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Seneca Valley Class of 2017 Learns the “Benefits of Failure” at Commencement

“Congratulations you are officially no longer in high school,” said Board of Education member Rebecca Smondrowski to the 285 members of Seneca Valley High School’s Class of 2017 just prior to handing out the diplomas at commencement exercises Friday morning in the Daughters of the American Revolution – Constitution Hall in Washington D.C.

The graduates were told by Commencement Speaker and Seneca Valley alumnus Dr. James Cherry of the “benefits of failure.” Cherry is the Scientific Program Director for the Office of Scientific Operations at the National Cancer Institute at Frederick.

“Thinking back to the 18-year-old boy that was sitting in the audience as one of you so many years ago, and considering the 40-something man that stands before you today, I would say, ‘Boy, I have I failed.’ And I am fortunate to have those failures. Those failures drove me to be able to stand here before you as a graduate of Seneca Valley High School,” said Cherry.

“I am not the smartest. I never was the smartest,” he told the Seneca Valley graduates how proud he was to be alumni who’d had graduated as captain of the Screamin’ Eagles football team. The work that his coaches, family, and teachers demanded of him in high school allowed him to earn an academic/sports scholarship to Shepherd University, as part of the liberal arts education at Shepherd he took a biologic science class. He told the graduates that his professor urged him to follow the sciences, which was something that he did not think was for him. “I was petrified. There was no way I was going to be a scientist. They are the smart kids.” and he was going to play football.

One day his professor called him in and said, “Jim, The NFL isn’t calling. This isn’t Alabama. This isn’t WVU; this is Shepherd College. It was hard to hear, and he was 100 percent correct.” After that, Cherry’s plan shifted, and by the end of junior year, he planned to go medical school and become a doctor. “I took the MCAT and failed terribly. Not one interview from a medical school.” At the suggestion of his professor, Cherry continued studying biological science in grad school, he got good grades, because he wasn’t playing football anymore. He took the MCAT again. “I thought this is a no-brainer. I will get into med school now. Wrong. I failed again. I didn’t get in.”

“Failure is not fun, but I learned something,” Cherry told the graduates. “Failure stripped away the inessentials of my life. Looking at those failures, I realized that I had succeeded in a number of things, and the failures allowed me to move forward to be determinative. It gave me the drive to succeed in the one thing I truly love, which is the cancer research community.”

“It also set me free of my biggest fear. I had failed, and I was still here. I was alive,” he said. “I want you all to know that failure is a part of life, but I NEED you all to understand that failure is not life — and it is not who you are. Every graduate in this room has the talent and tools to be successful, but the question is do you have the guts to fail. If you don’t fail, you are not even trying. To get something you never had, you must do something you never did. You will fail at some point in your life. It is impossible to live without failure unless you have lived so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you fail by default.”

Cherry encouraged Seneca Valley’s Class of 2017 to take chances as they move forward with their lives after high school.

Seneca Valley High School’s Principal Dr. Marc J. Cohen talked about the Class of 2017 saying that collectively they had earned over $13 million in scholarships. “We also have at least seven students that have committed to joining the military following graduation,” said Cohen.

He spoke of the dedication to community the Class of 2017 had point out the thousands of hours of community service the graduates had worked to achieve. Cohen said the class had amassed a total of 37,193 hours of service to the Germantown community. “More than 75 percent of the graduates have earned a greater number that was is required to graduate, and 39 have earned the certificate of meritorious service with more than 260 hours.” He pointed out that two students had earned a amazing amount of hours, Vivian Truong who earned 750 hours, and Judy Ortega who earned 850 hours of service.

Four years of study, service, and friendship have prepared the Class of 2017 to take the next step and Student Speaker, Tania Otero-Martinez told her classmates that they were ready to move on.

“We share same roots, but we are all headed in different directions whether that means college, working, serving our military, or traveling it is about time we started heading in those directions. I want to wish you all good luck, wherever you are going,” said Otero-Martinez who will attend the University of Maryland – College Park in September.

“Every year we countdown to June 2, but there is the unspoken anxiety about what will happen on June 3. We’ve been in school, with the same people, in the same town for 12 years. What is next? I can’t answer that. But I am not worried, I see the future in all of us. Who you want to be and where you want to go, is in your hands. Take what you love to do and go for it. I will miss you guys. I hope you all find your place, your purpose, and most importantly your peace. Our roots at Seneca Valley are just the beginning of our journey now we are going into full bloom— to become who we want to be,” said Otero-Martinez, who intends to study Criminal Justice.

“It is time we moved on and realized our full potential. It is all in our hands, and it begins right now,” said Otero-Martinez as her classmates broke into thunderous applause.


Top: Graduation Day: The class officers of the Class of 2017 from Seneca Valley on Graduation Day at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. Photo courtesy Rebecca Smondrowski via Twitter.

Next: Commencement Speaker and alumnus Dr. James Cherry spoke about the “Benefits of Failure.”

Next: Seneca Valley High School’s Principal Dr. Marc J. Cohen.

Next: Student Speaker Tania Otero-Martinez told the Class of 2017 that it was time to become who they want to be. Photo courtesy Rebecca Smondrowski via Twitter.

Next: The presentation of the colors by the Seneca Valley Jr. ROTC.

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