COLUMBIA — The room buzzed with excitement as Rock Bridge High School seniors marched onto the floor of Mizzou Arena Saturday night to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance."
Parents stood proudly, clapping and cheering as their teenagers took their seats, many of whom were grinning from ear to ear.
“This is the moment we realize we will never experience anything like this again,” said senior Connor Stangler in his address to his fellow classmates.
There were 528 students in the 2009 Rock Bridge High School graduating class, and each one took a different path to reach this day. Some took a path less traveled than others.
Angela Blackthorn did not attend classes during her senior year. Instead, she completed her remaining credits online.
Blackthorn said she was forced to move out of her father’s house and live with a friend toward the end of her junior year. After that, she moved to St. Peters to live with her mother, where she completed her studies online through Bingham University. Blackthorn said it meant a lot to her to be able to graduate with her class.
“It’s great to see all my friends after being gone for so long,” Blackthorn said.
Dwessie Hightower overcame tough obstacles at home to graduate. He had to work long hours to help support his family but said that he was inspired by the dedication of his mother and is thankful that he made it to this day.
Erica Guzman, the 2009 homecoming queen, said she is happy to graduate but doesn't have long to celebrate. Guzman joined the Army and will be shipped out to Fort Jackson, S.C., on June 24. Joining the Army was a chance to prove herself.
"Everybody said I couldn't do it," she said.
Shannon Kelly is one of seven valedictorians in Rock Bridge’s 2009 graduating class, meaning she was one of seven students able to maintain a 4.0 GPA throughout an entire high school career.
Kelly said she worked hard to get to this point and jokingly admitted the importance of this day.
“It’s the end of an era, if you want to be melodramatic,” she said.
Although Kelly and six of her classmates were recognized for their excellent academic performance, they wore no distinguishing ornaments on their caps or gowns. David Bones, assistant principal for student activities, said this is part of a long Rock Bridge tradition aimed at creating unity among the graduates.
“You’re one class, and you’ll graduate as one class,” Bones told the students at rehearsal the day before their graduation.
“This is the culmination of 12 years of work, it’s a big deal.”
There is one student in particular who has undoubtedly taken the longest journey of them all: Roland Kiyee.
Kiyee was born in Liberia, Africa, where he lived until war tore his family apart. His uncle was killed and his family was run out of the country by drug lords, forcing him to flee to a refugee camp in Ivory Coast and eventually to a camp in Ghana. At that point, Kiyee had been separated from his sisters and did not know where they were.
Kiyee was given hope when a refugee agency listened to his story and agreed to move his family to the United States. In January 2008, he arrived in Columbia.
Kiyee said that his experience at Rock Bridge has been worlds apart from his experience in Liberia.
“In Africa, when we went to school, we were worried about food, not education,” he said.
Here, Kiyee is able to focus on his studies and has taken a very disciplined approach to his education. He works diligently on improving his English and said that attending Rock Bridge has given him a new outlook on life. It has allowed him to set lofty new goals for himself.
“I will not stop here," Kiyee said. “I will continue to try to achieve my dream of becoming a doctor.”
Although Kiyee has big plans for the future, for now he is enjoying the moment.
“This is the second happiest day of my life," he said.
His first was when he found out he was coming to America.