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Graduation 2015: For photos, stories and more from graduations around the county go here

One of the main lessons Maria Carrillo High School senior Owen Welch took away from his high school career: “Fitting in is highly overrated.” So, he told his fellow graduates during his speech at Friday night’s commencement ceremony, “Pursue what you — not society, not your parents, not your friends, but Y-O-U — you want to do.”

He urged his classmates to “remember you are capable of achieving your dreams and don’t let anyone or anything stop you.”

His fellow senior Anna Carr embraced that spirit this spring when she coordinated an effort to have seniors decorate their gowns — black for the boys and green for the girls — with cancer awareness ribbons.

Carr said she wanted to do something to make a difference at the school while honoring her mom, who died of breast cancer in 2013. She chose the ribbons because “everyone has been affected” by cancer.

Principal Rand Van Dyke said the school’s ceremony is generally very traditional and this is the first time in his 12 years at the school that the administration has approved an alteration to students’ gowns. In order to get the OK from faculty, Carr first had to get more than 80 percent of her graduating class on board. She did so, and on Friday night many students wore the colorful ribbons in honor of loved ones.

“It’s about so much more than a ribbon,” Carr said. “It is symbolic of so many who can’t be there.”

Goodwill and high hopes permeated the air around Sonoma County on Friday night as the bulk of the county’s high school districts held ceremonies. That included Santa Rosa City Schools, Petaluma City Schools, Cotati- Rohnert Park Unified, Sonoma Valley Unified, Healdsburg Unified and Cloverdale Unified, in addition to the private Sonoma Academy.

Countywide, more than 4,500 students are set to graduate this year.

Thursday evening, about 475 students at Analy, El Molino and Laguna high schools in west Sonoma County walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. Roseland University Prep, Windsor High School and Cardinal Newman High School held their commencement ceremonies even earlier.

The theme of honoring those who could not be there carried beyond Maria Carrillo. Across town at Elsie Allen High, students remembered a beloved member of the school community, teacher Richard Conley, who died of cancer this winter. Two students gave a speech in his memory, Vice Principal Andy Lieberman said.

Students also will take home a memory of Conley in their graduation programs — a letter he wrote to students before he died.

“We leave our dreams behind, dissolved in the oblivion of memory’s dust, yet new ones appear in the constellation of our hope,” his letter read. “Pick a star, any star, and know that it shines for you. For the blazing path it embarked on eons ago welcomes you to your waiting destiny.”

Those words, touching on life’s fleeting nature, were echoed in graduation speeches, including that of Piner High School’s valedictorian Julissa Camacho, who urged her classmates to “seize the day.”

Numerous principals, meanwhile, paid tribute to what they learned from their students. Montgomery High School Principal Laurie Fong quoted the advice her students had given to one another: “You say to remember that generations before you want you to succeed. Appreciate everything. Start each day with an open heart and be kind to everyone. Make your family proud.”

Van Dyke paid homage to his students at Maria Carrillo with a quote from author Tom Robbins: “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious and immature.” He then said, “I see our society making great strides with your leadership! And I say that with love because I love the rebellious, I love the immature, and I love the playful we all share together.”

Piner High School Principal Sally Bimrose told her students she was graduating with them, in a sense, as she prepared to retire after five years leading the school.

Many graduation ceremonies celebrated the diversity of their campuses.

Students at Montgomery welcomed their audience in seven different languages to highlight the International Baccalaureate program. At Elsie Allen, the welcome was said in 10 different languages spoken by its students.

Earlier Friday, 146 seniors at Ridgway High earned their diplomas and applause from family and friends, kicking off the day of celebration.

The grads — constituting the second-largest class in the continuation school’s history — wore royal blue caps and gowns and, in keeping with school tradition, presented a unique version of student speeches. Seven grads together shared a series of brief thoughts from all the students, anonymously compiled with the help of teachers in the days leading up to the ceremony.

Students reflected back on the first day at Ridgway: “Who am I going to eat lunch with?” They acknowledged school wasn’t always first priority: “I stayed (at Ridgway) to go to Disneyland.” They spoke of goals for further education and for careers “to make my parents proud.” And they reflected on what they wanted for their lives: “What’s important is a question I can’t yet answer.”

Graduate Carla Loyola, who was presented with three scholarships Friday, plans to go next to Santa Rosa Junior College to study phlebotomy.

She said of the graduation ceremony, “I’ve been waiting for this for years.”

Staff Writer Robert Digitale contributed to this report. Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@jamiehansen.

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