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LUCI WELDON/The Warren Record

Warren County High School graduation speakers, from the left, Dr. Michael A. Elam, president of Halifax Community College; Nicky Heisler, WCHS student body president; and Montellus Williams, senior class president, approach the stage as commencement exercises begin.

“Life is what you make of it.”

Using examples ranging from John Wayne to the Tuskegee Airmen, Dr. Michael A. Elam, president of Halifax Community College, made this statement to the Warren County High School Class of 2019 on Saturday as he challenged them to strive for success.

“If you embrace the right principles, you can overcome (obstacles),” he said after giving the graduating seniors a loud cheer. “You are in control of your life.”

Quoting the late actor John Wayne, he told the graduates that life is hard, but is made harder if they do something stupid as they enter adulthood.

Elam also urged graduates to not give in to discouragement if other people tell them that they cannot achieve their dreams. He gave the example of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, African-Americans who were taught to fly combat aircraft at a time of segregation in the military.

“They overcame racism, bigotry, people who believed they couldn’t fly,” Elam said. “They persevered despite prejudicial treatment. … They not only overcame, but excelled.”

He said that six principles governed the Tuskegee Airmen’s lives: aim high, believe in yourself, use your brain, never quit, always be ready to go and expect to win.

“Persevere and never quit, and you can achieve your dreams,” Elam said.

He challenged the graduates to act with integrity and rely upon the wisdom they have gathered while in school in order to make the most of their adult lives.

“You are in charge of your own life. Use what you have learned,” Elam said.

Beginning with 2019 commencement exercises, Warren County Schools moved away from the naming of valedictorians and salutatorians, who traditionally speak on behalf of students during the graduation ceremony. The school system moved to what is known as a Latin honor system which recognizes students as graduating cum laude (with praise or honor), magna cum laude (with great praise or high honor) and summa cum laude (with highest praise or highest honor).

For this reason, two student government leaders were selected to serve as student speakers. Montellus Williams, senior class president, introduced Elam, the commencement speaker. Nicky Heisler, student body president, welcomed those attending.

“We are not celebrating an end, but a beginning,” she said. “We are all embarking on a journey to our future.”

Heisler described the Warren County High School students and faculty as a family and thanked everyone at the high school for helping the Class of 2019 to grow as students and as individuals.

She especially thanked teachers for dedicating their time inside and outside the classroom setting to education and for motivating their students to strive to achieve more than they thought possible.

Heisler also thanked the seniors’ parents and other relatives who provided support and guidance along their journey to adulthood.

She told her classmates that it is now time to utilize what the people who mean the most of them — teachers and family— have taught them in order to fulfill their goals.

“It is up to you to use the groundwork laid here, to take what has been given to you to lay the foundation for your success,” Heisler said.

Among the graduating Class of 2019, eight students each graduated cum laude and magna cum laude, and three students graduated summa cum laude.