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An Emotional Commencement for Northwest’s Class of 2017

Graduation Day is a day which is rich in emotional content. Filled with the excitement of the end of high school, the uncertainty of the future, the sadness of moving away from friends, the expectations of family and friends, and the unbridled joy of achievement were all on display on the faces of the Class of 2017 from Northwest High School on Tuesday afternoon.

When you add the shocking news of the death of two classmates on the eve of graduation, it can make for a difficult ceremony for graduates and parents, as well as administrators and teachers.

As the graduates processed into Constitution Hall in Washington DC, there was both a sense of sorrow and excitement. Northwest High School’s principal and staff showed great courage and sensitivity as they provided students and parents a memorial commencement while honoring the memory of those classmates that were missing.

The shocking double homicide of Artem Ziberov and Shadi Najjar weighed heavy on the members of the Class of 2017, but Principal Jimmy D’Andrea and his staff should be proud of their efforts and the young men and women of the Class of 2017 for the way this year’s graduation was handled.

After a moment of silence, the ceremonies continued with a Commencement Speech from former Northwest High School Assistant Principal John Robertson. Robertson had been the class administrator for the graduating class until he left Northwest to pursue a master’s degree in social work, his second advanced degree.

He spoke to the graduates of his childhood, growing up in Los Angeles and his mantra “One to Grow On” and way a youth sports coach changed his life.

“If you encountered me as a child growing up in South-Central Los Angeles, I don’t think you would have thought much of me,” said Robertson. “On any given day I was a young man whose pants were too short, shoes had holes in them, and I often had a hungry belly. I doubt you would have said; there goes a future Ivy League graduate.”

Robertson told the Class of 2017 that his father was a drug addict, and as a result, he was raised as the second baby to a single teenage mother. “We were po. Not poor, po. We couldn’t afford the O or the R.” So poor that his family could not afford to register him for sports until one year the football organization sold raffle tickets. The player who sold the most raffle tickets won a free registration for a year. “I sold tickets all over LA so I could win that registration.”

“In fourth grade,” he said, “I played football for the Gardena Astros. We had this coach named Mr. Wilson, and Mr. Wilson was tough. Whatever we did was not enough for Mr. Wilson. He would always expect a little more. We would run wind sprints to the point that we couldn’t breathe, and he would yell, “And one to grow on!” which meant we had to do another one. We do pushups until our arms were sore, but he would yell, “And one to grow on” and we’d do more. By mid-season, Mr. Wilson didn’t need to yell anymore, as a team we took it upon ourselves to push ourselves a little further.”

“’One to grow on’ became my mantra. I started to apply the idea of doing more than was required to all aspects of my life,” he said. “In school, if the teacher gave the assignment to read, I would read a little bit more. If there were math problems for homework, I would complete them and do them again a second time. ‘One to grow on’ pushed me to graduate at the top of my class in high school. It carried me to Brown University, where I continued to push myself by doing more. I had two majors. I ran track and pledged a fraternity. When I graduated and became a teacher, I taught math and social studies.”

“One to grow on” pushed him to earn two master’s degrees. “I have a master’s degree in Instructional Systems Development, and as of May 19, 2017, I have a second master’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland. My next goal is to get my Ph.D. But my wife and daughter have threatened to kick me out of the house if I do.”

Robertson urged the Class of 2017 to always do a more than was needed, to use the tools and talents acquired in high school to push each other and the world to embody the spirit of “One to Grow On.”

“Class of 2017, I submit to you that; what you can be, you must be. Dedicate your lives to the pursuit of your greater self,” said Robertson. He told the Class of 2017 to focus their energies on the things that bring most them the most satisfaction in life. “You can make a living doing the thing you love most,” he said. “Commit yourselves to the service of others. Allow yourself to be imperfect. Embrace their imperfections. Speak the truth about who you are even if your voice shakes, and know that your courage will be rewarded.”

With Robertson’s story of success and encouragement echoing in their heads, Student Speaker Erika Schlunk stepped to the podium to speak about the Class of 2017’s time at Northwest.

She spoke of her time at Northwest as four years of transition from nervous freshman to confident graduate. “In the last four years, I was able to see past the fear which I had as a freshman. Between freshman and senior year, Northwest taught me how to be confident, accepting, and open-minded. I know that I am stronger now. And I know I am ready to take the next steps into my future,” said Schlunk.

“And yet it is sad because I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave the place which has made me ready to leave. I don’t want to stop screaming ‘1-7’ at prep rallies. I don’t want to stop bragging about our football team to all the schools that we’ve beat. I don’t want to stop seeing all the people that I am unspeakably glad to have met. I learned how much all of this matters and I don’t want it to end.”

“However, the lessons learned at Northwest make the end of our high school years less like being thrown into the deep end of the pool and more of a victory which each of us has worked hard to achieve,” she told her classmates.

The Class of 2017 has a number of achievements to be proud of including multiple State Championships in volleyball, baseball, softball, and men’s indoor and outdoor track and field, and women’s indoor track and field.

In the community, the Northwest Class of 2017 completed 79,552 hours of community service, an increase of more than 7,000 hours from the Class of 2016, according to D’Andrea.

“Many members of the Class of 2017 exceeded the required 75 student service learning hours requirement, 100 earned the certificate of meritorious service by completing more than 260 hours. The three students with the most SSL hours for the Class of 2017 are Alix Tiako with 613 hours, Scott Sledjeski with 637 hours, and Connor Eng with 856 hours,” said D’Andrea.

Academically, the Class of 2017 received more than 960 offers to attend more than 225 different colleges or universities. “The class has received an incredible amount of scholarship offers valued at a total of $13,074,696. The students with the highest weighted GPA were Alan Lai with a 4.77 weighted cumulative GPA who will attend the University of California – Berkley and Lewis Qualkenbush with a 4.76 weighted cumulative GPA attending the University of Maryland – College Park,” said D’Andrea. He added that 95 percent of Class of 2017 had indicated plans to attend a two- or four-year college or university.

During her speech, Schlunk urged her fellow graduates to remember their time together as they prepare to move onto the next phase of their lives.

“Don’t forget what you have achieved,” urged Schlunk. “Don’t forget the pep rallies. Don’t forget the games. Don’t forget your favorite class. Don’t forget the hardest class that you just barely manage to through. Don’t forget the teacher that inspired you. Don’t forget every time you were wrong and learned something that you never expected to know. Don’t forget the person you are today. Don’t forget anything that matters to you, because today is not a day to let go; it is a day to hold on to what you want to bring with you to life beyond the walls of Northwest.”


Top: Former Northwest assistant principal John Robertson delivers the Commencement Address to the Class of 2017 at graduation ceremonies on Tuesday, June 6, 2017.

Next: Graduation Day for Northwest was more emotional than usual.

Next: The honor guard made up of NJROTC presents the colors.

Next: John Robertson spoke to the graduates about his mantra “One to Grow On.”

Next: Student Speaker Erika Schlunk spoke about the Class of 2017’s four-year transition from nervous freshman to confident graduate.

Next: Northwest’s top student, Alan Lai with a 4.77 weighted cumulative GPA who will attend the University of California – Berkley.

Next: The Class of 2017 move their tassels from left to right.

Photos by Germantown Pulse.

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