They did it.
The Federal Way School District celebrated nine graduations last week, commemorating the hundreds of students who have earned their high school diplomas. The class of 2023 was recognized again and again for being the high school cohort perhaps most disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic — with their freshman year cut short by COVID, their time as seniors was the first of their high school experience to resemble something like a normal high school year.
At Decatur High School, graduating senior and American Idol 2023 winner Iam Tongi wrapped the graduation ceremony with a performance of “Don’t Let Go” by Spawnbreezie.
“I want to dedicate this song to all my classmates,” Tongi said. “When I won American Idol, I sang this as my last song, and I want to sing this for your guys, because we’re all winners today.”
Principal Jamie Tough encouraged the graduating seniors to wake up with a sense of purpose, and build a plan for their lives — because “everyone has doubts.”
“When you don’t have a plan for your future, you just wake up the next morning and you keep doing what you did before, and time just passes,” Tough said. “For those of you not sure what you want to do … give yourself a deadline. Put a mark on the calendar. … One year from today, have a long-term plan and start working on it. … The one thing you can never get back in your life is time.”
Student speaker and ASB Vice President Amaya Bakam acknowledged the “historically riveting” years her peers spent together and surviving the COVID-19 pandemic. But their class shared many other wonderful, Bakam said, like their first times driving to school on their own, or going to a pep assembly or a school dance.
Quoting Winnie the Pooh, she said: “Life is a journey meant to be experienced, not a problem to be solved.”
Class speaker Grizelda Eletise Rojas spoke to the respect her peers had learned along the way, and their experience of seeing and being in friend groups and classes that were never made up of just one color.
“We all have been blessed to experience such beautiful diversity in our school,” she said. “This is a community that you cannot replicate. Because this diversity completely shaped us for the rest of the world. This is a community that we have learned so much from, so we can build more wherever we go.”
Career Academy, Internet Academy and Federal Way Open Doors, and TAF@Saghalie
The Truman High School campus in Federal Way is home to several “nontraditional,” student-tailored school programs, serving students who want to take classes through a primarily online or career-focused program, or who are coming back to get their degrees from ages 16 to 21.
Internet Academy graduate Kelsey Mitchell painted a bright picture ahead for the graduating students.
“Today we might say ‘goodbye,’ but in the end, we say ‘Welcome to the future ahead,’ ” Mitchell said. “To the scholars here, be the best you that you can be. … Today we all start a new adventure in our lives.”
Career Academy graduate Kayley Tabalbag, who transferred to Truman her junior year, said her guard was up that first year. But new friends and respect for her teachers helped her find a home there.
“Before I came to this school, I was ready to give up on my education,” Tabalbag said. “I felt like I didn’t fit at any school. But Truman High School changed that for me. … I can say my teachers are my biggest influencers. If it weren’t for them, I don’t think I would be here on this stage today.”
Graduate Kanani Atofau read a poem to the career academy graduates.
“As we all walk this new journey, I pray success comes to all of you,” Atofau said. “Advice: Don’t let your past follow you. Keep striving even when they doubt you, because when you’re successful, they’ll be proud of you.”
Mel Lagai, speaker for the Open Doors class, reminded graduates that they have the power to achieve anything they set their minds to.
“There are people … that will doubt you and tell you that you will never make it. So prove them wrong! Prove them wrong with your actions, that you are more than what they say,” Lagai said.
And Truman Principal Lynn Herink praised the graduates for their hard work and told them they’ve already proved their strength and intelligence.
Trish Millines-Dziko, executive director of the Technology Access Foundation (which is based locally at Saghalie), praised the students who attended the TAF academy.
“The fact we are honoring you here today, given all the things you’ve endured, says a lot about your character,” Millines-Dziko said. “And what a journey it has been. … I cannot wait to see what you do next.”
TAF graduate Marayah Pitts Beltran said she learned to appreciate the small size of TAF and thanked her family for pushing her when she was ready to give up on her education.
“We made it through some tough times, and we should be proud of ourselves,” she said.
Todd Beamer Titans
Todd Beamer Student speaker Jazel Tiquia reflected on the past and present of the Todd Beamer cohort’s lives.
“From wearing pajamas on pajama day in elementary school, to wearing pajamas every day in high school,” she said, “We have learned and earned wisdom from our teachers over the past 13 years, and gained ambition and determination from the support of our friends and families.”
Student speaker Isabela Garcia took a moment to feel fortunate that the class could graduate in person, together.
“I honestly believed we would be graduating from a screen,” Garcia said. “But things took a turn and we are lucky to be here today. … I am so proud to be a part of this year’s class of 2023 … giving this last hurrah with you all. They say you only live once, but that’s wrong. You die once, and you live every day.”
Staff speaker Dave Abrahamson spoke to his rough-and-tumble K-12 school career in encouraging the students to believe in themselves and not let setbacks keep them down.
“I teach English, but I don’t have an English degree,” Abrahamson said. “I spent six years in college earning two degrees in film production and screenwriting. … I did graduate from Mt. Rainier High School, but … my sterling 1.6 cumulative GPA is exceeded only by the lifetime ban I received from administration shortly after gradation. … And yet here I am, bestowed with the honor of addressing one of my favorite groups of students ever. … The route to your own success might not be as direct and obvious as you may hope.”
Thomas Jefferson Raiders
At Thomas Jefferson High School, student and staff speakers reflected on the old school building, which as teacher Ashley Edens put it, included an ancient radiator in the D Building that “only provided heat when it felt like it.” The class of 2023 will be the last that toughed it out there for a significant amount of time, staff said.
“Your teachers worried about how tough that journey was on you, even if you didn’t know it,” Edens said. “Sometimes, being a teacher feels like being a parent to 179 teenagers at once. … I worried about you when you left my classrooms sometimes. … I worried about you when you didn’t respond to the chat on Zoom, when your screen was the last one left. … I worried if I had given you too much work, or not enough.”
But “you are worth every second we have worried about you,” Edens concluded. “You are worth the worry and the love … and we are so, so proud of you.”
Thomas Jefferson student speaker Sophie Bailey congratulated her peers for making it though “hell and back.”
“Look at us now: Gathered altogether for the first time in a room with functioning heat and air, unlike the old TJ building,” she said. “In all serious, TJ has been my home for the last four years, and I know many of you can say the same. … I hope if you’re able to take anything away from today … it’s that you should always, in life, make the best of it.”
Speaker Hailey Howell spoke to her journey learning to accept and grow from failure.
“Failure is how you learn, and failure is how you grow,” she said. “We’re here today because we were able to overcome so much in just four short years of high school. … Do not fear failure, but rather, fear not trying.”
Federal Way High School
FWHS student speaker Deborah M. Kong thanked her family and school community for helping her find success at Federal Way.
“I’ve learned the power of self-advocacy and how to navigate life’s challenges with grace and resilience,” Kong said. “As we embark on the next chapter of our lives, let us never forget those who have helped us to get where we are today.”
Fellow speaker Eliseo Torres-Morales asked graduates to keep their loved ones and community close as they dive into the work of their adult lives.
“I implore you to seek out happiness first as a basis to guide your future,” Torres-Morales said. “That you find community and contribute to others lives without compromising on your own. … Always remember that we are never given something we can’t handle. … Finally, never forget to smile. Smile in the face of success (and) adversity. Smile in your pictures. Let it be embroidered in photos that despite the hardships behind your diploma, you still smiled at the end of it.”
Staff speaker Kelly Egaas spoke to the importance of community among the graduates.
“Your senior class has been trough it,” she said. “From the moment you entered the nest, your high school experience has been far from traditional. … We are all filled with hope when we see the resilience you have shown. … In the future, surround yourself with individuals who inspire you, change you, and remind you that success is not a solitary endeavor.”
Stats on the class of 2023:
• More than $5.5 million in scholarships earned collectively.
• 232 members of the class of 2023 are the first in their family to graduate from high school. In addition, 402 are the first in their family to attend college.
• 152 have earned the seal of biliteracy so far with more results incoming, with the class on track to earn more than any other graduating class to date.