WINCHESTER — Though graduation is a time to celebrate a class’s collective successes, Handley High School Class of 2021 salutatorian Hanna Sabbagh focused on her classmates’ differences.
Sabbagh, who will attend Carnegie Mellon University, was among the 332 graduates who received their diplomas Friday evening in the Handley Bowl.
Having moved 700 miles to Winchester before coming to Handley, Sabbagh said she appears different compared to some of her classmates.
But a short time after arriving at Handley, she said she realized there isn’t a typical Handley student. In fact, her time at Handley has taught her the value of embracing difference and diversity.
“Not only is it okay to be different, but it’s critical,” Sabbagh said. “Diversity is what makes us most us.”
Looking over the Handley Bowl’s field full of graduates, Sabbagh said she saw artists, activists, state champions, immigrants and innovators. Her advice to the Class of 2021 is to embrace these differences.
“When you leave Handley for the final time today, take your differences with you and show them off to the world,” she said. “They will make all the difference.”
Of the class’s 332 graduates, 158 will attend a college or university in 16 states and two foreign countries. Eighty graduates will enter the workforce and 13 graduates will join the military.
Handley’s Class of 2021 also collectively earned more than $2 million in scholarships.
Valedictorian Cole Cestaro, who will attend the University of Virginia, shared a story about his time as a summer camp counselor. One day when he was playing basketball, a camper with legs amputated above the knee asked if Cestaro could teach him how to play. Cestaro said this camper quickly learned the game as they played.
“He did not let his challenges prevent him from doing what he wanted to do,” Cestaro said.
He acknowledged everyone has faced a challenge at some point, and the Class of 2021 is no exception as its members ended their high school careers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
One thing Cestaro has learned is that it’s difficult to know what challenges lie ahead.
“We cannot predict, but we can prepare and adapt,” he said.
No matter the challenges the Class of 2021 faced, Cestaro said he celebrated with his classmates on making it to graduation.
Winchester Public Schools Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum agreed.
“Despite the obstacles, we all demonstrated resiliency,” Van Heukelum said. “We learned new skills. We are emerging as better people to make this world a better place.”
Shahrazad Kablan, Handley’s first-year principal, said she found the Class of 2021 to be a warm and welcoming community.
“I have also found you to be kind, courageous, dedicated, flexible, resilient and above all positive,” Kablan told the graduates. “You have impressed me.”
Van Heukelum added that on Friday morning he was listening to a speech by a Handley underclassman, who described her highest hopes for the future. In her speech she described her vision with words including “inclusivity,” “kindness,” “justice” and “representation.” She also called for an end to racism and gender inequality.
“Tonight I’m here to tell you that the future is bright,” Van Heukelum said. “The graduates sitting in front of us today will change the world.”