NEWPORT — It is OK to be undecided about a career path by the time one graduates from high school.

That was a message Friday night from Nokomis Regional High School senior Madison Hopkins to a crowd of  friends and family, school officials and 126 of her fellow seniors who gathered in the gymnasium for the school’s 51st commencement exercises.

Nokomis Regional High School graduate, and commencement speaker, Madison Hopkins on Friday. Morning Sentinel photo by Amy Calder

Hopkins began her speech by asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“This is a question that is asked to us as early as preschool,” she said. “I’m guessing that many of us would have a different answer now than when we were 5 years old.”

Before telling of her own experience regarding making career choices, Hopkins cited the importance of having a strong support system, whether from a friend, parent, teacher or coach, and acknowledged that she didn’t really understand how strong her support system was until recently.

“I had always figured that by senior year, I’d have an idea of the path to take in life,” she said. “But I can speak for myself and many of my classmates: This isn’t always as easy as it sounds.”

Hopkins said that since her sophomore year in high school, she always had it in her head that she wanted to be a forensic scientist. She interviewed people in the field, job shadowed and did school projects around that topic. She applied to three schools that offered forensic science and was accepted at all of them.

Like her classmates, she was excited to be able to tell people she was going to college to study forensic science.

“This was getting us one step closer to graduation. But the closer it was getting, the more I was rethinking my future. I started having regrets. I would listen to how excited everyone was to tell about their future plans, but I wasn’t getting excited; rather, I was beginning to dread it.”

She didn’t share her feelings, thinking people might be disappointed in her. She finally confided in her guidance counselor, Donyse Babin, and then her parents, who had been so supportive of her career choice.

“This is when I started to realize that a support system is critical, it’s crucial and it’s a must,” Hopkins said. “In order to be successful, I need to have people on my side.”

When she started sharing her feelings, other classmates did the same, according to Hopkins. She said it was not an easy decision to take back her acceptance into the forensic science program, but she did so and decided to change her major to “undeclared.”

“I know college is where I need to be; I just haven’t figured out what for yet,” she said. “Through my support system, I’ve realized that it’s okay to not know where you’re headed in life.”

Nokomis High Principal Mary Nadeau welcomed the crowd, saying the Class of 2019 represents a number of “firsts” for the district, including the first state football championship. Students met increased science and math requirements and demonstrated proficiency in all academic standards under rigorous scoring, according to Nadeau. Each student also contributed at least 20 hours of community service, and many earned college credits, interned and worked in the community, she said. Nadeau on Friday night recognized those students, as well as parents and faculty.

The Class of 2019 also would be the last to graduate in the gymnasium, she said. A new combined junior high and high school is being built near the current high school.

“We feel sentimental about our home on this side of Williams Road, and we feel sentimental about the class of 2019,” Nadeau said. “We’ve experienced much together these past years, and I think I speak for not only myself but our staff when I say we are so proud of you. I hope your moments with us have left memories for you because you have left your mark on us and our school.”

Senior class President Alyssa Stankevitz gave an impassioned speech about the importance of speaking freely, not being afraid to fail and just being oneself.

Nokomis graduates listen Friday to their commencement ceremony. Morning Sentinel photo by Amy Calder

She said that as a freshman, she had long hair which she hid her face behind and used as a security blanket. During her first class presentation, she mumbled her words and was tearful, she said.

She told her mother she wanted to be home-schooled, as she had been in middle school, but her mother urged her to keep trying. Later in her first semester, Stankevitz finally spoke up in English class and was enthralled by the spirit of her voice, she said.

“I made people listen to me,” she said. “And then I cut my hair.”

She joined the drama club and danced to show tunes, swapping her anxieties for excitement. She dyed her hair, transferred to an upper-level history class and started pulling her hair away from her face.

“I started feeling as though I belonged,” Stankevitz said. “I pursued the challenges that intimidated me and conquered them with a youthful arrogance. My hair got shorter.”

A teacher who knows her particularly well gave her some advice during final exam time. “‘You don’t have to be perfect; you never have to be perfect,'” Stankevitz said, quoting the teacher.

Failure, according to Stankevitz, is actually a blessing — an  opportunity to grow.

“There’s a culture of self-deprecation within our generation because it’s less painful to joke about our insecurities than to wonder whether we truly belong,” she said. “It’s easier to laugh than to confront the reality of our situation, to wonder if we are where we wish to be, going where we want to be going, becoming who we want to become.”

But one must be vulnerable and bare one’s soul to the world, according to Stankevitz.

“We must live with the passion that comes from belonging,” she said. “We must fail and get back up. We must speak freely with ideas; growing, always growing. And we must cut off our hair.”

Hopkins, Nadeau and Stankevitz received loud applause for their speeches.

Before marching into the gymnasium with his classmates, all wearing maroon robes, senior Quinton Richards, 18, lingered outside with friends.

He said he planned to work for Tri-State Insulation in Augusta after graduation and then hopes to go to a trade school to learn welding. He said his high school experience prepared him well for the world of work and he especially liked his Jobs for Maine Graduates class taught by Melissa Coppa, who was inspiring.

“She’s just amazing all around — just the perfect teacher,” Richards said.

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