The Class of 2017 erupted in cheers during the final moments of the Grand County High School commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 25. [Photo by Murice D. Miller / Moab Sun News]

As the sun set behind the Moab Rim and the clouds cleared, friends and family members of the Class of 2017’s expected 106 graduates gathered last week around the stage on the north lawn of Grand County High School.

Children laughed and played in the grass, grandparents ate popcorn in their lawn chairs and the 2017 graduates prepared for their march down the aisle on Thursday, May 25, and into their future.

“I’m excited to see new things and meet new people,” co-salutatorian Sarah Christina Day said. “I’m also excited to experience a larger city, (but) I will miss the beautiful sunsets, the mountains and the close-knit community that you can’t find anywhere else.”

The Grand County High School Band kicked off the ceremony with a performance of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Student Body President Alexa Celeste Pierce gave the welcome address, which was followed by the senior choir’s selection of “Lean on Me.” Day and fellow co-salutatorian Bjorn Peter Nicolaisen delivered the salutatory address, and valedictorian Jayelen Alice Knowles engaged the audience and encouraged her fellow classmates to “take on the world.”

Paying tribute to a petition her class once initiated at Helen M. Knight Elementary School, Knowles rallied, “We demonstrated that we aren’t afraid to try for the things we want in life. Don’t wait for someone else to take the lead. Channel your inner 11-year-old, where four-square was the extent of your cares, and apply that to the challenges you will face.”

Senior Class President Ariahna Groesbeck introduced special commencement speakers and former teachers Ryan and Jeni Hand – the former of whom cautioned that he thinks the world has a “severe empathy problem.”

“It unfortunately seems that we are becoming (increasingly) polarized, set in our ways, turning down the volume on anyone’s voice that differs from our own,” Ryan Hand said. “Perhaps you’ve noticed it within your own life – if you like hiking or mountain biking, but the sound of a motor makes you cringe. I think deep down, everyone can appreciate why someone else likes those things. I guess what I’m trying to say is that too often as we age, we let our differences define us and forget about everything we have in common. We are all not that different. We all drink the same water and our trash goes to the same dump. And, no matter where you go, that will remain true.”

“As you venture into the world, you will continue to meet people from very diverse backgrounds and may have to work at finding commonalities, but if you try, you will find them,” he added. “I’ve found in life that laughter can unite the segregated. Looking around at your fellow classmates, you may not call every single one of them your friends now, but I bet you can remember a time when you shared a laugh or a smile.”

According to the Red Devils’ Directory, the majority of this year’s graduates will advance to two- or four-year colleges and universities, including the University of San Diego, Brigham Young University and the U.S. Naval Academy. Forty-two graduates will continue their studies in Utah, including six at Dixie State University, six at Snow College and six at the University of Utah.

Nicolaisen belongs to the latter group of students: He was also accepted to the Colorado School of Mines, but he chose to attend U of U because of its affordable tuition.

He is interested in studying either product design/engineering or earth sciences such as geology and meteorology.

“I am also interested in pursuing mathematics, which could manifest in either of those majors,” he said. “After college, I would either use my product design skills to develop new outdoor gear or study climate change and weather patterns.”

Six graduates will stay in Moab and attend Utah State University-Moab’s campus, six will embark on an LDS mission in Africa, one will take a gap year and a few intend to move elsewhere to explore their options for the future.

Ryan Hand left each of them with one last challenge – and it has nothing to do with math, he said, before he corrected himself.

“Well, maybe some probability, as you go out and strive to become great at something, never lose your ability to laugh, especially at yourself, but also strive to be great at being am empathic person,” he said. “Always remember to look at life from the other person’s point of view. It takes work but it will teach you more about your cohabitants than any degree or any one person possibly can.”

Hand continued, acknowledging recent tragedies in Moab and dubbing life as “fragile,” “precious” and “finite.”

He ended his speech quoting a friend and retired teacher, who said, “Always point positive.”

“It’s a simple thing to remember while you navigate the river in order to alert people of the correct path,” Hand said. “If you are the lead boat and spot an obstruction, you alert those behind you by pointing in the direction they should go – not at the obstruction.”

Metaphorically, as a life philosophy, it is perhaps more important, he said.

“If you choose to dwell on the negative obstacles, you will probably get stressed, frustrated and run right into them,” he said. “However, if you look toward the clean water and focus hard on the objective, you’ll have a much better chance at success. (Occasionally), you’re going to get through a rough section, celebrate too early, fall out of your boat and get pulled back in.”

“But what do you do?” he asked. “You keep on paddling.”

GCHS Class of 2017 looks to the future

We demonstrated that we aren’t afraid to try for the things we want in life. Don’t wait for someone else to take the lead. Channel your inner 11-year-old, where four-square was the extent of your cares, and apply that to the challenges you will face.