CAMDEN, NJ — A sea of royal blue caps and gowns marched through the Mastery High School of Camden parking lot — face masks hiding the renaissance school’s 76 founding graduates.

“Let us not forget this class has been through a lot together and it has not been your typical high school experience,” said valedictorian Michell Gomez on Wednesday while on stage.

Gomez, 17, traveled to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was six years old — earning not only a high school diploma today but recently receiving her associates degree from Camden County College as well. 

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Gomez will be heading to the University of Vermont to study political science.

This year, she shared in obstacles with her classmates as well, amid social justice protests and a global pandemic.

“We're a small group of warriors that have fought many battles together,” Gomez continued. “We've seen our high school go into something we could have never imagined…[We] have made relationships and bonds we will never forget.”

Gomez’ tenacity was held up by principal Dr. William Hayes as just one of many beacons of light that shine bright from the school — with Mastery's Class of 2020 earning a total of $6.5 million in scholarship awards. 

The school network first opened North Camden Elementary and Cramer Hill Elementary in the city in 2014. 

At the time, Mastery leaders said North Camden families yearned for a high school — what became a reality in 2018 after the network temporarily taught students in a small section of the East Camden Middle School. 

Hundreds of parents gathered in white chairs at the North Camden school. Some held balloons. Most recorded the procession and awarding of diplomas. 

“You all are history-makers,” said Hayes while addressing the class. “When future generations read the history books they will wonder: What happened to that class that graduated during the time of the world fight for social justice, the class that watched a nation go up in flames to protest against police brutality? What happened to that class that finished their senior year at home because of a global pandemic? What happened to the founding class of Mastery High School that got started in a single hallway, but finished the first ever graduates from the first ever High School in North Camden? What became of the class...and when they ask, my hope is that they will tell your stories.”

Although rain threatened the morning’s proceedings, while Hayes ruminated on the faces he would miss the sun shone through and culled any fears. 

“It was absolutely a sign,” Hayes told TAPinto Camden after the ceremony. “Of what we’ve done to get us here, fighting through the unexpected.”

While most caps were bare, others were etched with messages: “Black Lives Matter,” “It’s Not Who I Am Underneath But What I Do That Defines Me.”

Mastery graduate Jose Llorens, 19, decided he’d wear a knight’s helmet for the celebration.

“It just felt appropriate,” said Llorens, who has lived in Camden all his life. “To me today meant everything because I honestly didn't think I would make it. That I wasn’t cut out.”

After the summer, Llorens said he is considering studying culinary arts, joining the Army or exploring his college options. 

As students exited the school’s gates and gathered on the lawn near the entrance, parents snapped photos with Hayes and other school leaders. 

“I really appreciate them giving me this proud dad moment,” said Troy Cartwright.

He said nothing could match being able to see his 18-year-old son, who shares his name, walk the stage. 

“With regulations being lifted like barbershops but others changing such as being able to eat indoors, I’d say yes, we were very fortunate,” said Cartwright. 

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