By Brandy Cruz

Sentinel News Editor

More than 2,000 Killeen Independent School District graduates put on their cap and gown throughout the weekend, recalling the 13-year journey that brought them to this moment. Instead of heading to the Bell County Expo, however, they watched graduation from the comfort of their homes. In a historic first for KISD, 2,377 seniors in the Class of 2020 graduated virtually.

In an emotional message about over-achievement and equality, Shoemaker High School’s valedictorian Julianna Landez encouraged her classmates to not “shrink” themselves to fit into anyone’s pre-defined spaces.

“According to the statistics, I am not supposed to be here – a Hispanic girl with a single mom is not supposed to be here,” Landez said about being valedictorian. “Be a woman, or man, black, Hispanic, gay or transgender, in a space that’s not welcome. Do not shrink yourself.”

Watching Landez’s pre-recorded message during the SHS virtual graduation, Sunday, Di’Mond Grant said she felt the emotion during the valedictorian speech. Grant, the daughter of Melissa Grant and Sgt. 1st Class Mitchel Grant, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 91st Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, is also fellow over-achiever, who graduated with honors, while also taking courses to complete a teaching program at the KISD Career Center. With a single class left to complete her certification, she said she wants to teach early child development.

“I think the first five years of a child’s life are important because that’s when they learn their habits and that’s when their brain grows the fastest,” she said. “I want to enforce positivity.”

Before beginning her teaching career, however, the new graduate will be joining the National Guard and continuing her education, which she said her parents have always instilled in her.

Among the many KISD graduates heading into the military, five students have been accepted into military academies. Kaleb Luna and Cherith Hicks from Ellison High School will be attending West Point, along with Harker Heights High School graduate Devon Smith; Early College High School graduate Adamari Rios Salgado will be attending the Air Force Academy; and Riley Perry from HHHS will be attending the Naval Academy.

In a message filmed at the Headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad, Iraq, Lt. Gen. Pat White and Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Hendrex, the III Corps and Fort Hood command team, wished the graduates well in their future endeavors.

“We know this is a big milestone in your life. Four years of hard work and no one thought you would celebrate it under these conditions,” Hendrex said. “We just wanted to let you know, we see you, we believe in you and to the future defenders of freedom, congratulations, good luck and God bless.”

While she isn’t joining the military, HHHS graduate Brittney Owen will also be continuing her education, as she wants to be an emergency room registered nurse. Owen is the daughter of Weleta Steinebach and Sgt. Derrik Steinebach, 2nd Bn., 8th Cav. Regt., 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div., who will be doing a permanent change of station this summer, to Michigan, where Owen will be attending college. Her parents hosted a small graduation party for her, Saturday, during the HHHS virtual graduation, complete with red, silver and black decorations.

Like many of her classmates and other students within KISD, she wishes she could walk the stage, and said she will, if a stage graduation is conducted at a later date.

“It is what it is,” the 17-year old said. “It’s life – you kind of just have to expect the unexpected.”

During his message to the graduating Class of 2020, Dr. John Craft, superintendent of KISD, said the social distancing requirements and shelter in place orders caused the district to pivot from the traditional plans.

“Do not allow it to hinder the memories you’ve created,” Craft told the graduates. “Regardless of how this ceremony is being conducted at this time, this is a very special moment for our graduating Class of 2020.”

Taina Maya, the communications director of KISD, said that during the early stages of the social distancing orders, they began to look at any possible way they could conduct a graduation. Due to seniors heading into the military, heading to colleges out of state and a multitude of other reasons they may need their diplomas sooner rather than later, a virtual graduation was deemed the best alternative. Maya said every detail of the virtual graduation was prepared with care and effort to celebrate the momentous milestone.

“While nothing will ever replace our traditional commencement ceremonies, we hope our graduates and their families enjoyed their virtual ceremonies, celebrating their achievement and hard work,” she said. “I was captivated by the various watch parties and celebrations individual families hosted for their graduate as I scrolled through social media.”

Rather than delay, the virtual graduation proceeded, while a traditional ceremony, contingent on Governor Gregory Abbott’s directives, is expected to take place on July 20-22 at the Bell County Expo.

With a prom dress hanging in her closet “collecting dust,” a reminder of everything she missed out on during her senior year, Grant said she remains positive because, despite all the negative things, COVID-19 has allowed her family to reconnect.

“This time has brought us closer together – it just reconnected us as a family,” she said. “I think this is a blessing in disguise because it has allowed us to appreciate our families so much more.”