“Pomp and Circumstance” played June 20 as more than 40 seniors of the Fort Campbell High School Class of 2020 marched onto the school’s soccer field, each remaining 6 feet apart for an outdoor commencement ceremony.
Rafael Cerritos, who graduated eighth in his class, wore his graduation regalia with pride.
“I’m kind of excited,” Cerritos said. “I get to see all my friends who I haven’t seen in a while.”
Cerritos, an Eagle Scout and Model United Nations member, will attend the University of Kentucky in the fall to study neuroscience. He attended Fort Campbell schools for nine years and said he was happy to see his friends before going out to explore the world.
“It’s also enjoyable to get two graduations, a virtual and real one,” he said.
FCHS hosted a virtual commencement ceremony in May to celebrate the milestone for the 87 seniors of the school’s Class of 2020.
Although only about half of the already-graduated seniors took part in the outdoor commencement, the simple ceremony meant a lot to many.
“It was just one final act of formality to celebrate our awesome students,” said Kesha Ladd, FCHS teacher who helped set up groups of disinfected chairs so each graduate could sit with their two guests. “Graduation is one of the most important rites of passage for our young people. We wanted to celebrate them one last time and all their accomplishments.”
Kevin Rhodd Jr., FCHS Class of 2020, moved to Fort Campbell his sophomore year. His mother, Brandy Rhodd, was excited to see him get his diploma, even though his father, Staff Sgt. Kevin Rhodd, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), was unable to attend.
“I’m excited he gets to walk the stage because that’s what all the kids want to do,” Brandy Rhodd said.
Kevin Rhodd Jr., who was a member of JROTC and National Honor Society, is preparing to follow his dreams despite the ongoing pandemic.
“He’s excited because he’s moving to California,” Brandy Rhodd said. “He leaves July 7, because he’s going to the University of Monterey Bay. We’re from California, so that’s where our Family and his cousins and uncle went to college.”
Kimberly Butts, FCHS principal, said it was difficult to limit the number of people who could attend the momentous occasion. Each former student could only bring two guests to the commencement.
“While this year has certainly not turned out the way you thought it would, rest assured that you will never forget it,” Butts told the former students and Family in attendance. “In addition to finishing the year in virtual learning, your class has many impressive accomplishments.”
Of the graduating students 9% committed to military service, 63% graduated with a 3.0 grade point average or higher and 95% earned at least one scholarship.
“Your class has earned over $7 million in scholarship offers, a new FCHS record,” Butts said. “And finally, you are the only class in the history of Fort Campbell High School to have two graduation ceremonies.”
She said the last few months have taught her how quickly things can change and encouraged the students to enjoy and appreciate life, learn something from every experience, always be kind and know they are always part of the Falcon Family.
During his speech, Jack Cogbill, FCHS Class of 2020 valedictorian, joked about the challenges teachers and students faced with virtual classes and technology, but said the outdoor commencement ceremony means more to the students than school staff could know.
He also urged his classmates to tackle injustice and bigotry in the world.
“As a culture, as a society, as a country, we must be better than what we were in the past,” Cogbill said.
He urged the graduates to bring about change to create “a country that lets our love for one another outshine any implicit biases we have.”
“We cannot just sit around and wait for this solution to come in a day, week, month or year,” Cogbill said. “The change we want to make happen has to start with us, the graduating class of 2020. We are the next generation of adults to venture into the word and we are the ones who can be the beginning of that change.”
As students with military Families, he reminded the graduates they grew up seeing their relatives fight alongside people of all backgrounds.
“We are going to be remembered in this world not by what we say to people, but by the way we make them feel,” Cogbill said. “Let this be your legacy: Go out and touch as many lives as possible with love, equality and empathy. Be a positive change in people’s lives and let them feel in their hearts that you care about them.”
Stacy Daniels, FCHS senior guidance counselor, told the graduates to cherish each moment, even if it does not turn out as planned.
“By being in attendance today, you are seizing an opportunity, a second chance to experience one of life’s great milestones – high school graduation,” Daniels said. “You will have many second, third and fourth chances in life and I challenge you to take advantage of every single one of them.”
Staff Sergeant Sandy Newman, 96th Aviation Support Battalion, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), was there when his daughter, Niashilli Miles took part in both graduations – virtual and in-person.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “I’m about to deploy so I think it’s a good opportunity to see her walk the stage, watch the milestones and I have an opportunity to be here.”
Her mother, Katrise Newman, said Niashilli has attended Fort Campbell schools since fourth grade and wanted to see her classmates one last time before going to Louisiana State University, where she will join ROTC.
“Some of her friends have already gone off to college, so to be able to enjoy the remaining Falcons and being able to walk with them means the world to her,” Katrise Newman said.
‘It means a lot’
Angel Manalang, who graduated third in her class, was busy during her four years at FCHS.
She went to Girls State in Kentucky, participated in JROTC and Model United Nations. She took part in the virtual graduation but did not want to miss out on the outdoor commencement ceremony.
“It was exciting because even though we were in the middle of a pandemic, our school made sure we still had something to remember,” Manalang said. “This means a lot because I’ve been at Fort Campbell four years and am graduating with my friends from freshman class.”
Manalang said she saw friends she has not seen since March when the school closed. She will attend the University of Kentucky in the fall to study athletics training.