The ability to share one’s voice matched with the courage to stand alone, and not settling for less – important education attributes Sunnyside High School valedictorian Fabian Garcia said he wanted to highlight during his graduation speech on Friday evening at Clem Senn Field.

“I think for me, just being a first generation student and the fact that my parents – not that they’re not able to help me – but they don’t know how to help me. So, I think it’s been very important for me to seek the help and resources that I needed in my high school career,” Garcia explained.

He will be attending the University of Washington in September with plans to study architecture or pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry.

Garcia encouraged those 40 classmates, who were unable to meet the graduation requirements at this time, to take full advantage of the opportunity and complete the required schoolwork over the summer and obtain their diploma.

“The diploma means so much moving forward. It’s only fair for themselves to continue doing what it takes to finish,” Garcia noted. “That’s what I like about Sunnyside, we celebrate everyone’s triumphs!”

The main gate to the field opened at 5:30 p.m. to a festive stream of family members and friends wearing mandatory protective face masks arrived on campus carrying bouquets of colorfully fragrant flowers and reflective foil balloons glimmering with praise of accomplishment.

“This year, one of the biggest lessons I have learned was to not take things for granted and to definitely like enjoy all the little things. Not to sweat the little things actually. I’ve grown a lot in high school in the way that I carry myself and the way I interact with others,” ASB President Olivia Puente described.

Once inside, event staff directed individuals with balloons to secure them on the fence to the left of the entrance. Shortly after 6 p.m., there was a refreshing northwest breeze that cooled temperatures to around 80 degrees and made fastening the balloons to the chain link more engaging.

The newly configured ceremony complied with Yakima Health District guidance and featured separated seating sections of chairs on the field for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, along with bench seating in both bleachers.

Located at the south facing end zone in between the seating sections with the brilliance of sunlight casting a guiding and prominent shadow, the Class of 2021 stood at the graduation gate, while an audience of about 1,800 waited and watched with them for the 7 p.m. cue.

This will be the final class to receive their diplomas on Clem Senn Field as the new stadium is scheduled to be completed in January of 2022.

“Our students last year didn’t get a graduation ceremony and had to settle for a virtual one and that didn’t work out quite as well as planned… So, I know it was the goal of the Board and District that we were going to make sure that another class would not miss out on a graduation ceremony and we were going to figure it out and make it work,” School Board President Michelle Perry said.

Once the doors pushed open, 393 seniors led by SHS Senior Class Advisor Stacey Alseth, Class President Joshua Oliver and Jacquelynn Marin began the highly anticipated walk through the middle of the stadium toward the north end of the field where the socially distanced student seating and stage was located.

A jamming rendition of the National Anthem was performed by Arturo Pina and Jacob Pina, followed by 21-seconds of silence to remember the loss.

Sunnyside High School Principal Ryan Maxwell delivered a steadfast message of admiration to the Class of 2021 for overcoming an unprecedented level of adversity during the past 15 months and not quitting the virtual learning environment when anxious emotions were challenged by the pandemic’s unyielding impacts.

“I have never been more proud in my 10 years of principal as I am of this class, the Class of 2021. So, nice job,” Maxwell stated.

He was thankful for the gallant efforts of all district and school personnel for making tonight’s celebration of all 393 students and their graduation milestones possible.

“These seniors sitting here are a testament to the support they’ve received from their families, community and SHS staff. More so than ever, this has been a community wide team effort, so thank you!”

Perseverance, adaptability and optimism were three important life lessons learned during COVID-19 and the school environment closure, the principal conveyed.

“You stayed the course and knew that to get where you wanted to go, you had to finish the task at hand. This ability to persevere is probable the most important lesson you’ll learn during high school. It will carry on to all aspects of your life in the future,” Maxwell stated.

The ability to stop and appreciate all the little things that life has to offer, such as going to school, hanging out with friends, and participating in campus actives, proved to make a positive difference for moving life forward, he gratefully acknowledged.

This year’s graduating class had eight valedictorians and two salutatorians and was one of the highest academic achieving classes in the school’s history, according to Sunnyside School District Superintendent Kevin McKay. Seniors were also awarded more than $2.6 million in scholarship funds and provided more than 11,000 hours of community service.

“I’ve been very happy to hear that a lot of the systems that were put in place by the high school to support students during the remainder of their junior and senior years, have been successful in meeting the individual needs of the students so that they could get their diplomas,” McKay reported.

Based on the early data analysis by teachers and administrators about student achievement and combined with requirements still needed to be completed by those to obtain their diploma, the goal of attaining the school’s 90% graduation rate or higher is within reach, he indicated.

“It takes a true partnership between the parents, the student and the school to make sure they finish everything up and get that diploma in their hand,” the superintendent communicated. “The ceremony signifies that they’ve graduated but the diploma is really the important piece…that’s what is going to open up all the opportunities for them as they move forward in their lives.”

During the student speakers’ section of the program, SHS Class President and salutatorian Joshua Oliver recalled the irony of how much school activities repelled him as a freshman while he stood tall before fellow students and audience members.

“Part of it was just the ignorant teenager in me thinking that anything school related was stupid. Also, because I was trying to make excuses for myself to stay inside of my comfort zone… when I finally matured enough to expand my bubble of comfort, I found that the years I had spent staying at home became regretted, wasted opportunities. Years that I have and will continue to look back upon wishing that I had done more,” Oliver revealed.

He shared his lesson of self-disappointment as a source of his motivation to do as much with his remaining time at SHS. The point Oliver said he was trying to make was the importance of breaking free from one’s comfort zone, to empower personal growth beyond expectations, which make a lasting impression on others.

“Myself and my classmates siting before me, I feel I’ve grown more in the past year alone than in the past three years combined. And, no matter of the places I’ll go in the future, I know that SHS provided me with the opportunity of expanding my bubble. And because of that, I will be able to forever call SHS a home. Not only for myself, but hopefully for every student here. Thank you.”

English teacher Ryan Cullen was chosen by the senior class to be the faculty speaker. He reassured the Class of 2021 that they are not required to have their whole life planned out once they leave Clem Senn Field tonight because that is not the way life works.

Cullen described his venturesome journey to discovering his enjoyment for working with kids and once he did, school and work became much easier. It took him awhile, but he found what he was passionate about: teaching.

“You may be feeling unsure of what you want to become or where you want to go but don’t allow that to stop you or pursuing what you were born to do. You have been born into this world not to fail but to succeed. And to achieve that which has been prepared ahead of time for you. I believe in you and everyone here believes in you, and that’s something that matters more than anything else…”

He pointed out how these 393 seniors pushed through this crazy and unprecedented pandemic to receiving much more than just a diploma. All the issues at home, family struggles, mental challenges and the emotional highs and lows of the toughest of times, they persevered, he said.

“Yes, Class of 2021, this is your diploma but it’s so much more than that – it’s a certificate of integrity. All colleges, military and employers will see that you have a 2021 high school diploma, and they will say, this person has what it takes. They are a survivor, and they will flourish even when things become hard. You are uniquely different from any other class that has come through Sunnyside High School…”

As graduates walked across the stage and received their diplomas, the magic hour of appreciation for embracing the community moment together, shined with resilient character to be carried forward by ‘Grizzly Nation.’

“We’ve been taking it day by day for sure. One day at a time, and now we’re here. It’s a crazy reality but its our reality and we’re going to make the most of it and have a great time,” SHS salutatorian Darion Beeman voiced.

Patrick Shelby can be contacted at 509-837-4500, ext. 110 or email

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