More than 2,000 high school seniors across Gaston County schools graduated Friday evening, capping their unprecedented high school careers.
What began as an extension of spring break in March 2020 – the class of 2021 then juniors – evolved into a pandemic that spanned over two school years.
Students of Gaston County’s public schools wouldn’t return to their classrooms until Aug. 17, 2020, and the school experience was still far from what students had ever experienced previously.
Just in time for graduation, Gov. Roy Cooper lifted the statewide mask mandate on May 14, 2021, allowing the county’s high schools to celebrate the class of 2021 without masks.
In Gaston County Schools alone, 2,167 seniors graduated and took their first steps of the next chapter in their lives.
Those other schools include:
- Gaston Virtual Academy, a totally-online public school that launched in 2017. Just four seniors were part of the virtual school’s first graduating class.
- 50 seniors of Gaston Christian School.
- 43 seniors at Gaston Day School
- Piedmont Community Charter School will hold graduation June 3.
In total, more than 2,260 seniors graduated from Gaston County high schools.
For more on Gaston County graduations, go to GastonGazette.com. The Gazette will also publish expanded graduation stories in print starting Wednesday through mid June.
“Go forward, graduates. Keep learning. Do great things. Support your community. Love the people around you and always make us proud.
NUMBER OF GRADUATES: 313
VALEDICTORIAN: Asma Patel
WHAT PATEL SAID: “Before I wrote my speech, I wanted a good quote to make my speech unique. So what did I do? I did not try to look for one on the Internet like a normal person would have. I direct messaged Marlon Humphrey, a professional football player, on Twitter for one,” Patel said.
“I did not think he would respond but to my surprise he did. He said, ‘You cannot experience true happiness unless you have bad days.’ This made me think about high school and how we all had good and bad days and we are still here today graduating. It also made me think of our future and how we are all going on different paths. Whether we decide to pursue a career, go to college, or serve our country, we will all experience bad days which make the good ones that much more special.”
SALUTATORIAN: Rachel Lowry
WHAT LOWRY SAID: “I’m sure you’ve all heard the expression, ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’ This senior class was dealt some serious lemons, but we were able to turn our senior experience into lemonade,” she said.
“We showed our class pride by painting our overalls. Our class leaders organized our own powderpuff game. Most importantly our football team beat Huss and won back the bell! These traditions may not seem important, but they brought sweetness to what could have been a sour school year.”
SENIOR CLASS PRESIDENT: Kennedy May
WHAT MAY SAID: “After today we will all be moving forward in different directions in our lives. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.’ So go out into the world, start a new chapter in your life, and make your dreams a reality.”
PERFECT ATTENDANCE: Ashbrook senior Payton Danielle Love achieved 13 years of perfect attendance. She plans to attend North Carolina A&T State University to study nursing.
NUMBER OF GRADUATES: 114
VALEDICTORIAN: Sophia Jewel Foster. Foster will attend UNC Wilmington to major in English and obtain teacher licensure. She plans to pursue a career as a high school English teacher and eventually transition to serving as a community college English instructor.
FOSTER’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Recipient of UNC Wilmington academic scholarship valued at $20,000; Most Industrious Award; Marine Scholastic Excellence Award; ABC Underage Prevention Scholarship; First Wesleyan Church Scholarship; first student to earn an associate degree from Gaston College while in high school with 60 hours of college credit; Gaston College President’s List.
SALUTATORIAN: Aleczandria Grace Stinnett. Stinnett will attend University of Georgia to study marketing.
STINNETT’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Beta Club; National Honor Society; student government, Fellowship of Christian Athletes president; Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council; volunteer for the Special Olympics, Northwest Ministries, and Levine Children’s Hospital; member of the volleyball and softball teams; Gaston County Schools/Gaston Gazette Star Student.
HONORARY GRADUATE: Darlene Nichols and D.J. Nichols, the parents of Demorris Jabar Nichols Jr., accepted their son’s diploma on behalf of him. Nichols was shot and killed in September 2020.
SPECIAL RECOGNITION: Bessemer City senior T’Kia Moore earned the Chancellor’s Scholarship from Appalachian State University, a highly-competitive, full-tuition scholarship.
NUMBER OF GRADUATES: 132
VALEDICTORIAN: Chase Dylan McNeill. McNeill plans to study history at UNC Chapel Hill and later pursue a law degree.
MCNEILL’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Gaston County Schools/Gaston Gazette Star Student; Dwight H. Harrelson Memorial Scholarship; Cherryville High School Male Scholastic Athlete of the Year.
SALUTATORIAN: Noah Richard Abernethy. Abernathy plans to study business at UNC Chapel Hill.
SPECIAL RECOGNTION: Cherryville senior Ben Hayes was named a “Campus Captain Award” winner. The recognition is presented by the N.C. High School Athletic Association.
NUMBER OF GRADUATES: 178
VALEDICTORIAN: Caleb Stephen Burr. Burr plans to study business at UNC Chapel Hill.
BURR’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Mount Holly Hall of Fame Scholarship; East Gaston Scholastic Athlete of the Year; Boy Scouts Eagle Scout Award; member of the baseball, basketball, and football teams.
SALUTATORIAN: Bianca Azra Rushing. Rushing plans to study computer science at N.C. State University.
RUSHING’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS: John Philip Sousa Band Award; N.C. State University Academic Enhancement Scholarship; Physics Honors academic award.
SPECIAL RECOGNITION: East Gaston senior Callie Payne earned a $110,000 scholarship to attend Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk.
NUMBER OF GRADUATES: 227
VALEDICTORIAN: Sophie Annice Martin. Martin plans to attend Maryville College in Tennessee to study biology and pre-medicine. She hopes to become a surgeon.
MARTIN’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Beta Club; McGill Fellow; and Scots Science Scholar.
SALUTATORIAN: Joshua Abraham Gluck. Gluck will attend UNC Chapel Hill to study biology and pre-medicine. He hopes to become a cardiologist.
GLUCK’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Commissioners’ School of Excellence; Eagle Scout Award; Teens Westward Bound; National German Honor Society; National Honor Society.
SPECIAL RECOGNITIONS: Forestview senior Anie Sery received the George B. King Jr. Civil Engineering Scholarship from UNC Charlotte.
Forestview senior Foster Rouse earned the prestigious rank of Eagle Scout. For his Eagle Scout project, he adapted toys for children with special needs and donated them to the Gaston County Schools’ Exceptional Children department.
Gaston Early College
NUMBER OF GRADUATES: 39
ACCOMPLISHED CLASS: Students of Gaston Early College’s class of 2021 earned more than $2 million in scholarships to four-year universities.
VALEDICTORIAN: Genevieve Roberta Starr
WHAT STARR SAID: “No matter where you’re going after this – whether it’s college, training, a job, or you’re just taking a year to be you – you’re going to be amazing. I cannot say enough how excited I am to see how we all turn out in this next part of our lives,” she said.
“I believe everyone here today has the ability to make a difference, big or small, and I am excited to see how you all will get it done.”
SALUTATORIAN: Kenneth Khai Hguyen
WHAT HGUYEN SAID: “It has been an absolute joy getting to know each and every one of you from day one. From the numerous assignments and countless projects we have dedicated ourselves to, it is finally time to reap the benefits of our labor. It is time to graduate.”
YEARBOOK: “Forever Strong”
SCHOOL MASCOT: Spartans
NUMBER OF GRADUATES: 131
VALEDICTORIAN: Madelyn Grace Van Meter. Meter plans to study biology at UNC Chapel Hill and become a physician.
METER’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Moot court state champion; Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council; Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council; Gaston County Schools/Gaston Gazette Star Student; National Technical Honor Society; Beta Club; Future Business Leaders of America; student council officer; homecoming queen; Earth Club; SAVE/Interact Club; MVP and captain of tennis team; volunteer for Camp Sunshine, Boys and Girls Club, Special Olympics, Tim Tebow’s Night to Shine, and Holy Angels’ Bowl ‘n’ Bounce.
SALUTATORIAN: Ann McKinney Russell. Russell will attend Wake Forest University to study business and enterprise management. He hopes to pursue a career as an attorney.
NUMBER OF GRADUATES: 240
VALEDICTORIAN: Ailysa Lee. Lee will study exercise science at Appalachian State University. She plans to pursue a career in occupational or physical therapy.
LEE’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Junior marshal; N.C. Governor’s School; DAR Outstanding Senior Award.
SALUTATORIAN: Laurynn Thomas. Thomas will study biochemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University. She plans to attend medical school.
THOMAS’ ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Selected for the Virginia Commonwealth Honors College.
FOOTBALL SIGNINGS: Hunter Huss student Dontavius Nash signed a national letter of intent to play football at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Nick Sharpe signed a national letter of intent to play football at Wake Forest University.
NUMBER OF GRADUATES: 250
VALEDICTORIAN: Kaitlyn Covey Bice. Bice plans to study aerospace engineering at the University of Central Florida.
BICE’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS: National Honor Society; North Gaston leadership team; chief junior marshal; color guard captain of the North Gaston Wildcat marching band; vice president of the Science Olympiad team and Envirothon club; secretary of the Beta Club; summer research program participant; recipient of awards in color guard, social studies, math, and science; competitive dancer and dance teaching assistant at Heart and Rhythm studio in Dallas.
SALUTATORIAN: Georgia Olivia Queen. Queen will study nursing at UNC Chapel Hill. She plans to earn a doctorate and purse a career as a nurse practitioner.
SPECIAL MOMENT: North Gaston’s class of 2021 raised $1,800 for the American Cancer Society in the name of math teacher Robin Bradley, who is a cancer survivor. Bradley retires from North Gaston in June.
NUMBER OF GRADUATES: 251
VALEDICTORIAN: Sydney Lester
WHAT LESTER SAID: “Grades and jobs are temporary, but the memories we make and the impacts we have on others will last forever. I know that in this crowd of graduates today, there are future doctors, lawyers, and successful athletes and artists. And I know that each and every one of you is capable of achieving anything you set your mind to,” she said.
“However, I also challenge you to take a step back and think about the life you’re living every once in a while. Ask yourself if you’re doing everything that makes you happy. Make time for the things and the people that you hold dear to your heart.”
SALUTATORIAN: Grace Nehring
WHAT NEHRING SAID: “From independently organizing a senior parade to planning a last-minute powderpuff game at Davis Park, I am constantly amazed by the hard work and leadership exuded by members of our class.”
HONORARY GRADUATE: Alexis Grace Drumm. Drumm died on April 24, 2021. She would have graduated Friday. Her brother pushed Drumm’s wheelchair across South Point’s football field and accepted the diploma on behalf of her.
SPECIAL RECOGNITIONS: South Point senior Connor Corcoran earned the Lester L. Carpenter Scholarship, awarded by the First United Methodist Church of Belmont. He plans to attend Appalachian State University.
South Point senior Peter Targonski was named one of a hundred finalists for the Goodnight Scholars Program at N.C. State University.
Stuart W. Cramer
NUMBER OF GRADUATES: 262
VALEDICTORIAN: Margaret Kimbirl
WHAT KIMBIRL SAID: “While this year has been extremely weird with more than half utilizing hybrid learning as students learn the art of doing classwork directly from bed, I want to express my appreciation and thanks for the ability to have a senior year. I am grateful that I was able to participate in all of my sports even if our basketball team only had one win. I am grateful we were able to have a senior parade, storm the halls, and see all our classmates from the opposite cohort. And I am sure I speak for the entire class for being grateful about having to hear this speech only once,” she said.
“So class of 2021, never forget the past but let’s walk through the doorway together.”
SALUTATORIAN: Layton Miller
WHAT MILLER SAID: “Many of us were asked to side one way or another and join the divided state our nation has maintained, to speak up or to stand down, and to balance the risk of whether or not to get the vaccine. I believe that as a class, we did better than picking sides. We learned to appreciate one another and not just to tolerate one another.”
SENIOR CLASS PRESIDENT: Campbell Foulk
WHAT FOULK SAID: “This is not our ending. It is a moment of celebration, a moment that will lead us into the next chapter of our lives, and a moment that we will forever cherish. Above all else these past few months have proven us to be strong individuals, we have overcome many obstacles these past 13 years and yet we have still remained strong.”
Gaston Christian School
NUMBER OF GRADUATES: 50
GRADUATES WITH 4.0 GPA OR ABOVE: 29
VALEDICTORIAN: Shelby Louise Duncan
WHAT DUNCAN SAID: “Something I have always grown up hearing is that the setback or stumbling block does not matter near as much as how you recover from it. How you recover and move forward after falling over is what defines and reveals character.”
SALUTATORIANS: Jacob Nolan Hoyle, Luke Gentry Hoyle and Anna Mi-Lynn Whitlow
WHAT JACOB SAID: “I’ve found that one of the most difficult things in life is living in the present. The future is exciting, but now is where you make memories,” he said.
WHAT LUKE SAID: “I would like to share a piece of advice with you all. No matter where you are in your life, set goals. Don’t be content with mediocre ambition because we are only given one chance on this earth,” he said.
WHAT WHITLOW SAID: In the good times, relationships are contributory for fun; in the bad times, relationships are necessary for endurance. In the darkest moments, it is not for material goods, social status, or worldly accolades that can deliver the light; it is a genuine friend,” she said.
You can reach reporter Gavin Stewart at 704-869-1819 or on Twitter @GavinGazette.