CAMP ZAMA, Japan (June 11, 2012) -- Forty-nine graduating seniors from Zama American High School received their diplomas during a ceremony held June 9 at the Music Theater Workshop here, with more than 500 family members and friends in attendance to witness the milestone.

Guest speakers at the event included Maj. Gen. Michael T. Harrison Sr., commander of U.S. Army Japan and I Corps (Forward), and Marilee Fitzgerald, director of the Department of Defense Education Activity.

The graduates, clad in the traditional robes and with tasseled mortarboards atop their heads, entered the theater as the school's band played "Pomp and Circumstance." In keeping with other ceremony traditions, the class' valedictorian and salutatorian spoke to their fellow graduates, reflecting on memories of their time at the school and offering advice for the future.

"Stay positive and have pride in yourself," said Roniel Visita, the valedictorian of ZAHS' class of 2012, during his address. "Stick to your standards; do what you feel is right -- stay genuinely 'you.' No matter what happens, Zama will be a part of us. As the saying goes, 'He who does not remember his origin will never reach his destination.'"

During the presentation of the diplomas, a slideshow was projected that juxtaposed recent photos of each graduate with an accompanying baby picture.

"There were 49 students who could graduate [this year], and usually at most schools, two or three don't make it," said Bruce Derr, ZAHS principal. "But all 49 made it, and I am very pleased with this class. I'd like to say to them, after the event, 'Even a fool is wise,' so in their lifetime they should be proactive and think and do and take action."

Following the ceremony, many of the graduates' friends and family members congratulated each other with flowers, tearful hugs and a seemingly endless stream of photos.

"I feel a little overwhelmed, but I'm excited," said Visita, who will attend the University of the Philippines. "The people I met here, I'm pretty sure that I'll be friends with them forever. The greatest lesson I learned in high school is probably how to be a friend. I will miss [my classmates] and they better keep in touch."

"[Seeing my daughter graduate is] bittersweet, because I watched her grow up from a little girl to young lady," said Gabrielle Garner-Thomas, the parent of a ZAHS senior. "I'm excited because she is entering a new chapter in her life, [but] I know I have to cut the string, let her fly … and find her own self.

"My message to my daughter is to just follow your dreams, do well and don't let anyone stop you from doing what you believe is right," Garner-Thomas added.