HANFORD — It was standing room only Thursday evening at the Neighbor Bowl as 275 students walked across the lawn to cheers during Hanford West High School’s 18th annual Commencement Exercises.

After a welcome from Senior Class President Alexis Ortiz, Principal Delbert Ray took the stage to offer the students some words of advice before their long-awaited milestone.

Ray encouraged the graduates to continue to be the music makers, story tellers, teachers, poets, men and women of vision and leadership and the dreamers that they are.

“Don’t let fear swallow up your dreams,” he said.

Student speaker Nayleen Galaviz used her time on stage to be the “voice of the voiceless.”

Galaviz said there is a quote that says you “don’t applaud a fish for swimming” because they are doing what they are supposed to do. She said many people might think the same about graduating high school, but she couldn’t disagree more.

As the students reflect on their high school careers, Galaviz said they should congratulate themselves for surviving their struggles, heartbreaks and sleepless nights over the last four years.

“For many of us, this high school experience was far from easy,” she said. “We made it through many private struggles that we did not share with the world.”

Galaviz went on to acknowledge those students who faced more than just the stress of classwork on a daily basis. Like the kids who came from a broken home or no home at all, whose family didn’t accept them for who they are or who they love, those who didn’t know where next meal would come from, who projected hate because they did not receive love, who ate lunch alone, those who had to learn English to survive in the county and for those who did not have the same opportunities as the student sitting right next to them.

“To the students who struggled with much more than the load of homework, I’m one of you,” Galaviz said. “So to the fish who were not applauded for swimming, I’m here to tell you, I’m with you, I see you and I’m proud of you.”

Galaviz told her fellow students to take pride in being congratulated because they had achieved much more than passing grades in high school. She told them they are strong, resilient and have everything they need within themselves to create the lives they deserve.

Valedictorian Phoua Lee ended the night by telling the graduates that they were all there because they have a feature in common that no one can take away from them: hard resolve and the perseverance to finish strong.

“That is character. That is strength,” Lee said.

While their time at Hanford West was short, Lee said their memories would remain and the wisdom they learned would be passed on by their actions.

“Most of us are leaving Hanford, but Hanford isn’t leaving us,” she said.

Lee reminded the graduates that their lives, as represented by the Monarch butterflies that graced the campus in the spring, are only just beginning.

“You didn’t just make it, Class of 2019, you earned it,” Lee said.

The ceremony also featured the National Anthem sung by student Aalayah Scruggs, several other songs performed by students, recognition of students who graduated with distinction and a moment of silence for two people the school lost recently, Ellice Blevins and Andrew Robles Gomez.

Blevins was a teacher at the school for many years and an administrator in the district, while Gomez was a senior who attended Hanford West all four years and would have graduated Thursday with his fellow classmates.

To honor Gomez, there was an empty chair on the field where he would have sat.

“He is loved and he will be missed,” Ray said.

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