PRINCE GEORGE COUNTY – “Never ever settle. There’s nothing more suggestive of failure than settling.”
Those words came courtesy of Abigail Mae Pannill during her welcome speech at Prince George High School’s 63rd commencement exercises June 11 at the PGHS athletic field. The Student Government Association president was using a “truth or dare” comparison in challenging students to better themselves as well as the lives of others.
“… Do not settle in life, in school, in love, in anything,” she continued. “Give your all in everything you do and always strive to improve. Nelson Mandela once said, ‘There’s no passion to be found in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.’ Dare to incorporate that into your life.’’
Pannill received cheers for her encouraging words even before her speech was over, and it set the tone for an occasion heralding the achievement of 423 students who received their diplomas from the county’s only high school and the designated institution for Fort Lee residents.
PGHS, located roughly three miles from the installation, has a large military-affiliated enrollment.
The graduation event, held under sunny skies and featuring a constant breeze that relieved humid conditions, was attended by county and school administrators as well as a few thousand spectators, some armed with cameras at the ready position, some holding flowers to be presented to graduates and still others who carried placards expressing congratulatory messages. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jaime Delgado of the Fort Lee Marine Detachment and his family were among them.
“It’s a great moment,” said the Marine, whose son, Jimmy carried the placard to support his sister, Mireya Ibarra. “We worked so hard. The last two years when we came aboard at Fort Lee she had a little bit of trouble adjusting, but she did just fine in her last year ,and we’re very proud of her.”
Pride was the predominant emotion felt among the attendees, especially the parents, many of whom see graduation as a bridge to adulthood and testament to their own resolve. Monica Brooks was one such parent. The wife of the Ordnance School’s Sgt. 1st Class Michael Brooks could not hold her emotions as she spoke about the special occasion of her daughter, Lizette Brooks.
“It means a lot,” she said with trembling words, “a lot more than people understand. Ever since she was a baby, I wanted her to be better than me. Her walking across that stage today already proves that. I wasn’t able to do so at her age because of my circumstances, so all I wanted for her is to make sure she accomplished what I couldn’t … I’m really, really proud of her.”
Pride was running deep with Fort Lee civilian employee Tamara Griffin as well. The mother of graduate Tamara Mone’ Stevens sported a large grin during and after the ceremony, and the mere thought of her daughter’s achievement produced a gushing radiance.
“It takes my breath away,” said Griffin, exhaling deeply. ”She’s my only child and seeing her start to spread her wings and fly … I’ve got butterflies.”
The occasion for Griffin was made even more special with the presence of Command Sgt. Maj. Ruth Potter of the CASCOM G3/5/7. Potter was Griffin’s former supervisor when the two were assigned to Camp Casey, South Korea, more than 18 years ago.
“It’s so surreal,” said Griffin. ”I’ve got CSM Potter sitting next to me, and she was the person who told me I was pregnant with this child. When you meet people, you never know when your paths may cross again.”
Not far from Griffin stood Pasha R. Quintana Santana, who was accompanied by several family members to cheer on her daughter, Deijha Villagomez. Wearing sunshades and constantly fanning herself to keep cool, she threw her hands in the air as though she had just won a race when her daughter walked across the stage to receive her diploma. Her elation was an understatement.
“Oh, my God, I am so proud of that little girl,” she said of her middle child, a Junior ROTC student. “For the first time in eight years, she took the drill team to the nationals in Kentucky. She made captain, she’s gotten leadership awards, she was cadet of the year for JROTC, and she’s gotten a leadership award through Prince George High School.”
Predictably, the sense of accomplishment resonated deeply among the military families and their students, who may attend as many as seven schools prior to the start of their secondary education. Additionally, many experience long periods of separation from at least one parent.
U.S. Army Reserve SGM Sondra Sharp said her daughter experienced several moves; the most recent being the most difficult.
“She was scared when we first came here to Virginia,” she said of her daughter Alesondra P. Adams. “She didn’t like the school she initially went to, but when she came to Prince George, she began to stabilize and began connecting with people.”
When Adams leaves home for Tuskegee University later this summer, said Sharp, she will take with her the resiliency that enabled her to transition during the many relocations.
“She’s better for the experience,” said Sharp, who will now have an empty nest. “I think the moving kind of instilled some things in her that will help accomplish goals in her life. It toughened her up. ”
In addition to providing opportunities to increase coping skills, military life offers a unique learning experience for children, giving them an unmatched sampling of the world, its people and cultures.
“They are exposed to a lot of diversity – people, things and cultures – and they understand differences and learn to accept them,” said Priscilla Bozeman, mother of graduate Markeisha Young and an Army retiree and installation employee.
Bozeman added military life can still have negative impacts on children because they can be put in situations in which they “have to establish friends when things are already going on, and they may face the possibility of getting with the wrong crowd because they’re trying to fit in. It can be challenging.”
Brooks, who arrived at Prince George as a sophomore, said she made friends quickly but appreciates the level of difficulty. “It’s harder than most people understand,” she said.
Delgado, the Marine, said his daughter’s rough patch was rectified with lots of communication and a bit of tough love.
“At times, it was just us having to put our foot down, letting her know we weren’t going to let her give up on herself and pushing her a little bit harder at times,” he recalled. “At other times, we just had to listen to her concerns. There were a couple of times when we had to take trips up to Frederick (adjacent to Fort Detrick, Md.) so she could hang out with her friends.”
On an academic note, Jenna Kristine Taylor earned the title of valedictorian while Elizabeth Meade Wilson achieved salutatorian. In addition, 19 students were named to the honor grad list. PGHS’s class of 2016 collectively earned $1.3 million in scholarships.