Randy Gill, of Forest Hill, was ecstatic as he watched Alissa, his 17-year-old daughter, cross the stage Wednesday afternoon during the Bel Air High School commencement ceremony. The proud father called out for her to stop so he could take a picture of her with her diploma as she went back to her seat.
Alissa is one of 421 members of Bel Air High School's Class of 2015, who were celebrated during the school's annual commencement ceremony in the APG Federal Credit Union Arena at Harford Community College.
Randy Gill snapped a photo with his smartphone from the arena stands as Alissa smiled and posed with her diploma.
Gill said later that she is the fourth of his five children to graduate from high school.
"I want her to go further in life than her father did, than her mother did," he said, noting that he and his wife, Dawn, did not finish college. "I want her to graduate and get a degree, and I want her to be successful in life."
Dawn Gill said her daughter plans to study communications at HCC.
"I'm just really proud of her," Dawn Gill said of Alissa. "She's a really good kid."
Alissa and her fellow graduates heard words of wisdom from elected and appointed officials, including Board of Education member Alysson Krchnavy, state Sen. Bob Cassilly, Del. Kathy Szeliga, County Executive Barry Glassman and County Councilman Jim McMahan.
"Today is all about you, all about you, but tomorrow, when you wake up, it's going to be time for you to move on and get over yourselves," Krchnavy, whose daughter, Madison, is part of Bel Air's Class of 2015, said.
She noted the graduates are special people, but they must be focused on preparing for the next phases of their lives. Krchnavy also praised the faculty and staff of Bel Air High School.
"You serve this community, and you bless us with your time and your dedication and your skills that make Harford County Public Schools absolutely amazing," she said.
Cassilly, a Bel Air High graduate who was deployed to Iraq three times between 2006 and 2010 as an Army reservist and then as a civilian employee with the State Department, shared a story of when an Iraqi provincial governor asked him for assistance holding final exams for graduating high school seniors.
Cassilly said he was surprised at the request, considering the deteriorating security and ongoing violence plaguing the country, but then he considered the importance of providing the infrastructure and safety to educate a nation's population.
He said any other national achievements are "meaningless if you're not prepared for the future."
"Please go forth and do great things, because, ladies and gentlemen, America needs you very much right now," Cassilly said.
Principal Gregory Komondor also praised the faculty, staff and custodians for their support of the school and the students.
"I consider it an honor to work with you each and every day," he said.
Four students, including Damali Egyen-Davis, Natalie Phillips, Andrew Visconti, president of the senior class, and valedictorian Sarah Ermatinger, also shared words of wisdom.
Egyen-Davis talked about the fears she and her classmates could have about their futures.
"My ultimate goal for this speech was to ease all of our anxieties by reminding you that your paths to this moment are valid, to celebrate that you've come to this moment and also to remind you that your dreams for the future are valid, too," she said.
Phillips talked about the "peaks and valleys" she and her classmates have experienced at BAHS, the lowest points being the sudden deaths of teachers and students in recent months.
The school was rocked by the deaths of juniors Marvin Hernandez and Ryan Harris, who were both 16 years old, in a car accident in October of 2014, as well as the death of lacrosse coach and social studies teacher John "Scoop" Kelly, in February of 2014.
"Through all of this, the most important thing you can remember is to stay humble during the peaks and stay hopeful during the valleys, to appreciate when things go right and to persevere when things go wrong," Phillips said.
Ermatinger noted Egyen-Davis was also in the running for valedictorian.
"She put in a lot of hard work and dedication, and deserves to be up here as much as I do, and I believe she should be recognized for that," Ermatinger said to cheers and applause.
The valedictorian stressed that she wanted to focus on the present, rather than the future, in her speech, because "one morning, we will wake up and wonder where all the time went when we were worrying about an uncertain future that we cannot always control."
"It is important to stop and revel in the moment and enjoy it right here and now," Ermatinger continued. "I want everyone in the senior class to forget about next year and what your plans are, and for the moment, just enjoy being here and accomplishing all that you have [so far]."
Visconti announced the senior class gift, which is two additional stations where students can refill their water bottles, rather than buy new ones and throw the old ones away to create more waste.
"The experience of high school has led me to one conclusion," he said. "If you want to do something, then do it. The only thing stopping you from achieving your goals is yourself."
Emilie Riffey, 18, of Forest Hill, hugged her family members after the ceremony. She said she plans to study social sciences at HCC next year.
"It feels good to be graduated," she said.
Her mother, Carrie, said Emilie is the second of three children to graduate from high school.
"I'm extremely proud," she said. "It's been a long time coming."
Joshua Thomas, 18, of Bel Air, will also attend HCC next year. He plans to study business management.
"I'm excited," he said. "I've finally graduated."
His aunt and godmother, Robin Ruhmel, traveled from the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania for the graduation.