CAMP ZAMA, Japan (June 8, 2020) – Milton Jones, Zama Middle High School’s valedictorian for the class of 2020, recited his speech not onstage in front of his fellow graduates and a room full of proud parents, but in a studio in front of a camera.
The pre-taped remarks, including those of the principal and guest speakers, were a necessity due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which also required ZMHS to host a modified “virtual ceremony” for its 66 graduates June 3 and 4 at the school’s auditorium.
”I was a bit nervous initially, but I felt it was an honor to provide my speech while representing the class of 2020,” Jones said, “especially with the many challenges and difficulties our class has faced and overcome in transitioning to a fully online school system.”
The ceremony consisted of 11 one-hour sessions over the two-day period, with groups of 6 seniors at a time gathering to cross the stage and receive their diploma. Families were allowed to be in attendance, but the sessions were also livestreamed online.
”It was unfortunate not being able to have a ‘standard‘ graduation this year, but the school and everyone involved did an incredible job in creating a memorable ceremony,” Jones said.
COVID-19 led to Camp Zama’s elementary, middle and high schools to close in March and students to transition to at-home learning for the remainder of the year. When this happened, Jones said he tried to stay resilient by keeping his schoolwork a priority, setting aside time each day to exercise, staying connected with his friends online, and spending more time on his hobbies and personal goals.
Jones, who will begin attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point this summer and will join the Army after that, said the things he and his fellow seniors experienced in the past three months served as a reminder that things do not always go as planned. However, what is important is that he and other young adults have to be ready and willing to adapt to unexpected situations in the future.
“I have a great sense of pride and accomplishment knowing that I’ve succeeded in overcoming the many challenges of high school and have reached a key milestone in my life,” Jones said.
Hannah Santos, the class salutatorian, said she and her classmates wished they could have had a traditional ceremony, but they all thoroughly appreciated the effort of everyone involved who coordinated the virtual event and still made it memorable.
When writing her speech, which she also pre-recorded, Santos said she devoted her emotions, time and energy to writing something that would “pack in all the memories of high school and the crucial lessons she learned along the way.”
“I felt it was important to tell the rest of my class, don’t overthink things and savor the moments [you have] with your loved ones,” Santos said.
Santos said her experiences finishing school during the pandemic taught her to do the best with what she has and to look on the bright side of things. It also strengthened her sense of gratitude and resourcefulness, which she said will be a huge asset when dealing with future challenges.
Santos, who will attend the University of Washington in Seattle, said she used to undervalue good and healthy connections with others, but she eventually realized she would not have gotten the support, love, and life lessons she needed without those connections.
“I would like to thank all the teachers, friends, and family who have helped me unconditionally,” Santos said.
ZMHS Principal Wayne Carter said the ceremony is the culminating event honoring seniors after 13 years of formal education, and it marks a milestone for not only the graduates, but also their families.