Graduating WHHS seniors get real-life lesson in hard work, perseverence

Graduates hold onto their caps as a gust of wind passes as they enter the football field for graduation at West Haven High School.

Graduates hold onto their caps as a gust of wind passes as they enter the football field for graduation at West Haven High School.

The 363 blue-and-white-clad graduates of West Haven High School’s class of 2018 didn’t have to look far to find real-life examples of age-old commencement themes such as the value of hard work, perseverance and not being afraid to take risks.

Fatima Al Rashed, one of the school’s first-ever co-valedictorians — along with James Delgado — has lived it.

Al Rashed, a native of Iraq, came to this country with her family just three years ago, seeking asylum. When she first arrived, she was lost, lonely and could barely speak English.

She worked hard — often until 2 or 3 a.m. — to not only overcome culture shock and get fluent in English but to excel, earning a 4.798 weighted grade point average, a spot on the varsity tennis team and membership in the National Honor Society.

She also made Westie friends friends along the way and earned admission to the University of Pennsylvania to study biochemistry as a pre-med student.

“The moral of my story is not to tell you what I have been able to do,” Al Rashed told students, friends and families gathered on and around the football field in Ken Strong Stadium. “It is to tell that with hard work and perseverance, I was able to achieve some of my dreams regardless of my obstacles, and you will be able to achieve your dreams if and only if you are willing to work hard and put in a lot of effort.

“Hard work is your only path to success,” Al Rashed said. “Never use difficulties as excuses to not work hard. Be determined and never give up. Try one, two, three, or a million times. Do not be afraid of failure. Do not be afraid of trying. Believe in yourself and in your abilities.

“Life is unpredictable,” she said. “Always be prepared for the best and the worst, and do not be afraid to face your obstacles and challenges; they will make you a stronger person.”

Delgado, also a National Honor Society member and a member of the tennis team, will study biological science at the University of Connecticut next year. He said one thing he learned in high school was to stop overthinking the future, be grateful for what he has and enjoy the present.

“The best advice I can give you from my experience at West Haven High is don’t sweat it,” Delgado said. “We all face obstacles, and we can all overcome them. Be happy with yourself. Your mental well being is paramount. Focus on the present instead of worrying about the future or regretting the past.”

Principal Pamela Gardner, who has spent much of the year fighting cancer, urged students to “put away your cellphones and savor tonight. ... Live in the moment and treasure being there.”

In remarks delivered before students walked out of the school and onto the field, Gardner thanked the class “for showing your amazing love and kindness to me all throughout the year — both on and off campus.

“I can’t tell you how much the little things meant to me — stopping in the hall to ask how I was, a smile, playing a game in my honor, attending a fundraiser, talking with me at the grocery store, and so much more, but most of all, showing your amazing compassion,” she said.

Other adults who spoke included Mayor Nancy Rossi, who wished students success and urged them to be “life-long learners,” and Superintendent of School Neil Cavallaro, who told them graduation day “marks a fresh start in your life and a chance to learn new things.”

Class President Megan Paterson said the trip through West Haven High “has been quite a journey.” Life beyond high school will be full of obstacles, but Paterson, quoting a line from her favorite TV show, “This Is Us,” said, “There’s no lemon so sour that you can’t make something resembling lemonade.”

She said that Gardner and her battle “provides motivation for each of us ... Her positive spirit guided us through these four year, and her impact will be felt on all of us for decades on.”