WEST ORANGE, NJ – West Orange High School (WOHS) graduated 524 seniors at Codey Arena on Thursday during the high school’s 123rd annual commencement exercises.

Class of 2018 Valedictorian Aishwarya Kanagala reflected upon her past four years and encouraged her fellow graduates to take what they have learned and use it like a candle to light their way.

"Frankly, and I believe I speak for many of you when I say this, reality has not hit me yet,” she said. “I am still living under the illusion that we will return to familiar classrooms and sit in the same desks in September. But as surreal as it is, it is time to move on. Wherever you go, I hope that you carry these memories close to your heart and that you work to make all of your dreams come true.”

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Kanagala urged her peers to look at their diplomas like a candle, “lit by the teachers who have influenced [their] daily lives.” She said each candle’s unwavering flame will “burn on with [their] knowledge,” and that its wax melting down one side “is representative of [their] perseverance.”

“Protect, fuel, and cherish this flame for the rest of your life because it will take you places,” said Kanagala. “It will light up your path along the way and its luminance will provide warmth and comfort. So use your candle to set fireworks and watch as the sparks dance in the night sky. Because today is a celebration. It is a celebration of the past four years, the ups and downs, and the lessons learned. But most importantly, it is a celebration of you. So be radiant, be lustrous, and be fearless. Because we finally made it.”

Salutatorian Aion Ashby offered reminders and advice to her fellow graduates, stating that she didn’t know what WOHS would have in store for her, but is leaving with some valuable life lessons.

“I learned to never change yourself for others because it’s your life, so live it how you want to live it,” she said. “I learned that even though it may seem like the world is crashing down on you in one moment, I promise you, it will get better. I learned to be careful who you keep as friends because there are always snakes lurking in the grass. And I learned to embrace and cherish every moment because once that moment passes, it will only be a memory, and you can never get it back.”

Ashby added that “high school was like a roller coaster,” with unexpected ups, downs, twists and turns, and although she and her classmates were ready for the ride to end, they are all “a little sad that it's time to get off.”

“I want you all to take those ups and downs, and twists and turns and use them to guide you through life,” she said. “We all have potential to do great things, so go out and achieve your dreams."

The processional was led by assistant superintendent Eveny de Mendez, board of education members and administrators, including the principals of the elementary and middle schools, as the WOHS Graduation Band performed “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Graduating seniors Ruth Mesfin, Kefi Mtume, Tyreek Voltaire and Nasir Hannah, who also arranged the four-part harmony interpretation, performed the national anthem. Director William Farley and the graduation choir next performed “The Impossible Dream,” which was conducted by John Hellyer.

“The Promise of Living” was performed by the graduation band under the direction of Lew Kelly as seniors participated in their last recital of their high school careers, and the top five per cent of students were recognized with academic honor medallions by WOHS Principal Hayden Moore and board of education vice president Mark Robertson.

Board President Ron Charles offered the board tribute to the students, exhorting them to persevere and to become the best version of themselves.

“I have a few Tweet-sized messages for the class of 2018: you are all incredible change agents,” said Moore. “Change agents are people who transform society. Change agents stand for those things that make the world better. Change agents stand against the hateful and harmful. I am proud of the Class of 2018.”

Moore noted some of the students’ accomplishments this year, including their passionate stand for the students of Parkland and against gun violence, meeting with Senator Corey Booker’s office as well as republicans to express their concerns to make a change, and to take a stand for racial unity.

He also expressed his respect for the achievements of the female graduates, not only academically but athletically, receiving the high school’s first-ever Super Essex Conference’s Olympic Cup and beating 37 other conference schools in Essex County. The boys placed sixth out of 37 schools.

“Young ladies and gentlemen, your time at WOHS has come to an end, and new and exciting chapters are beginning…as a graduate of WOHS you have been challenged by the rigors of our school and you have succeeded,” said Moore. “Now you will begin a new facet of your life’s path. May you follow your heart and realize your dreams. May you always be kind to others and may life be kind to you by extending good health, much happiness, exceptional fortune, and unyielding success. Class of 2018, remember you are Mountaineers, which means you climb every challenge and summit any problem.”

Moore then honored Elizabeth Calixto’s memory by presenting her diploma to her mother.

DeMendez certified the students as official graduates and the awarding of diplomas began to the cheers of family and friends. Hats flew as the last name was read and students departed Codey Arena to ready for the all-night Project Graduation celebration at the Funplex on Route 10 in East Hanover.

Click to read about the Liberty Middle School and Roosevelt Middle School graduation ceremonies.

All photos were provided by Cynthia Cumming, communications coordinator for the West Orange school district.

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