"I have learned that I still have a lot to learn," a beaming Nazairah Hines, 16, told her fellow classmates and their relatives and friends Friday morning.
The youngest in her class and the mother of a 1-year-old daughter, Nazairah pushed herself to graduate from the Center for Educational Opportunity a year early.
The "amazing young lady," as CEO Principal Kilo Mack called Nazairah, was one of 21 graduates from Harford County's alternative education program at the Aberdeen school on Friday.
In her speech to the class of 2015 and their friends and relatives, Nazairah mentioned her father as a model for how to rise to a challenge.
"At the age of 11, my dad was no longer a kid. He was already a man, the man, who took care of his brothers and sisters," she said. "I learned you have to be responsible; you have to grow up."
Everyone, she said, "has a story" and has "struggles in their life," but they can overcome their history and the bad reputation of their circumstances.
"The CEO has a reputation where people ask, 'What did you do to get here?'" she noted, adding its students have to "try twice as hard" to shake off the "negative connotations" of a CEO education.
"I don't look for pity. I aspire for people to feel proud of me," she said.
Her classmates faced hardships that include racial profiling, hypocrisy and "pretenders," Hines said, but "the time to wake up is now. This is not the finish line but the beginning of our future."
The new graduates, dressed in red and white caps and gowns, proudly waved their diplomas from the stage as those in the audience cheered.
"It feels awesome," Jaiden Robinson said after the ceremony. He plans to study engineering at Harford Community College.
Regarding school, Jaiden said he learned "that you will get through it, that when it's time for you to shine, you will shine."
Sheldon Branch was also smiling about high school being "all over" and said he is ready to head off "to the real world."
He also wants to go to Harford Community College but hasn't picked a career path yet.
Paul Durbin III isn't sure what he might go next, noting he "might go to college." Nevertheless, he is glad graduation day finally arrived.
"It's a happy feeling," he said, adding school had taught him "to not wait, to keep on working hard."
James Thornton, a county school board member, told the students they are "special" because they persevered and overcame their personal obstacles.
He encouraged them to help the less fortunate, give back to their community, visit the elderly and give back in other ways to the world around them.
"You have an obligation as you move beyond the walls of this institution," he said, quoting Morehouse College's Benjamin Mays that "the tragedy of life does not lie in not reaching your goals; the tragedy lies in not having any goals to reach."
Carol Frontera, of the Albert P. Close Foundation, gave the class some advice she tells her children when they leave for school: "Make good choices and do great things."
Several students – Azureat Seaborn-Pitts, Samantha Jackson, Taishea Johnson and Nicholas Miller – received scholarships distributed by school counselor Michelle Kozak.
Kozak said all of the students "overcome obstacles that are profound" and are still working to reach their goals.
"We have some students who are stretching to move on to good, better and great things," she said.