Carlos Urtecho, 17, a senior at Mount Hebron High School, was thrilled to graduate this week, but the biggest highlight of his young academic career occurred last month during the annual Conexiones convocation ceremony at Howard High School.
Urtecho, one of 56 Hispanic students honored at the event, received scholarship money, a certificate of achievement, and - most important - individual recognition for completing his high school career.
"It's very good for Hispanic students to get representation in Howard County," he said. "It's ... something that will, hopefully, continue throughout the years."
Although 3,468 students at 11 county high schools graduated this week - only the new Marriotts Ridge High School had no senior class this year - many students such as Urtecho were honored by specific groups throughout last month.
And whether it was walking down the red carpet at Long Reach High School, or receiving a medallion for African-American student achievement, these smaller celebrations were a chance for students - many of whom would not receive recognition at larger graduations - to get individual accolades.
"For some kids it is the only form of recognition they receive other than the graduation ceremony," said Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.
Conexiones, a community group that promotes Hispanic education in the county, started its annual convocation five years ago.
"We started because we found that the names of Hispanic students were almost invisible from the students receiving awards [at graduation]," said Murray Simon, president of Conexiones.
"As an ethnic group, the Hispanic students are at the bottom of the academic ladder," Simon said. "These students [graduating seniors] are role models for the other Hispanic students at risk."
Every student honored at the convocation was awarded a scholarship of $50 to $150, certificates of achievement and tickets to the Columbia Orchestra.
Urtecho, who plans to attend George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., in the fall and study government and politics, said it is difficult for foreign-born Hispanic students to achieve academically.
"When we move to a different country we have to learn a new language and values, and it is very hard," said Urtecho, who moved to the United States from Peru in 2001. "The transition period is hard for every student. It is important to recognize students who have overcome adversity."
Teachers at Long Reach High School literally rolled out the red carpet last month for 163 seniors who achieved a 3.0 grade point average. The school also rented a new, white stretch limousine for the students to pose with.
Diane McAllister, a resource teacher for Gifted and Talented program students and one of the organizers, said it was the first time for the event, which she plans to continue.
"They came dressed to kill," McAllister said. "They wore prom dresses, boys were dressed in their suits. There were a lot of parents taking pictures."
The event was sponsored by the Long Reach Renaissance program, which began this school year. The program rewards students for academic excellence and good behavior. Rewards can be as small as a class getting candy for perfect attendance and as large as the red carpet event.
McAllister said many students had never received this type of attention for academic achievements.
"They are expected to do well," she said. "They have never been recognized this way. ... We tried to do the red carpet like the Academy Awards, they were like, 'Here, take a picture of me.'"
Students enjoyed finger foods, cake and punch and also gained admission to the Senior Spotlight, an event that featured a variety of entertainment and honored students who obtained a 4.0 grade point average.
"They [students] were very honored," McAllister said. "There were a couple of kids who just made a 3.0, and this was a highlight of their career."
For the past 19 years, the Council of Elders of the Black Community of Howard County, has sponsored Celebration of Excellence, a ceremony honoring African-American seniors with a 3.0 cumulative grade point average. Last month, a record 194 students were honored during a celebration at Oakland Mills High School.
Natalie Woodson, education chairperson for the council, said the ceremony was started to encourage students who were not putting forth effort and who were disengaged in school.
"We wanted them to focus on doing well academically," Woodson said. "Recognizing the accomplishments of the students is critical."
Woodson said the 194 honored students accounted for about a third of the graduating African-American seniors in the county. The students each were given a scroll and a medallion and allowed a minute to tell the audience about themselves and their future plans.
Brittany Harris, 17, of Oakland Mills High School received the Sankofa award, given to students who have exemplified outstanding qualities inside the classroom and in the community.
Harris, who mentored pupils at Stevens Forest Elementary School and helped minority students fill out college applications, plans to attend Spelman College in Atlanta and study biology.
"People have expectations for certain types of students," said the Columbia resident. "Just to see that students have achieved despite those stereotypes is important. Some people are kind of overlooked. It is important to recognize all groups."
Jackie Holloway, Harris' mother, said the ceremony was moving.
"It praises the students, which gives the students a sense that someone really cares," she said. "It shows that they are appreciated and thought of."
Cousin said his 31-year-old son, Sydney, who is going to receive his medical degree and Ph.D from the University of Washington this weekend, still displays the medallion he received from the Council of Black Elders.
"That was very important to him at the time, and he still keeps it as a memento of the occasion when he received it," Cousin said.