Shouts and cheers filled the University of Utah’s Jon M. Huntsman Center on Wednesday as 377 students received high school diplomas from the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center.
Many of the students had overcome difficult circumstances to complete their education, and they beamed as they were recognized for their accomplishments and handed their diplomas.
“This is what opening a new door looks like,” said student speaker Lesly Hernandez. She gave a special thank you to immigrant parents in the audience.
Horizonte is an alternative high school in the Salt Lake City School District which works with community organizations, including Catholic Community Services’ refugee resettlement program and the Odyssey House, to reach students from diverse backgrounds.
The school enrolls both high school-aged students and continuing education adults. About 85% of this year’s 217 12th grade students are low income, and those students collectively speak more than a dozen languages, according to data provided by the district.
Some students are refugees or immigrants who learned English as a second language as they attended high school courses. Some grew up in broken homes or the foster system and found it difficult to succeed in traditional high schools amid chaos in their personal lives. Some had children at an early age and were unable to complete high school their first time around.
Student speaker Lilia Dryden said she had been afraid to go back to school because she believed she was too old. She credited Horizonte with allowing her to achieve her goal of receiving a high school education.
Dryden told her fellow classmates not to let their ages, accents or ethnicities prevent them from pursuing their dreams. Horizonte means horizon in Spanish, Dryden said, and the horizon is the line that connects the earth to the sky.
“Horizonte was our line that connected us from our reality to our dreams,” she said.
In a testament to the diversity of Horizonte’s student body, the graduation ceremony included a Burundi drum group and a national anthem performance by Mariachi Alma Ranchera. Student Dennis Gutierrez created an original rap song, “Class of 2019,” for the occasion.
“You went through the worst situation, but you still sat at your graduation, this is ours, a celebration,” he rapped. “[We’re from] different places, but now we’re here, sitting down, caps and gowns.”
Students were greeted with flowers, balloons and hugs by their loved ones outside the Huntsman Center after the ceremony concluded.
With their high school educations complete, the students are free to pursue higher education. Horizonte helps connect students with scholarships for college, according to Principal Joshua Bell. Several students who spoke with the Tribune after the ceremony said they plan to attend Salt Lake Community College.