Harlingen Collegiate graduates unique class of seniors

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Salutatorian Mattias Mata addresses fellow graduates on Friday, May 17, 2024, at the Harlingen Collegiate High School graduation at the Harlingen Performing Arts Conservatory. (Travis Whitehead | Valley Morning Star)

HARLINGEN — Joseph Montoya stood beneath the bright lights of a moment in his history and in the story of his classmates that they would take with them throughout their futures.

“Standing here before you, I’m reminded that our journey to this day was anything but a walk in the park,” said Montoya, 18, who graduated Friday from a most rigorous journey through Harlingen Collegiate High School.

More than 60 students concluded this journey Friday at the Harlingen Performing Arts Conservatory where Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez, school board members, administrators and teachers congratulated them on their success. Adoring parents, friends, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and — hundreds were there to cheer them on.

One thing on the minds of many was the nature of the journey these students had traveled. It was not like anything anyone else could understand without having experienced it themselves. Montoya addressed the uniqueness of their path, one of pain, bewilderment and success.

“This’ll probably be the last time you hear about COVID in a graduation speech because we’re the final class to have gone through online classes in high school,” he said. “However, it was us that COVID affected the most. The start of our high school life was anything but ordinary; we had to attend Zoom classes and deal with the challenge of meeting each other without being on campus. We lost the chance to experience Owl Orientation, to volunteer despite our 200-hour requirement, to simply be high schoolers. Yet, we adapted, we grew, and we certainly persevered.”

Parents expressed this same reflection.

“It’s been rough, especially with the whole COVID,” said Scott Leerhoff, whose son Zander had just graduated.

The students at Friday’s ceremony had faced not only COVID but also the rigorous academic regimen of dual enrollment courses in their junior and senior years. Not everyone is up for that kind of intense study, but they had all chosen it. The discipline they attained from intense study in the midst of a pandemic would surely give them an extra edge.

Maggie Aquinaga, 17, was all smiles after the ceremony in her graduation gown and holding a bouquet of flowers in her arms.

“I’m very grateful to all the people who supported me and I’m looking forward to going to UTRGV and study nursing,” she said.

Zena Nazar, left, congratulates her sister Maggie Aguinaga Friday, May 17, 2024, at her graduation from Harlingen Collegiate High School graduation at the Harlingen Performing Arts Conservatory. (Travis Whitehead | Valley Morning Star)

Her big sister Zena Nazar was excited too.

“I am so proud of her,” Zena said. “I still see her as a little girl, and its hard to believe she’s grown up already.”

The festive spirit of the day presented itself even before the ceremony. Groups and individuals moved across the parking lot with balloons flutterling in the afternoon breeze and talked excitingly among themselves.

Erik Mateo had an armful of balloon and congratulatory messages for his sister Leslie Mateo.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “She’s the first generation female to be graduating. It’s been tough for her; she was up all night doing homework to keep her grades up.”

Mary Cavazos in her elegant black dress was there to celebrate as her niece Natalya Almanza walked across the stage.

“She’s always been very focused,” Cavazos said as she entered the PAC with a bouquet of flowers.

Jeff Tait’s son Jackson also graduated Friday.

“It’s exciting but sad,” he said. “He’s leaving home and planning to go to Texas Tech. He’s going into the medical field.”