FINKSBURG — The faint sound of bagpipes could be heard at Gerstell Academy as parents rushed to grab their phones to video new graduates taking their last steps in high school.
For the 22-member class of 2017 at Gerstell Academy, Friday meant saying goodbye to the school some had attended since first grade. Girls donned long, white dresses and boys wore white tuxes as they walked two by two from the school's athletic center to the field where graduation took place.
The graduates will go on to attend colleges across the country, including University of Maryland, College Park and Baltimore County, University of Richmond, West Virginia University, Loyola University and Pacific Lutheran University.
But as valedictorian Traynor Willey told friends, family and her fellow graduates, Friday was the day to reflect on their years together at Gerstell and look to the future.
"But this moment right now is what we will remember. This is the moment that is symbolic of all our hard work, our tears, our laughter and our love," Willey said. "Celebrate what you have accomplished and look forward to new beginnings."
Willey will be attending Pacific Lutheran University in the fall. She received the Information Technology Department Award and Gerstell Academic Excellence Award.
Looking back, Willey said it was funny how fast her years at Gerstell flew by.
"Now I'm standing here at the podium dressed as a wedding cake topper trying to inspire you with this speech," she said.
Willey told the graduates that they went through times that they regretted and others they wished they could relive.
"So just live, make mistakes, have wonderful memories, but never, ever second guess who you are, where you have been and, most importantly, where you are going," she said.
Willey was not the only speaker giving the graduates advice as they embark on their next life chapter. Former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich took 15 minutes to instill the graduates with pieces of advice from attending a veterans event to taking risks.
"Remember comfortable is boring. Comfortable is lazy. Comfortable is no way to go through life," Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich told the graduates he hoped they would have many friends in life, that they would be cautious of jealousy and insecurity that they would face and to use good life sense to make decisions.
"All of you know now that what you need to succeed," he said.
The former governor's last piece of advice to the 22 young adults was balance.
"You can have it all in life," Ehrlich said. "You can, but only with balance."
And Ehrlich had a special piece of advice for graduate Blake Bissen, who served as the student government president. Ehrlich joked that Bissen had no future in Congress as Bissen left the student government with a surplus.
Bissen said he liked the joke, saying it was incredible and that he hoped to have a chance to talk with the former governor.
Incredible was also how he described winning what Gerstell President Lorraine Fulton called the most coveted award at Gerstell. Bissen was awarded the Norm Smith Leadership Award.
"It was incredible. It's really a blessing," Bissen said.
Bissen will be attending University of Maryland, College Park as part of its art scholar program where he'll be studying architecture, he said.
"I'm excited for the independence and the opportunity to prove myself," Bissen said.
Also honored at the graduation were Taylor Hodge, who will attend High Point University, and Polina Yashnyk, who will attend Loyola University.
Hodge received the first-ever Christopher A. Poklemba Scholarship Award. The award was presented Friday in honor of Poklemba, who is stepping down after serving as the school's athletic director since 2004.
Yashnyk received the Gary E. Slyman Leadership Scholar Award. She was also the recipient of the History Department Award, the Leadership Department Award and a finalist for the Norm Smith Leadership Award.