The classmates will face obstacles in their lives, he said.
But those obstacles can be overcome, he said, pointing to Jack Ma, who founded Alibaba, a China-based e-commerce company. As a young man, Ma was the only one not hired out of 24 applicants for a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken - yet he succeeded in creating an online company.
Hightstown High School Principal Dennis M. Vinson Jr., in his parting words to the class, told them they had achieved the goal of becoming a high-performing high school with a soul.
Vinson thanked the seniors' parents for entrusting their children to him and for raising an "amazing" group of young people.
Graduation Day is a "tough day" for him, Vinson said, because while he is ready for them to leave, he is also sorry they are leaving. They learned much together, as students and principal, he said.
And in his remarks to the soon-to-be graduates, Superintendent of Schools Richard S. Katz pointed to "the paradoxes of our times." He cited "bigger houses and smaller families, more knowledge but less judgment, and more medicine but less wellness."
"You have the knowledge and foundation to make change," Katz told them. He referred to a message in the yearbook, written by a graduating senior - "You can't change the past, but you can change the future."
And then it was time to send the seniors into that future.