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NFA's 'Ivy Orator' Valeria Yraita-Zevallos

Class of 2021, take in this moment! This moment is one you have achieved after four years of hard work, dedication and strength. Today you are celebrated for all you have accomplished. Pinch yourselves and notice that this moment is indeed real.

Before I continue, I would like to give thanks to Dr. Kelly, our Head of School, as well as all of the teachers, administrators, counselors, class advisors, campus safety officers, cafeteria staff and the entire NFA staff as a whole for making this moment possible. I also want to welcome and thank all of our family and friends present today. You all were truly the village that has helped raise us in the past four years. And, for that, our Class of 2021 wants to give you all our biggest thank you!

Now, we all know we have just undergone a “different” year, to say the least. There is no word in the English language that is able to define the year we have all just lived through.

Back when I was a sophomore and was told I would have the opportunity to speak at today’s event, I would have laughed in someone’s face if they told me our graduation would be at Dodd Stadium with face masks and social distancing following a senior year that was partly virtual after a year of lessons based from a Google Meet!

Nobody would have been able to predict a virus would take over the entire world. However, although this pandemic has been part of our lives for 453 days to be exact -- yes, I counted -- I did not want the entirety of my speech to only highlight this class as the one that survived these ‘unprecedented times.’ There is so much more to our class than simply being the first to go through our entire senior year while also worrying about a global pandemic. The remarkable strength, resilience, diversity, loud voice and drive are what truly make up the Class of 2021, and that is what must be highlighted.

Our class has been one to break barrier after barrier at Norwich Free Academy. We have been the class that has had the highest amount of people of color be part of the National Honor Society, taking AP and honors courses and overall seeking to be leaders in school clubs and class officer positions.

The different cultures in our school have come together to display a sense of unity. We have made signs during Hispanic Heritage Month. We have celebrated Chinese New Year. We have honored Haiti’s independence, and we have uplifted the rich cultures in our school that make this high school unlike any other.

I want to honor the unique dedication from the students graduating today who are first-generation immigrants, who have come to this country without knowing the language, and still worked diligently to do their absolute best in school. Therefore, to my fellow Peruvian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Cape Verdean and all students today who are representing their native country with pride, congratulations on living out the dreams of the generations that have come before you. Pat yourselves on the back, because you did it!

This class has demonstrated what a true cultural mosaic looks like. We have learned to not only value our ideas, our way of being, our way of life -- but also the ideas, being, and life of our classmates.

In a time in which we are so close to being out on our own, we begin to appreciate how loud we can raise our voices and how many people can hear us. Perhaps some of us are wondering how we can still leave a mark after the year we lived through. And what better way to leave a mark than for speaking up for those of us who don’t have a big enough platform to be heard?

With a culture mosaic comes a burst of colors, all ultraviolet and at full brightness. With a cultural mosaic, we have the ability to learn about people we would not be able to learn about anywhere else. Let this be an example of how to live our lives moving forward and how the country and the world around us should live out their lives -- to continuously choose love over hate, unity over division and empathy over apathy.

After these past four years, it is time to venture out beyond this fishbowl we have become accustomed to -- to prioritize following our dreams and not a paycheck, to become independent, and not fear failure, but rather welcome the growth that comes with it.

Today, you all must be questioning and fearing what lies ahead, like we once feared leaving Cranston and walking past the seniors. But, similarly to overcoming our fear of asking a senior where our class is in the strange building named Bradlaw, we will be able to overcome any future obstacles we may face. No matter the path you have envisioned in front of you -- attending college, enlisting in the military or simply taking a gap year -- make sure to continuously follow your passions and do what truly makes you happy. Allow yourselves to step out of your comfort zone to truly see life in all its different forms. Always remember to speak out on the issues that matter most to you, view failure as redirection and don’t underestimate the value of being empathetic.

Continue doing what our generation does best, holding onto hope. And remember the words of Amanda Gorman, “As there is always light if we are brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”


Valeria Yraita-Zevallos is the Ivy Orator.



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