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Montville - As a professor of counseling psychology, Kristen Varjas understands perhaps better than most the challenges people must overcome to achieve their potential as well as the obstacles that can get in their way.
But Varjas, a 1987 graduate of Montville High School who earned a doctorate from the State University of New York and now teaches at Georgia State University, urged the Class of 2011 not to let any of that stop them.
"You have the opportunity to change the world," she told the class of 182 graduates during the ceremony Friday at the school. "You have youth, energy, perseverance and courage. ... Recognize and embrace the power you have."
Varjas also encouraged the graduates to "challenge the ideas they have about social justice" and to realize that "education and knowledge are the great equalizers" that can allow people to overcome difficult backgrounds.
Class President Ashley Sgandurra, in remarks at the start of the ceremony, asked her classmates, seated on the auditorium stage, to close their eyes.
"Think back to your freshman year, to the juvenile freshmen we once were, wandering the halls of Montville High School trying to find our places," she said.
She then asked them to reflect on how their parents and teachers had helped them along but how, ultimately, their success or failure depended on their own efforts.
"Be the ones who stand up and make a difference," she said.
Sgandurra then turned from the podium to face her classmates, showing the audience the back of her mortarboard, bedecked with glitter and colorful slogans. Starting to speak, she choked back tears.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm just so very proud of all you guys."
Salutatorian Melissa Smith, who followed Sgandurra, urged her classmates to follow their passions and not let monetary gain be their sole guide for choosing a career.
"The delight in buying cute shoes only lasts a few weeks," she said. "A love for learning and achievement should allow us to enjoy our life-long pursuits."
For inspiration, she looked back to ancient Greece.
"Life should be spent in leisure both serious and enjoyable," she said, paraphrasing the philosopher Plato.
Before the ceremony, seniors gathered in the cafeteria to chat with friends, take pictures and wait for the call to line up.
"I wasn't excited until now," said Alexis Sanchez, standing with friends Jasmin Rodriguez and Arti Maher.
"Hopefully no one trips," added Maher, glancing at the high heels all three were wearing under their black gowns.
A few feet away, classmates Don Santos, Donte Dantzler, Dayvon Wynn and Jon Reyyashi said they felt excited but a bit apprehensive.
"Butterflies," said one.
"It's been a crazy ride," said Wynn.
"This year went by so fast," observed Reyyashi.
Kenneth Mark Adair, Michael Thomas Angelus, Giselleivy Morones Aragones, Danielle Marie Autencio, Harold Dillon Babcock, Tyler Stephen Babington, Joshua Michael Barrie, Sonja Baulecke, Brian Austin Belair, Christopher Cody Bellefleur, Richard Omar Bergman, Cody Evan Bigelow, Bianca Asia Briggs, Elijah Maleek Brown, Kayla Yenei Brown, Alexis Danielle Buck, Catherine Jeanne Chapman, Andy Chery, Kyle Allen Choate, Allie Elizabeth Clark, Dyllan Francis Clark, Christian Thomas Joseph Colella, Matthew James Collin, Nicholas James Connors, Tyler Daniel Contillo, Brian Joseph Courville, Gloria Anne Creamer.
Also: Donte' Darion Dantzler, Ninoshka DeJesus Rivera, Travis Andrew Deskus, Catherine Marie Dion, Sarah Rose Dodson, Cassaundra Emyle Dole, Hannah Marie Domahowski, Courtney Marie Duff, Cristina Maria Eberhart, James Leon Emming, Andrew Orson Evans, Tyler Gather Evrett, Tiffany Ann Favro, Megan Dorothy Fitzgerald, Nathan Andrew Franklin, Kevin Alexander Fratoni, Louis Erhardt Gaedt II, Kelsey Lyn Gallup, Jamie Lee Ganley, Stephanie Ellen Gauthier, Samantha Phebe Gervais, Alicia Catherine Gilbride, Michael Gillespie, Tyler Jordan Girard-Floyd, Amanda Catherine Gladue, Angela Grasso, Richard Ennis Gray III, Kayley Krystal Green, Arjoemel Andrada Gutierrez, Alfonso Guzman.
Also: Zachary Nathaniel Hall, Sarah Jane Haney, Sean Michael Hanrahan, Sundrene Marie Heller, Morgan Ann Hillhouse, John Derek Hills, Gerald Sherman Hood Jr., Cody William Horton, Clifton Jack Garrett Iler, Emily Corinne Impellitteri, Antoinette Patricia-Marie Irvin, Heather Lynn Japp, Jacqueline Susanne Jaskiewicz, Ryan Nicholas Jennings, Emily Elizabeth Johnson, Robert Lee Johnson Jr., Zachary Daniel Johnson, Stephanie Catherine Jones, Amanda Katherine Joyce, Sean Patrick Kelley, Christopher Mark Kiczuk, Kevin Anthony Kneeland, Matthew Ryan Kobelski, Gabriella Gail Koeppe, Nicholas George Kollias, Peter Wei Lam, Brandon Christopher LaPierre, Garrett Joshua Lee, Tyler Robert Leeman, Jacquelyn Elizabeth Lenhart, Nicholas Leroux, Tashi Lhamo, Tsering Lhamo, Shing Yan Li, Chelsea Ann Lorraine, Wah Ming Luong.
Also: Arti Maher, Zaria Lee Margolis, Julian Michael Markovitz, Josh Michael Mattia, Colby Erin McAdams, Joseph Edward McDaniel, Chelsea Meaghan McDermott, Thomas Elis-Poe McGarry, Brian Thomas McMahon, Skyler James McNair, Ellen Elizabeth McNamara, Ian Andrew McNatt, Chelsea Nicole McQuown, Amber Maria Mercado, Andrea' Nicole Mertz, Steven Alexander Michel, Bennett John Middel, Lacy Nicole Miles, Jonathan Robert Mowan, Timothy William Nott, Troy William Nunes, Brian Charles Oettinger, Ileishka Angelie Ortiz, Wenjing Ou, John Charles Pedone, Courtney Nicole Pedro, Emilee Nicole Penman, Elizabeth Marie Petrosus, James Joseph Philopena Jr., Megan Leigh Podeszwa, Austin Alexander Politowicz, Michael William Preble.
Also: Jonathan Nidal Reyyashi, Brianna Lee Rice, Tyler Douglas Richards, William Lawrence Rickards, Eric Ryan Riley, Brett William Robinson, Jasmin Rodriguez, Jeremy Michael Rosen, Michaela Marie Sampson, Alexis Maria Sanchez, Daniel Santos Jr., Chelsea Ann Savignac, Alec Jacob Scarpa, Zachary Joseph Scovish, Karissa Lee Sease, Jessica Emily Semmelrock, Ashley Alyce Sgandurra, Kristy Lynne Shaughnessy, Joshua Mitchell Shedd, Kayla Christine Simon, Rachael Elizabeth Skinner, Chelsea Elizabeth Smedberg, Melissa Ann Smith, Merlin Wayne Sohl, Sarah Ann Stankiewicz, Johnathan Christopher Stapienski, Courtney Ann Stefano, Jacob Christopher Stevens, Kevin Michael Stoodt, Jamie Michael Sullivan, Ashley Marie Sweet.
Also: Ryann Wyatt Tagle, Phillip Kenneth Taylor, Caleb Matthew Terry, Patrick Quinlan Therieau, Jillian Lynn Thomas, Thomas Samuel Todd, Matthew Lee Torres, Matthew Marra Troillet, Ciara Anne Utz, Jordan Nicole Varley, Jorge Luis Verde, Marco Antonio Verde, Cindy Lynn Walden, Nathan Patrick Wasilko, Jeffrey Dana White, Alina Renee Williams, Devin Bruce Williams, Caitlin Elizabeth Winkler, Virginia Marie Witherspoon, Kellie Ruth Wong, Dayvon Michael Wynn, Casey Edward Zalagens.