Three Online Commencements, One Common Theme

When seniors at W.T. White, Hillcrest, and Thomas Jefferson high schools started their year last August, there was no way they could imagine how it would turn out.

Thanks to a pandemic, none of them had a prom. None were able to participate in time-honored school traditions. All of them had virtual commencement ceremonies.

And one – Thomas Jefferson – went from no school, to temporary school, to online school in a year, all due to the one-two punch of an October EF3 tornado and COVID-19.

But the theme of their graduations was the same: Resilience.

“Today is your day, although it looks and feels differently than what you expected and deserve,” said Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa. “The entire community shares your disappointment at having to minimize this year’s celebrations.”

He joined such local luminaries as Pat and Emmitt Smith, several Dallas Mavericks players, and Mayor Eric Johnson in wishing the graduates well.

“So much was taken from you that cannot be taken back, and for that, every adult in your life has felt your anguish,” Hillcrest principal Joseph Sotelo said.

For Thomas Jefferson seniors, the absence from the campus where they began the school year stretched the longest.

“We worked hard; we deserved a better ending.”

Liliana Romero, salutatorian

“While the world has caught up with us in tragedy, our life-changing year began well before COVID-19,” Thomas Jefferson principal Sandi Massey said. “When we left school at the end of the day on Friday, October 18, not one of us could have imagined that we would never again walk the halls of TJ high school as we had done that day.”

She credited them for working to make their temporary campus the new TJ.

“You are incredible, determined students who, when COVID-19 hit, you took it in stride, as if you were already prepared for this new battle,” Massey said.

“We worked hard; we deserved a better ending,” salutatorian Liliana Romero acknowledged. Valedictorian Giovanna Lozano agreed and also encouraged classmates to look after their mental health.

Similar sentiments echoed in speeches by W.T. White and Hillcrest graduates.

“You didn’t get the senior year that you deserved … but please listen: This pandemic will end, that’s a guarantee,” valedictorian Joshua Kennedy Davis told his W.T. White classmates. “What’s not guaranteed is the survival of your ambition, your motivation, and your fiery dreams.”

“Although today may not be what we expected, everything we know and everything we are is about to change – hopefully for the better,” said salutatorian Sophia Marie Banowsky.

Hillcrest salutatorian Cynthia Olvera spoke of the resilience of her classmates.

“We didn’t get to experience a prom or the graduation we always dreamed of, but instead of talking about how upsetting that was, I want to remind everyone how resilient our class has been,” she said.

Valedictorian Elnor Soloman thanked parents, teachers, and the community for banding together. “You worked so hard this past year, and especially this past month, to make our senior year as memorable as possible.”

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, Digital Editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including first place for her tornado coverage from the National Newspapers Association's 2020 Better Newspaper Contest, a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Education Writers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the News Leaders Association, the News Product Alliance, and the Online News Association. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at

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