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Festive ballpark atmosphere greets NFA graduates at Dodd Stadium

Norwich — It dominated the Norwich Free Academy graduation Wednesday, from the setting at Dodd Stadium to speeches by graduates thanking school staff, family and friends for helping them get through their very different senior year.

For the second-straight COVID-19 pandemic year, NFA moved its ceremony to the Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium, last year in self-contained family units in vehicles in the parking lot.

This year, the 536 graduates filled several sections of the 6,000-seat stadium, as their families bought burgers, hot dogs and fries and checked their tickets for their seats — “just like a ballgame,” said Nicole Alfred, stepmother of graduate Mia Alfred of Baltic.

“And the parking is excellent,” Mia’s father, Chandler Alfred, added with a thumbs-up.

The stadium atmosphere permeated the ceremony. Cheers broke out during speeches and some spectators gave a standing ovations as graduates received their diplomas.

The setting and eased COVID-19 restrictions allowed NFA to restore its tradition of inviting the class of 50 years earlier to join the ceremony for their reunion.

Class Ivy Orator Valeria Yraita called it “unprecedented times.” She counted the 453 days that the pandemic has disrupted their lives.

Yraita said while the pandemic will define their high school senior year, it has not limited them on their achievements. Her class has shattered glass ceilings, celebrated a “cultural mosaic” of ethnic origins while excelling in the classroom.

“And to my fellow Peruvian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Cape Verdean and all students who today are representing their native country with pride, congratulations on living out the dreams of the generations that have come before you,” Yraita said, as cheers greeted each nationality. “We are slowly but surely rewriting history that was long overdue.”

Head of School Brian Kelly, completing his first year at NFA, talked about “15 toilsome months” and regretted that remote and hybrid learning prevented him from getting to know everyone in the senior class.

Class of 1971 speaker Abby Dolliver — who retired as Norwich Public Schools superintendent shortly before the pandemic hit in March 2020 — referred to “a year unlike any other in history.”

“And despite all that everyone has been through, here you are, ready to graduate and move on to reach your goals,” Dolliver said.

Class of 2021 class speaker Dakota Burns mused that she never would have guessed that one of her concerns on graduation day would be finding a mask that matched her bright red NFA graduation gown.

“Really kind of sums up high school during a global pandemic, right?” she said.

Burns told of her changing priorities and goals, from her freshman plan of studying law at Harvard University to her decision a few months ago to join the U.S. Marines.

“Only you can decide what is best for yourself, and only you can decide what is going to make you happy,” Burns said. “Change your major, take a gap year, get a different job. Whatever it takes to make you happy. In a world where such big responsibilities and expectations are placed on us from such a young age, make it your world.”

Kelly said he has delivered an uncounted number of graduation speeches in his 24 years as an educator. He, too, talked of happiness as “the single most important thing in life.” A simple concept, he said, but it eludes many people.

“One cannot simply look for happiness,” Kelly said. “It cannot be chased, it cannot be bought, it cannot be found by living someone else’s life, and it most certainly will not be a product of listening to what others believe you should think and feel. So, here is my advice: Your happiness needs to start today on your graduation day.”

c.bessette@theday.com

NFA graduate Taina Williams celebrates Wednesday, June 9, 2021, as she steps toward to accept her diploma during commencement exercises for the Norwich Free Academy Class of 2021 at Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium in Norwich.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
NFA graduate Taina Williams celebrates Wednesday, June 9, 2021, as she steps toward to accept her diploma during commencement exercises for the Norwich Free Academy Class of 2021 at Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium in Norwich. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Photo gallery

For a gallery of more photos from the Norwich Free Academy graduation ceremony, click here.

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