As hundreds of soon-to-be graduates sat patiently, anticipating the awarding of diplomas and tossing of caps, their valedictorian posed a question from the podium:

“Are you ready for the next chapter of your life? Truthfully, no. None of us are,” Avyutka Nagrath said. “At the end of the day, we are a group of 17- and 18-year-olds leaving home and experiencing true independence for the first times in our lives. That begs another question: Should we be scared?”

For a young man who earned top academic honors in the Pine-Richland High School Class of 2024, his own answer in the affirmative may come as a surprise. But he framed it in a constructive manner:

“Accept the fear. No! Scratch that. Embrace the fear. If you’re not scared, chances are you’re not aiming high enough. So take that risk. Follow that dream and pursue that passion that makes you uniquely you.”

Nagrath was among several student speakers who offered enlightenment, encouragement and quite a bit of insight during the June 7 commencement at Pine-Richland Stadium, which began with Principal Frank Hernandez providing a lengthy list of high school accomplishments throughout 2023-24.

“This group of students is leaving an incredibly positive influence behind,” he said about the seniors, “as they led by example in all aspects of our school experience.”

Those who spoke at commencement continued to impress in that regard.

Salutatorian Eunice Son shared her experience of moving from South Korea as a seventh grader and attending Pine-Richland Middle School.

“I felt hopeless and isolated, and I did not have any self-confidence. However, I quickly realized that this place was where I could see myself fitting in and growing up,” she recalled. “Many of my peers taught me how to make somebody else’s day and always treat others with kindness, even when your day hasn’t been so great.”

She complimented her teachers, as well:

“Without their guidance, I wouldn’t have learned the patience, dedication and academic enthusiasm that I have today.”

Annie Wu, named tertiary as third in the class, talked about rebounding from a state of unhappiness.

“I had been adhering to a specific version of success, which was to have the highest grades in the hardest classes, to get into a good college,” she said. “For this version of success, I forgot who I was as a human being. I forgot that I loved to read, to look at the stars and to pet my dog.”

To her classmates, she offered:

“I have no real advice for future success, except that I hope you pursue your own dream, not what you believe is the right dream. Take a leap of faith and chase something that genuinely excites you. Put yourself out there and be known, so that others may have the wonderful experience of getting to know you.”

Aman Guruacharya, senior class co-president, explored a similar theme with the question: “What makes you happy, and who do you truly want to be?”

“Class of 2024, I want to emphasize the importance of staying true to yourself. Don’t let others’ expectations run your life. Do what makes you happy, and don’t let the fear of what others think limit your potential,” he said. “Create your own path. Follow your own passions, your own goals and ultimately, build your own legacy.

“Life’s too short to live someone else’s dream. So just be yourself.”

A quote from the “Love Yourz” by rapper J. Cole was cited by Shiv Rao, student government vice president: “No such thing as a life that’s better than yours.”

“All of us have our ups and downs, but it is vital that we stay positive in these moments and we appreciate the life that we have,” Rao said. “Life can get hard, but don’t forget to laugh every once in a while.”

Grant Waltrip, student government president, gave the farewell address. He mentioned the contents of his first-grade class’ time capsule, in which a letter from his parents referred to him as “strong-willed,” which he considers to be an attribute.

“We have endured so many hardships throughout our years and worked hard to get where we are today. I hope you all embrace your inner stubbornness as you work toward your goals,” he told his classmates. “Life isn’t about never making mistakes. It’s about getting up and learning from those mistakes on your path to success.

“As we move forward, let’s remember the lessons we’ve learned both inside and outside the classroom. These experiences have made us who we are, and our stubbornness will take us where we want to go.”

Harry Funk is a TribLive news editor, specifically serving as editor of the Hampton, North Allegheny, North Hills, Pine Creek and Bethel Park journals. A professional journalist since 1985, he joined TribLive in 2022. You can contact Harry at hfunk@triblive.com.