South Brunswick High School graduates receive words of encouragement from alumni, faculty, fellow students

SOUTH BRUNSWICK – In the 15 minutes leading up to the South Brunswick High School (SBHS) virtual graduation ceremony on June 22, many successful alumni shared words of encouragement for the graduating seniors.

Mohamed Sanu, Class of 2009, a wide receiver in the NFL, told students to take a lesson from 2020 that life is very unexpected, but it’s how you react to it that matters. He said he walked through the same hallways and took the same classes as this year’s graduating class – but that it’s all about how you see yourself.

“Connect with yourself and find it within yourself to chase your dreams. Don’t let nobody stop you from being you, being successful. I hope you guys are chasing what you love to do. Because if I didn’t, if I stopped chasing my dream, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”

Tammy Tibbetts, Class of 2003, co-founder of She’s the First, advised the graduates to think about who and what they want to fight for.

“You decide the kind of impact you want to make in the world, and your potential is enormous. Who you were in high school does not define who you are in high school. And remember: never, ever let the world define your limits,” she said.

Donnell Lumpkin, Class of 1989, the school’s all-time leading scorer in basketball, wants today’s Vikings to remember never to give up, never to forget what got them to this point, and to always have confidence in their abilities.

Actress Karen Kahn, Class of 1976, said when she feels overwhelmed or finds herself in a difficult situation, she keeps moving forward, no matter how small the steps may seem – she thinks like an ant, gathering one crumb at a time, moving forward.

The Hon. Michael V. Dowgin, Class of 1972, an attorney and South Brunswick municipal judge, expressed how sorry the entire community is about the students missing out on an actual graduation ceremony.

“My suggestion is that you use this time you have been given, this important time of your lives, to think and decide exactly what you want to do with your future. Think, too, about how precious we have learned life is, and how important it is to live each day to the fullest” and to use this break to come back even stronger.

Professor Edward J. Watts, Class of 1993, a professor at the University of California-San Diego, said the seniors are prepared to enter the next phase of their lives. He said they are resilient and have overcome more than many other classes before them.

Brooke Sassman, Class of 2011, a producer for NBC’s “Today,” called graduating in the midst of a pandemic “impressive.”

“Go out there and make your dreams a reality,” she said.

The patriotic music and slideshow of photos led to an opening speech by Principal Peter Varela, who welcomed the 730 graduating seniors and other viewers to the school’s 59th commencement ceremony – albeit the first virtual one.

He introduced Yejin Ang, who sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the “Shades of Black and Gold” alma mater sung by the SBHS Honors Concert Choir.

Riya Sen, president of the Class of 2020, began a series of speeches by saying that although students feel they never have enough of time, time also froze at times this year.

“I think we can all agree this moment right now is something we are going through together,” she said, noting the seniors now realize how valuable their time really was.

She asked students to put a finger down for every activity they completed: for example, if they have friends who stayed up until 3 a.m. doing homework on FaceTime; or if they met someone unforgettable over the past four years; or if they laughed so hard they couldn’t breathe in class; or if they learned something at SBHS.

“By using our time after graduation to accomplish things to make the people we met here proud of our accomplishments is the best way to thank them,” she said.

Varela said the graduating class has made a “tremendous impact.” There have been countless college admissions and scholarships awarded; 66 National Merit Scholars; 28 students achieved the New Jersey Seal of Bi-Literacy; two students achieved proficiency in three languages; awards were won in robotics, JSA, Model UN and the Chemistry Olympics; the marching band went undefeated in 2019; the wind ensemble performed at the National Concert Band Festival in Indianapolis; and the South Brunswick Visual Ensemble Winter Guard was undefeated locally.

“Our seniors have maintained the school’s reputation as the premier performing arts program of the Northeast,” he said.

In terms of athletic achievements, teams won division, Greater Middlesex Conference and state titles. Girls cross country, girls and boys winter track and field, boys basketball, girls bowling, dance team, cheerleading and winter guard won titles. Thirteen students signed letters of intent to play at the collegiate level.

The Interact Club adopted senior citizens at a nursing home. The Student Council held a district-wide safari with stuffed animals. National Honor Society members tutored students remotely. The Art Club held an art gallery remotely.

Varela shared his appreciation to those students who will enter the armed forces, ROTC or a military academy post-high school.

“Think back and reflect on your four years with us,” Varela said, reminding the students of his message during convocation four years ago about choosing your attitude, and about now, finding your purpose.

He said it is easy to be sad, nervous and angry. But he said to be inspired by the essential workers who have persevered during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

“Look forward, Vikings, and choose your attitude and purpose deliberately. You will get through these trying times by thinking of the greatness you can pursue when you make a conscious decision to do good, regardless of the circumstance,” he said. “I want you to look inward and take action, look inward to find your passion, look inward to enlighten a path. Be in control of your destiny.”

Jillian Ryan, Student Council president, touched upon the Class of 2020 being born at the time of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“It was a time of great fear, a time when Americans were uncertain of everything,” she said, “and a time when people feared what tomorrow would bring.”

In those darkest moments, she said her generation became one of hope and one meant to lead. She said they learned to fight for what they believe in and to never give up on their dreams.

She said in March 2020, they had to learn how to complete their last task of childhood.

“Just like the time we were born in, we are now graduating in the same uncertainty, the same fear of what life will be like,” she said. “The world as we knew it will never be the same. But neither was it after 9/11. And in that world we proved time and time again that we are resilient and we will persevere. Despite a global pandemic, here we are graduating and moving forward to greater things. Once again, we are hope for the world in dark times, a generation made to lead.”

Superintendent of Schools Scott Feder said, “this too shall pass,” and he said that “better days, brighter days and amazing life experiences await each of you.”

He said in the scheme of things, though the past three months may have felt like forever, it is only 1/72 of most people’s lives, and he encouraged the students to focus not on what they missed, but on what is yet to come.

“Since we can’t forget and we can’t go back in time, our only choice is to play the rest of the game,” he said. “Every minute of every day is precious, and take nothing for granted.”

He said the silver lining is that students have been given a gift of learning to live life to the fullest each day because life can flip on a dime. And they can take the proverbial lemons and enjoy lemonade on a hot summer day – and it’s still worth the sip.

“You were the Class of 2020, you were the class that was challenged like no other. You were faced with adversity head on and everyone who comes in contact with you from this day forward will know what you are capable of and that makes you fierce.

“Watch out, world – you have no idea what caliber of excellence you have just unleashed on society, bottled up for three months, and soon to be back in the sun. The Class of 2020 is coming your way, so step aside,” Feder said.

“Celebration Fanfare,” arranged by Bruce Yurko, was then performed by the 2020 wind ensemble – the 63 instrumentalists, 29 who are seniors, each recorded their selections individually during quarantine.

Next, salutatorian Allison Li commented how over the past few years, the senior class lost school spirit contests, witnessed ceiling tiles falling down, dealt with temperatures in the building ranging from Alaska to Florida, and pretended to find their IDs for the hall monitor.

“In all of their weird, but entertaining glory, these are our unique stories,” she said. “It’s the random, the strange, and the sometimes unbelievable stories that somehow truly bring us together.”

She said her fellow classmates should embrace the wild and the unplanned, and though certain experiences may not be positive or seem impressive, each story means something – and there are many more stories to come.

“No one can tell you your story is lame or not important or not exciting, because your only job going forward, Class of 2020, is to live your story,” she said.

Valedictorian Evelyn Fu said her favorite quotes come from “Avatar: The Last Airbender” – “This tea is nothing more than hot tea juice” and “Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not.”

She said “life happened” at SBHS. And that you have to enjoy what has happened and what is happening and be curious about what will happen.

“As young people in the world today, it will probably be hard to forget about trying to make your life go a certain way … the good times, the bad, will come, and we will all go on wildly different adventures as life happens for us,” she said.

She ended by saying she hopes the message she shared is “a little more than hot tea juice.”

Varela then thanked members of the South Brunswick Board of Education, educators and staff.

After each student received their diploma, Varela asked all viewers to stand with their loved ones in a circle – and asked the graduates to show their appreciation and gratitude to their parents, siblings, teachers, coaches – anyone important in their lives.

They then moved their tassels, virtually, to signify their commencement.

As Michael Dennehy, guidance counselor, and Dr. Justin Negraval, social studies teacher, played a final musical selection, more photos of the graduates flipped through a slideshow.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@newspapermediagroup.com.