For Palo Alto High School graduate Claire Liu, the most valuable lessons she's learned came not from her AP classes but from a homeless, high school dropout named Randy she met at Stanford University's Meyer Library.
Liu, the school's Associated Student Body president, told the 471-member Class of 2015 at their graduation Wednesday that meeting the man changed her perception of people and her values. There were three things she drew from her discussion with Randy.
"Reach out, remember your roots and refuse to settle," she said. "Perception is everything and perception is nothing. Continuously question your assumptions about people."
Those themes -- of understanding, open mindedness, compassion and resilience -- were repeated throughout Paly's graduation ceremony, which was marked by joy but also deep reflection born of events of the past year. The lessons, student speakers said, were at times painfully learned.
So much of Emma Chiu's life is a series of snapshots of events and celebrations and relationships, she told fellow students, faculty and family members. But one snapshot she will forever remember is the day this year she came to school and saw a train stopped on the tracks, and she knew that one of her classmates had died.
An English teacher had handed her a written work called "The Cosmos and You." It asked the question, "How do you keep from despairing at the immensity of space and the shortness of us?" she said.
It is true that one is a miniscule speck in the universe, but "you are also as certainly a miracle. … You are capable of love and so need not despair of insignificance," she quoted.
"Because of what we have gone through, I think our class is especially aware … of the significance a touch may have on another person," Chiu said. "We are prepared to be that light when others slip into darkness."
Liu, who received the Viking Award for her work to bring compassion and understanding to students during times of despair, encouraged the graduates to be grateful for their Palo Alto heritage. The education they have received here can be used powerfully for positive change, she said.
"Privilege is not something to feel ashamed of," Liu added.
But she and student speaker Alex Hwang also encouraged their classmates to have the courage to change their lives rather than despair if they are not happy.
"Refuse to settle," Liu said. "Get out there and live your life fully and exactly how you want to."
"We should dare to take a step on an unpredictable path," Hwang said.
At evening's end, the graduates sent their green and white mortarboards twirling in the sky. Amid hugs and family photographs and excited preparations for the evening's journey on the graduate party bus, some students still had time to reflect on what has stood out to them during their four years at Paly.
"It was how unified our class was and how they came together," said Alexa Austin, who will head to a Bible college in Florida to study theology and finance.
For Hwang, who will study chemical engineering at Rice University, the most challenging part was achieving balance between the work and leisure parts of life. In his final year, he said he thinks he achieved that goal.
"It was about understanding the motivation and purpose of what I'm doing and why I'm doing it," he said.
Paly's 2015 graduating class is much more a reflection of the Bay Area's growing diversity today than in decades past. Students who walked to the stage to receive their diplomas were Caucasian and Asian, African American and Latino, Pacific Islander, Indian and Muslim, and everything in between. But the feeling of disparity was still felt by some.
Theresa Delgadillo of East Palo Alto is the first in her family to head to college, something that makes her father, Jose, very proud, he said. Coming to Paly through the district's Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP), or Tinsley program, she said, has led her into a very different life than she would have had if she'd stayed in East Palo Alto's school system. But her move to Paly was marked by a difference she found challenging.
"The hardest part was not being able to find Latinas in my classes," she said, noting it was difficult to find Latina friends. "I took higher-lane classes, and I was the only Latina in any of my classes."
Delgadillo, who received a distinguished-scholar award from Paly, will study linguistics at U.C. Santa Cruz. She did not find the classes at Paly to be that hard, she said.
"I'm glad my parents thought about my education and sent me to school in Palo Alto," she said. "It was difficult (socially), but I had a lot of fun and got to meet a lot of new people. I'm glad I've come this far."