Tony Xu is the valedictorian picked from 1,028 graduating seniors at North Penn High School in Lansdale, Montgomery County.
“I’m a bit nervous,” he said behind the bleachers at the school stadium, dressed in his cap and gown, waiting to pre-record his graduation speech. Only a handful of people were present — the principal, his parents, a few administrators — but Xu knew his speech will be part of a virtual ceremony on Thursday.
“As the social media generation, you know how it is to put something out there for all to see,” he said.
Xu will attend Cornell University in the fall with the intention to study chemical engineering. As valedictorian, his job is to speak to his peers in a way that, he hopes, will represent them.
The class of 2020 has endured an unprecedented disruption to the end of their high school careers. An online graduation ceremony may leave many feeling unsatisfied, but Xu leaned into the ambiguity of it all.
“For us, in a way, our lack of closure is our closure. Loss illuminates our feelings and makes us realize what was most important,” he recited in his soft voice from the podium, facing a video camera. “As we look out, the world may seem chaotic as even our uncertainty is politicized, but we have the tools to be the citizens of our unknown future.”
Xu was speaking inside a tented area in the middle of a football field, as a gentle breeze unfurled blue flags reading “North Penn Strong.” The COVID-19 pandemic has not only changed the way students graduate — it has changed who they are.
“It absolutely marked them, it will make them stronger,” said North Penn Principal Pete Nicholson. “I’m a firm believer that the experiences in life shape who you are. This is an uncharted time in the world, with the COVID pandemic and protesting and social unrest. It shapes what our students do in the future.”
This week, many high schools in the Philadelphia area are holding their graduations, most opting for some kind of virtual ceremony to be experienced at home. Traditionally, valedictorian speeches are a victorious look back over the last four years and an aspirational send-off to the future from the class’ highest performing student.
Khaliyah White, the 2020 valedictorian for the Girard Academic Music Program, has been a student at GAMP since the fifth grade. She does not want the last three months to overshadow the last eight years.
In her speech, she recalls GAMP’s former principal, Dr. Angelo Milicia, who taught math and science to fifth graders. His students were known as “The Militia.”
“It was cool: Mr. Milicia’s Militia. We would go through the halls and chant it,” said White. “It was like a call and response. He would call it out and we would say ‘We Are! Mr. Milicia’s Militia!’”
White focused on singing at GAMP and will be attending Delaware State University in the fall on an athletic scholarship — she’s a track sprinter. In her speech pre-recorded almost three weeks ago, White told her classmates the coronavirus pandemic shutdown was a cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for.
“Senioritis kicks in and come February it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is dragging out — can we get to prom and graduation already?’” she said. “But when it happened, we missed school a lot. All we wanted was to be in school. I didn’t want it to be this way.”
Many schools choose their valedictorians based on the highest grade point average. At Philadelphia’s High School of Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) administrators waited until the final grades were in, June 4. By then, the world had changed yet again as the pandemic was upstaged by the protests against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd.
CAPA’s valedictorian, Lili Cardosi, went straight at the widespread social unrest.
“During these past few months, we have not only witnessed a global pandemic, but, through the death of George Floyd, a major call for racial justice and the need to acknowledge that Black lives matter,” Cardosi said in her speech. “As the new generation, we have the ability to use our voices, to take action, to educate ourselves, and to make a difference for the betterment of our communities and our future.”
Cardosi is a dancer and in the fall will be attending the University of the Arts just a few blocks up South Broad Street from CAPA. In the week and a half before graduation she has seen her fellow students mobilize into the global movement with their creative and political voices.
“I’m using this small platform that I have to say what we say matters and can make a difference,” said Cardosi.
The Class of 2020 will likely be remembered as the one that was cut short. At graduation, many valedictorian speeches will spin that as an advantage: They are the class tested at the very moment they emerged into the world as adults.
“We were not given the chance to have a traditional commencement, to celebrate senior traditions with each other, and to say goodbye to our Northeast family,” Kristina Pema says in her speech for the seniors of Northeast High School in Philadelphia. “Nevertheless, this is our moment and we are still standing strong.”
Pema came to Northeast High in the middle of the freshman year as an immigrant from Albania, and leaves as its valedictorian. She has a full scholarship to attend Harvard University in the fall. She says the turbulence of the final months of their high school career has made the Class of 2020 better.
“We were there for each other, we tried to help each other out,” she said. “The conditions were not perfect, but we made the best of it. That made us better.”