ALBANY — It was a day of smiles, tears and snarled traffic for more than 800 Dougherty County high school seniors and their families as the county’s four public high schools held commencement ceremonies Saturday at the Albany Civic Center.

Traffic was a mess as graduates, their families and other supporters converged, one school group leaving the Civic Center while another was trying to work its way into the parking lot.

None of that mattered, however, after the new graduates walked across the stage to pick up their diplomas.

Albany High School led off the morning, graduating 171 seniors.

“Today belongs to all of us,” Albany High Senior Kennedy Johnson said. “It’s been a lifetime dream of mine to speak at my high school graduation, because today is the day we’ve been waiting for all of our lives. The suspense is over, Class of 2016. We are the faces of tomorrow, and we have arrived.”

Johnson’s classmate, Brandon Fenn, agreed.

“There are many definitions of a ‘mountaintop’ experience, and Class of 2016, we are on our way,” Fenn said. “There will be obstacles and challenges to overcome as we go up the mountain. We are going to lose some friends along the way, but as you climb that mountain remember you can’t take all of the same people with you. And sometimes that means not even some members of your own family.”

Westover High School, which had the Dougherty County School System’s largest graduating class with 277 seniors, also elected to go with student speakers.

“Tomorrow is the start of our lives in the real world, and today is the beginning of the rest of our lives,” Adam Clenney said.

Thomas Brunson reminded the class to enjoy the present.

“If not for Westover High School, I would not have the friends I do today,” Brunson said. “More importantly, if not for Westover I would not be here today. ‘Carpe Diem’ (seize the day) should resonate through this building throughout the day. We have arrived.”

Juliette Hu, the Southwest Georgia region’s STAR Student, wrapped up the speeches for her classmates.

“Today is ours, it belongs to us, but the past four years have really been about us,” Hu said. “We are stepping into the real world. Our senior year was the best year, we were impressive and insane. Everyone at Westover has been amazing, but I want to give a shoutout to everyone who made this moment possible. We wouldn’t be here if not for the support of our parents, teachers and administrators.

“Stay real, guys, and don’t forget to live in the moment.”

Monroe High School, which graduated 265 — its largest graduating class in the past three years — also featured student speakers.

“We can live in the moment now, but tomorrow we have to step into the real world,” Jasmine Davis, Monroe’s 2016 STAR Student, said. “Success will not be just handed to us on a silver platter, it will be up to us to work hard and push on. Remember, we will make mistakes, but that’s OK. We are the future.”

Classmate Malisha Jones said what that future looks like is in the hands of all who wore a cap and gown Saturday.

“No matter where we go or what we do, let’s go forward with our heads held high, no matter what path you choose to take,” Jones said. “Be the best you can be, be the best at what you do and let’s make our people proud of us.”

Prior to handing out diplomas, Monroe Principal Vinson Davis reminded the crowd of how far Monroe had come in the past three years.

“Last year we were on the governor’s list of schools eligible for a state takeover. This year we came off that list and that’s because of this class. We’ve gone from a 40 percent graduation rate to 80 percent,” Davis said. “Now you have to establish your legacy. Let it be not about what you can do for you, but what you can do for others.”

The final of the day’s graduating classes, the Dougherty High Class of 2016, saw 157 seniors receive diplomas. Dougherty graduation exercises were still ongoing at The Herald’s press time.

Valedictorian Alexia Chambers was one of the speakers during Dougherty High commencement.

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