After the tassels were turned and the caps were tossed, a group of newly minted graduates of Hoboken Junior Senior High School piled together at the center of the football field at John F. Kennedy Stadium, cheering and dancing like they had just won a championship game.
In a sense, they had. Though many of the 81 graduating HJSHS seniors received special awards and scholarships recognizing their accomplishments in the last four years at a dinner on June 17, the real trophy came at graduation this past Thursday, and was the same for everyone—a diploma signifying their passage to a new stage of life.
For many, the next stage will play out close to home. Of the 70 HJSHS graduates who plan to attend some form of post-secondary education, 58 will stay in New Jersey, with the lion’s share at local institutions like New Jersey City University, Hudson County Community College, and St. Peter’s University.
For others, the path to the future will branch further afield, with graduates planning to attend The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Temple University in Philadelphia, and the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
One graduate, Erik Gutierrez, even plans to enlist in the United States Marine Corps.
But regardless of where they end up, each member of the class of 2015 will always be a “Redwing” at heart.
“Wherever your dreams take you, and no matter how many paths you go down, you can always draw Hoboken High School and you can come home,” said HJSHS Principal Robin Piccapietra.
Looking back on how far she and her classmates have come in the past four years, HJSHS valedictorian Leanza Rodriguez latched onto the image of a coloring book, even holding up the pages of one book as a symbol of the vibrant growth she and her peers now exhibit.
Out of the blank canvas of freshman year, said Rodriguez, each student builds a colorful artwork all their own, initially staying within the lines before gradually becoming bolder and following their own rules.
“High school is just the first picture in our gallery that will soon be filled with so many more masterpieces.”—Leanza Rodriguez
“Today, we realize what a masterpiece it turned out to be,” said Rodriguez, “not only because everything turned out the exact way it was supposed to, but because this wonderful, magnificent, van Gogh-esque picture is ours and ours only.”
“High school is just the first picture in our gallery that will soon be filled with so many more masterpieces,” she added.
Principal Piccapietra also relied on the image of a drawing to express her feelings about the Class of 2015. Recalling the 1955 children’s book classic “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” in which a child has a magical crayon that could manifest anything he wanted to see, Piccapietra told the graduates that each of them had the same power.
“What you have is opportunity,” she said. “The only thing you have to do is imagine your future. Take the tools that we have instilled in you over the years and draw it out…and if you find yourself in a path that you are not happy in, draw another path.”
Kudos from the city
Mayor Dawn Zimmer congratulated all of the HJSHS graduates on their achievement, and in particular the valedictorian and salutatorian, both of whom she honored with proclamations from the city.
Zimmer singled out “Hoboken Habla,” a documentary on the experiences of being young and Hispanic in Hoboken that Rodriguez helped to spearhead as the president of the HJSHS Hispanic Heritage Club.
“The documentary is a thoughtful production on breaking down cultural stereotypes that many of our students face on a daily basis,” said Zimmer. “You send a message to people of all ages and backgrounds that talking about these difficult subjects is not only just OK, it should be encouraged.”
Zimmer also applauded salutatorian Johnathan Aviles for winning a full scholarship to Stevens Institute of Technology. “It’s always refreshing to see such talented students from our school system continuing your higher education right here in Hoboken,” she said.
Carlo Davis may be reached at email@example.com.
Valedictorian and salutatorian excelled in many fields
How did Leanza Rodriguez make it through four years at Hoboken Junior Senior High School?
“I have no idea where the time came from,” she said. “I’ve gone to bed at four in the morning to wake up at six and I come to school like ‘how am I gonna get through the day?’”
Take one peek at the checklist of accomplishments Rodriguez has blown through in the last four years and you’ll have no problem understanding why time was such a scarce commodity for her.
In addition to becoming the valedictorian of the Hoboken Junior Senior High School (HJSHS) Class of 2015, Rodriguez has been the co-captain of the tennis and bowling teams, the vice-president of the school’s National Honor Society, a flutist in the stage band, an award-winning student journalist, a champion memorizer of pi with the Math Club, and the president of the Hispanic Culture Club.
The ledger is no less impressive for HJSHS salutatorian Johnathan Aviles. The lifelong Hobokenite tried out basketball, baseball, and swimming before settling on track and field, where he ran the 100 and 200-meter dash and threw the discus and javelin.
“Honestly, I felt like a Spartan,” said Aviles.
In addition, he was active in the environmental science, math and art clubs at HJSHS. However, the highlight of Aviles’ extracurricular activities may have been the Harvard Model Congress, a simulated congressional session held annually in San Francisco. Over the years, Aviles has been able to debate judicial policies as U.S. Senator Al Franken and serve as a pseudo-FBI agent.
The program allowed Aviles to “learn about all the issues that are going on in America, like economic issues, social issues, educational issues like student debt in college” from both a liberal and conservative perspective.
In the fall, Rodriguez will attend Drew University, a liberal arts college in Madison, N.J., while Aviles has accepted a full scholarship to attend Stevens Institute of Technology.
Of all the passions Rodriguez has been able to pursue at HJSHS, writing stands out as the clear favorite. The scribbled word seems to have always been a crucial part of Rodriguez’s identity.
“I started writing when I was in second grade [at the Wallace School] and I’ve kept the book from when I was in second grade until now,” she said. “I’m just constantly adding to it.”
Rodriguez said she has only shown the book to people she is very close with, including some of her English teachers at HJSHS.
The last four years have brought Rodriguez out of her shell and allowed her to share her words with the world. She has written a full screenplay in her film class, reported stories for the school newspaper, and published a poem in last year’s edition of CREATE, the high school’s annual literary magazine.
The latter milestone was a big deal. “I had written multiple pieces and I was going to [CREATE advisor Sharon Malenda] throughout the school year and showing her my pieces,” said Rodriguez. “Finally around January I showed her something that she really liked that ended up being published.”
Rodriguez wants to major in English literature at Drew University, though she ultimately plans to attend law school. “There’s something about the written word that I feel is so powerful,” she said.
Rodriguez took time out before her speech on Thursday to thank her many teachers at HJSHS, especially Chris Munoz, her adviser in the Hispanic Heritage Club, and Fiona Stephens, her English teacher. “You have become the image that appears in my head when I think of the writer I’d like to be someday.”
At the graduation ceremony this past Thursday, HJSHS Principal Robin Piccapietra praised Rodriguez for being so much more than just an excellent student. Leanza “can be described with many wonderful qualities, but resiliency is the best word to describe her,” said Piccapietra. “She never settles for mediocrity…she walked in her guidance counselor Mr. White’s office beginning of her ninth grade and told him she was going to be valedictorian.”