Commencement Address from Nicole Rychagov

Salutatorian of the Class of 2019

Good afternoon graduates, families, friends, faculty, and everyone else joining us at this esteemed event today. I feel honored, standing here up on this stage at our graduation ceremony—the culmination of the journey these long four years have been for me and my peers. I came to Cape Henry five years ago and joined the 8th grade class; until then, I had switched schools every two years—staying long enough to make friends but never truly make a permanent place for myself or have an impact on others. I came with my “toolbox” of skills ill-equipped for the challenges I faced, yet I was nevertheless eager to learn more.

Here at Cape Henry, I was provided not only with a rigorous curriculum, but I could adapt it to my needs taking three science classes every year; continuing my advanced path in math; and challenging myself with the most advanced honors and AP classes. For that reason, I would like to personally thank Cape Henry for providing me with such opportunities and especially, I would like to thank the teachers. I don’t know if you will remember each of us years from now, but I know that we will definitely remember each and every one of you. You have not only taught us the required curriculum, but you have taught us how to write passionately, how to think critically, how to observe and analyze the world around us, and so much more. This has provided us with an essential foundation above which each of us can build. I know this as I have experienced it myself while attending a research summer camp in Italy last summer; despite knowing nothing about computer programing and neural networks, the foundation in biology, mathematics, and physics I learned in class helped me contribute in creating a neural network that aided in understanding pediatric cancer. Our teachers from Cape Henry have given us these skills and essential knowledge. For that reason, I—on behalf of the class of 2019—would like to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your talent, time, patience, and personal attention you invested in us without expecting something in return.

At the same time, I would like to say thank you to my parents for your constant support. It was because of you that I learned to persevere by looking at my long-term goals and not focusing on day to day disappointments. Thank you for teaching me to be independent and inspiring me to believe in myself; it was only because of you that I got through the college application process and applied to Harvard. To my mom, thank you for teaching me to love learning, and particularly for showing me the beauty of mathematics. To my dad, thank you for your sense of humor that helped me get through the challenges and focus on my goals. Let us give a round of applause for our parents.

Cape Henry has also given us so many more lessons that we should apply to our lives outside of the classroom. Cape Henry has taught us that one mistake is never the end—and that learning from our mistakes is the only way one can progress and persevere through life. Cape Henry taught us to never veer away from a good debate. If I learned anything in International Relations this year it would be that one’s own different personal opinion has merit and that others can never strip you from your voice. Cape Henry has taught us that a person has to work in a way so that he or she is respected by others, never finishing something only to expect recognition for his or her accomplishments. After all, just like Madisen had said at the awards assembly, “Don’t let a lack of recognition deter you from becoming a better you.”

We live in a world where there are many challenges which we will face, but we don’t need to be superheroes to make a difference. Instead, every person can inspire change in others in some way. Just like Mrs. Self helped me find my unique voice in writing, or Mrs. Gregory showed me the amazing world of chemistry, or Mr. Cofer inspired me not to give up on my passion for environmental activism, every teacher has made a difference in our lives in some way. So, as we now move onto the next chapter of our lives, it is our responsibility to become the best version of ourselves and make a difference in the world we live in. Ultimately, we have received many tools we need to take action, and in college, we will gain many more. But it is now only our choice that can spur us to accomplish what we might have only dreamed of before—and we should never be afraid of the challenge. After all, no change happens automatically. Instead, we will have to work towards the future we want to see. And that’s hard, understandably, and the failure we will face as we strive towards something and are pushed back will inevitably hurt and demoralize us. But we should not allow this to dissuade us. Just like winning a state championship can only be accomplished through believing your individual contribution to the team makes a difference, or how winning a math competition relies on utilizing your knowledge to the best of your abilities, it is our confidence in the foundation we have developed over our lives that lets us persevere through these challenges.

So now, as we are each going to so many different and unique colleges, we should seek to not only learn skills for a day-to-day job, but for a career with which we will make a difference and change the world. In our world, we are not only facing the everyday struggles of life, but also many other monumental issues. Personally, climate change is what I believe us youth should focus on preventing. From the greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere to the millions of metric tons of plastic that enters the ocean, our actions are permanently hurting the environment. Ultimately, there are so many avenues for individuals to make an impact. Whether you will help the earth by living sustainably through using a hybrid or electric car, recycling, or just not using plastic straws—you are helping protect the only place we have to live: Earth.

Furthermore, there are so many other opportunities to help the global community. Whether you will help give a voice to the poor and disadvantaged; or if you will teach the next generation; if you will save lives as a medical practitioner; if you will invent the cure for cancer; or if you will help prevent the next military intervention—every single person can make a difference in the world. Everyone can contribute their energy and knowledge to make the world a better place for all of us. And if you don’t yet know what your passion is or how you will fit into the global picture, let your experiences at Cape Henry teach you to never give up and find what your passion is.

When we gather here again for our class reunion after 10 or 20 years, let us count the lives we have touched with our talent rather the number of cars we have. We shouldn’t consider the size of our houses, but rather the type of person we have become. Rather than evaluate our happiness in life through the materialistic standards, let us change our measure of success to the happiness, achievement, and ultimately the impact we have had on others so that we can make the world a better place. Thank you, and congratulations to the class of 2019!