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Clarksville neighborhood graduation party gets surprise visit from incoming University of Maryland president

A group of families in a nine-home cul-de-sac in Clarksville set up a neighborhood graduation ceremony for three River Hill High School students on Memorial Day. Darryll Pines, who lives in the neighborhood and is set to take over as president of University of Maryland, College Park on July 1, surprised the families and students Neabir Jahangir, Shane Lavner and Vedaant Shah by dressing up in his robes and delivering a commencement speech. From left: Pines, Jahangir, Lavner, Shah.
A group of families in a nine-home cul-de-sac in Clarksville set up a neighborhood graduation ceremony for three River Hill High School students on Memorial Day. Darryll Pines, who lives in the neighborhood and is set to take over as president of University of Maryland, College Park on July 1, surprised the families and students Neabir Jahangir, Shane Lavner and Vedaant Shah by dressing up in his robes and delivering a commencement speech. From left: Pines, Jahangir, Lavner, Shah.

When the Howard County Public School System announced in late April that traditional high school graduations were being replaced with online ceremonies, River Hill High School senior Shane Lavner was disappointed.

“I was looking forward to graduation,” he said. “I was excited to walk across the stage at Merriweather [Post Pavilion]. I was bummed when we found out there wouldn’t be an in-person graduation and that it would be virtual.”

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Lavner wasn’t the only one. Friends Neabir Jahangir and Vedaant Shah, also River Hill seniors and neighbors on the same cul-de-sac in Clarksville, and many in the Howard County community wished there was a better way to celebrate the Class of 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s why on Memorial Day — ahead of River Hill’s pre-recorded virtual commencement — the parents of the students, along with the other families who live on the nine-house cul-de-sac, wanted to throw a small celebration for Lavner, Jahangir and Shah.

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“We thought it would be nice to have a little pizza party for the boys. They’re three sensational kids,” said Dan Lavner, Shane Lavner’s father. “We wanted to show them how much we wish they could’ve had a graduation.”

What the 17-year-olds and their families didn’t know, however, was that one of their neighbors would make the celebration a little more like a formal commencement.

Darryll Pines, who is set to take over as president of University of Maryland, College Park on July 1, surprised the group when he came out in his graduation robes and humming the classic “Pomp and Circumstance” tune.

Darryll Pines, who is set to take over as president of University of Maryland, College Park on July 1, hands a mock diploma to senior Shane Lavner during a spontaneous neighborhood graduation ceremony on Memorial Day for three River Hill High School graduates.
Darryll Pines, who is set to take over as president of University of Maryland, College Park on July 1, hands a mock diploma to senior Shane Lavner during a spontaneous neighborhood graduation ceremony on Memorial Day for three River Hill High School graduates. (Photo courtesy of Dan Lavner)

“[My wife and I] have had the good fortune of watching Shane, Vedaant and Neabir grow up for the past five-plus years. It has been a pleasure to get to know their families and these young men,” Pines wrote in an email. “... I was super excited to honor these three young men because I believed that all high school graduates deserved to have a true graduation.”

In Jahangir’s yard, Pines gave a commencement speech to the three seniors — with their parents and neighbors in the audience — as well as mock diplomas before the pizza party.

“He said he wanted us to receive the proper amount of recognition, and he talked about how we should look forward to college,” said Shah, who will be studying computer science at Georgia Institute of Technology in the fall. “I was a little disappointed about not having a traditional graduation and not walking down the stage and getting my diploma, but what Dr. Pines did felt much more real than the virtual ceremony.”

“My advice to Shane, Vedaant and Neabir was to use their college training and skills to positively impact the world with their talent,” Pines wrote. “While we live in uncertain times, our high school graduates are our future and they must prepare themselves for the next pandemic, tackle climate change and embrace our common humanity to put their positive imprint on the world.”

Dan Lavner said he was appreciative of Pines and his speech. As a father who saw how hard his son worked in high school, he was sad he wouldn’t be able to see his son walk across the stage at Merriweather. However, he said, Pines provided an opportunity for the parents to “stand back and reflect.”

“I got to see my son’s pride, and I was able to marvel at how much these kids have grown up,” Dan Lavner said. “They talk well and stand up straight and are grown up. I got the full charge out of what I thought I was going to miss as a parent. In that way, he gave us everything I would’ve hoped for out of a graduation.”

For the students, the neighborhood commencement provided them with an experience that was similar to what they imagined a high school graduation would feel like.

“It felt like the real deal,” said Shane Lavner, who will be studying film at Loyola Marymount University in California. “It did feel like a graduation.”

“It exceeded everything I could’ve expected,” said Jahangir, who played basketball at River Hill and will be studying mechanical engineering at Maryland. “That day really gave me a sense of closure and that sense of accomplishment.”

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