COLUMBIA — Congratulatory hugs and high fives were exchanged Thursday night as Rock Bridge High School seniors filed through a crowded staircase in Mizzou Arena on their way to graduation. Students lined up in the practice gym while family and friends found their seats in the arena.
While some needed to mentally prepare for this moment, others had been waiting years for it.
"I'm really excited," said Jenny Yao, the 21st Columbia Public Schools student to become a U.S. Presidential Scholar. "I've been waiting for this since school started 12 years ago."
The U.S. Presidential Scholars Program recognizes high school seniors who have achieved academic excellence or have expressed outstanding talent in the arts.
Despite the excitement around her, Yao seemed collected as she sat among 11 valedictorians in her graduating class.
"This year was a lot less busy than last year," she said. "I didn't take as many AP classes, and I guess the teachers are a bit more chill because they know it's your last year."
Yao will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall, concluding what she calls "a really good year."
After the ceremony began, Rock Bridge Principal Jennifer Mast reminded the audience that graduating from high school isn't an accomplishment to be taken lightly.
"We have students who are parents, students working more than full-time hours on top of being part-time students," she said. "If you are ever tempted to describe the earning of a high school diploma as fairly easy, please stop by and see me ... and we will introduce you to students who for receiving tonight's diploma is nothing more than inspiring."
One of those students is Jodee Lester, whose final school year started out with a big surprise.
"Getting pregnant was not the plan senior year," she said.
Lester found out she was pregnant at the beginning of the school year, and she knew that it would be challenging to deal with both schoolwork and preparing for motherhood.
The Rock Bridge motto, "Omnes vincent ursi," means "Bruins conquer all" in Latin, and Lester persevered through her last year. She spent the year as a part-time student while also taking certified nursing assistant classes on the side. She graduated with her CNA license and plans to look for a job to provide for her new family after graduation.
"Being pregnant didn't make it easier, but it made it worth doing," Lester said.
She gave birth five days ago to a son named Cain. And her newborn was able to see his mother graduate.
Lester and Yao are two of the 578 graduating seniors, many of whom marched proudly across the stage at Mizzou Arena while their parents watched anxiously.
But Lee Ann Rippey wasn't so anxious. Her only daughter, Makayla Cress Rippey, isn't scheduled to graduate from Rock Bridge until next year. She was there to watch her daughter's friends graduate.
"I'm here to get used to that," she said. "I'm here to prep for next year."
She has more than a year before her daughter celebrates this milestone moment, but she's already convinced she won't handle it well.
"I remember when she was 5 years old, she went to New Haven Elementary, and I had to take her to go get her school supplies," she said. "I was in Walmart just a-boo-hooing over getting school supplies because she's going to kindergarten. So I realized way back then, it's going to be rough."
Supervising editor is Landon Woodroof.