Speakers at the Castilleja School graduation ceremony in Palo Alto on Saturday, June 3, highlighted the humor and optimism of the Class of 2023, especially as they navigated pandemic-era high school, and the community they built along the way.
In white dresses and suits, the 63 students sang, laughed and cheered their way through the ceremony. Family and friends filled the audience, and each student was recognized before receiving their diploma with a quote about them from a past educator. Circular tables had been erected around the lawn, each devoted to a student and decorated with photos, gifts and clues as to what their futures may hold.
Student speaker Sonia Cherian emphasized the community she and other students felt was a defining feature of their time at the school.
“I have formed some of my closest friendships at Casti through venturing off-topic in a breakout room, dreaming up a magnificent yet typo-ridden French group project and joining the same interest club on a whim,” she said.
Cherian assured her peers that they were ready to go out into the world and connect with new communities.
“Now, it's time to be builders,” she said. “I cannot wait to witness all of the communities that you will create, join and immeasurably enrich in the years to come.”
Graduate Janet Meng, who attended Castilleja for grades nine through 12, said she immediately found community on the water polo team, which helped her to branch out and make more friends. Experiences such as being on the all-girls robotics team built her confidence, she reflected.
“Casti's given me a lot of access to things I wouldn't have gotten elsewhere (including) people that I have gotten to know so well throughout these past four years and who have shaped me and who I have left lasting influences on too,” Meng said.
Meng will attend Duke University in the fall, where she is considering studying computer science.
Commencement speaker Tirana Hassan, executive director of Human Rights Watch, shared lessons from her career as a change maker with the students.
“You don't have to be Obama or Malala to change the world,” she said. “Your daily actions, the seemingly small acts of kindness and bravery, those recognitions of our shared humanity, that is how we change the world."
Hassan told the students to embrace their differences and to use their “otherness” as a superpower.
“When you are on the outside, you have a completely unique perspective; a clear and honest perspective,” she said. “You see problems but you also see solutions that others completely miss, and that is where the magic happens because otherness builds connections, which builds community, which changes the world."
She touched on the strength of women leaders and thanked the students in advance for the change they are going to make.
“Women are instinctual and natural leaders,” Hassan said. “You are all leaders. You are individually and collectively powerful, and I cannot wait to see the headlines that you're going to make.”
Head of School Nanci Kauffman shared stories of the students’ hope and commitment to making change as they attended high school at a time of widespread COVID-19, worsening climate change and what she described as the “racial reckoning” of 2020.
“Throughout your upper school years, you learned about human rights injustices that compelled you to become fierce advocates for equity, for equality and dignity,” she said.
Graduate and All School Body President Monica Sidana, who introduced Hassan, recalled her and her peers’ experience meeting Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, in seventh grade.
“Mr. Stevenson spoke about how we can be agents of change,” Sidana said. “He explained that there was power in embracing those who are suffering, and that thought has stuck with me to this day.”
In her closing remarks, Kauffman paid tribute to the graduates for the humor and grace they exhibited over the past four years.
“With your class, at times it seemed your humor was everywhere and we were grateful to laugh along with you, and sometimes it was simply enough to watch you from afar entertaining yourselves in ways that, actually, we didn't always understand,” she said. “Your genuine support for one another is heartwarming and, at the same time, inspiring.”
Graduate Malaya Redding Lapuz, who also started at Castilleja in grade nine, said she is glad that she was able to attend the school during these years of change and uncertainty.
“I couldn't imagine a better place to do it and a better group of people to do it with,” she said.
Redding Lapuz plans to study vocal performance at Lawrence University.
Head of the Upper School Anne Rubin reflected on how the students endured the pandemic, as well as other more typical challenges like academic work and puberty.
"Honestly, I'm pretty sure you can do anything,” she said.
• For more local graduation coverage, go to Graduation central: Class of 2023 marks its milestone