Chasing your dreams was the theme at Joppatowne High School's 39th commencement ceremony Wednesday night.
As the graduating Mariners marked one of life's biggest milestones and moved into adulthood, several Harford County politicians encouraged the students to follow their bliss.
Before the big moment, students talked with one another in various classrooms at Edgewood High School, where the ceremony was held.
Megan Braglio, Ashley Burton, Brittany Burnett and Megan Burkey were about the take the plunge.
"We're happy," Braglio said, smiling, about graduating. Burton confessed she was a little nervous to have so many people watch as she walked across the stage and the two both hoped they wouldn't trip.
The commencement, Braglio said, marks "the end of my childhood."
"I'll miss being a kid," she said.
Burton said she will miss the homecoming games the most. While there would be similar events in college, she continued, it wouldn't be the same as knowing almost everyone there, like in high school.
What will be strangest for Burnett is "not seeing everybody every day since elementary." Burkey added that should will also miss some of the teachers she had during her high school career.
Braglio, who was part of the Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness Program, said she will be going to Harford Community College in the fall in hopes of becoming a social worker.
Burton wants to eventually study psychology, but will take the fall semester off, work and hopefully start college next spring. Both Burkey and Burnett will go into cosmetology.
Jeremy Clark was "ready to graduate and get started" with his next chapter in life.
"I'm pumped," Clark, 17, said. He commented that it was a long week leading up to the ceremony and he was feeling a mix of both excitement and nostalgia.
In the fall, he'll be attending CCBC Essex to go into the GIS (geographical information system) program and hopefully transfer to Towson University.
The swimmer eventually wants to get a job with the Department of Defense. Until then, he's content with knowing during his time at JHS he broke the school's 20-year-old record for the 100-yard freestyle and 400-yard freestyle relay, though he couldn't remember his spectacular times that broke the record.
Glen Osei, 17, is also pursuing his dreams in college.
"It's been a lot of work," he said about high school, but was "feeling pretty good" about everything that evening.
When he leaves to attend Atlanta Sports Academy, where he will play football and study nursing, Osei said he'll miss most "the people I didn't get a chance to meet" at the school.
After the students walked in twos to their seats in Edgewood High's gymnasium, several students and county officials gave brief, yet heartfelt speeches.
"As corny as it sounds," Kazmin Zuniga, Student Government Association president for the Class of 2012, said, "the tassel was worth the hassle."
Harford County Board of Education member James Thornton told the crowd of nearly 200 students, friends and family members: "As a parent, I know the sacrifice many of you have made" for their loved ones.
Thornton wanted to say something that would stick with the young adults until their 10-year reunion: "What will your story be?"
He asked what the students will do between now and then - will they have gone on to college, help the less fortunate, gone onto something greater?
"It's not all about you," Thornton reminded the seniors. "It's all about making the community a better place for the next generation."
No matter what the students do, Thornton encouraged them all to hold onto their dreams, whatever they may be.
Speakers State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Del. Rick Impallaria and County Councilman Dion Guthrie all have close ties to JHS – Jacobs' three daughters graduated from the school, Impallaria was part of the Class of 1980 and Guthrie's son was also part of that graduating class.
Each one of them expressed their devotion to the school and community and wished the students much success.
Josefine Rodriguez, president of the Class of 2012, expressed her pride in her school.
"No matter where we choose to venture," the class president said, "we will represent our alma mater as Mariners forever."
Valedictorian Ashley Dawson broke into tears as she began her speech and had to pause every few words to compose herself.
The emotional senior joked, "I promised I wouldn't do this."
Pulling herself together, Dawson said, "We've reached a 12-year long milestone in our lives."
She didn't look at the evening as an end, but "no different than any new beginning."
Reflecting on "what we've accomplished and how much we've grown individually," she gave her fellow classmates one important piece of advice: "If you truly do believe in yourself, you really can do anything."
Dawson encouraged them to not "listen to negativity and persevere to your dreams." Above all else, she ended, "Be proud of yourself, Mariners."