When life gets tough, everyone is faced with two choices, according to Anoka-Hennepin Regional High School graduate and student speaker Brianna Atkinson: quit or persevere.

During the joint graduation ceremony for Anoka-Hennepin Regional and Technical high schools Thursday, May 31, Atkinson asked fellow graduates if they smelled anything.

She said she did: perseverance.

The schools had one of the largest graduating classes in school history with 100 students collecting certificates, according to Principal Nancy Chave.

Because so many came to celebrate with the graduates, the ceremony started a little late with attendees still standing in the aisles as “Pomp and Circumstance” was set to begin. More chairs had to be collected and brought to the Anoka Technical College auditorium.

Anoka-Hennepin Regional High School serves high school students in a non-traditional setting, while Anoka-Hennepin Technical High School serves 18- to 21-year-old students hoping to complete high school.

Chave opened the graduation ceremony by congratulating the graduates, whom she called “the next generation of powerful community members in this town, in this state and in this nation.”

Four student speakers, including Atkinson, shared their stories.

Gabriel Leppi, Regional High School graduate, spoke about her anxiety and depression.

With nearly 3,000 students, Blaine High School was not a good fit for someone with social anxiety, she said.

“I learned to sit alone at lunch and get used to a day without talking,” Leppi said.

Things changed when she started attending Regional High School. She made friends with teachers and classmates, she said.

While she didn’t struggle academically, she still had days when she doubted her ability to make it to the finish line.

“You have to stay positive,” she told fellow graduates. Life is what you make it, and “this is only the beginning of making our lives.”

Technical High School graduate Nicole Brown grew up in Ghana and Liberia, coming to the United States two years ago.

“Living in Liberia is not easy,” she said.

High school is expensive, and college is impossibly expensive, only available to the very rich, according to Brown.

Putting the money she had toward her education, Brown walked to school each day and went all day long without food or water.

Coming to the United States, she was determined to finish what she started.

Here, “all you have to do is just be focused, and you can do it,” Brown said. “Anoka Technical High School is a school full of opportunities. ... We walk away from here with a plan.”

Brown’s plan is to study nursing.

Nicole Bendickson, also a Technical High School graduate, restarted high school at age 19 with a 5-month-old daughter inspiring her to work hard.

She enrolled in a certified nursing assistant course through Anoka-Hennepin’s STEP program and, with the support of teachers, began working as a CNA. Her dream has always been to work as a nurse.

This fall, she intends to attend Anoka Technical College with hopes of earning a licensed practical nursing degree.

She encouraged her fellow graduates to celebrate their success and take pride in the often-difficult journey that led them to graduation day.

Speaking on perseverance, Atkinson urged her peers to remember the evening as “the night you proved the doubters wrong.”

Scholarships were awarded to five students: Regional High School graduates Atkinson and Leppi and Technical High School graduates Brown, Cong Chinh Luong and Sophie Wajda.

Students and their families enjoyed cake in the cafeteria following the ceremony.

olivia.alveshere@ecm-inc.com

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