It was bittersweet.
“We’re all decked out in our matching polyester gowns. We’re anxious to walk across the stage and receive our diplomas,” said Sara Hillstrom, a graduating senior at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School. “We’ve studied hard, procrastinated a lot, but more importantly, we’ve done it together.”
Hillstrom, who plans to attend the University of Notre Dame, and 50 other graduates gathered in the Bradenton Municipal Auditorium downtown for the school’s 40th commencement Friday night.
More than half of the senior class will be attending schools outside of Florida and across the country, said Head of School Jan Pullen.
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“Ever since fifth grade, we’ve been waiting for this day and it never seemed like it would come, but now it’s here. We’re all nervous and freaking out, but overall really excited,” said Jeremy Thompson, of Sarasota, who plans to attend the University of Denver. “The biggest thing I’ll miss is everyone. It’s such a small school. Everyone is so close. I’ll miss every one of my classmates.”
Pullen said one-fifth of the graduates were accepted to some of the most highly selective schools in the nation. More then 50 percent of the senior class earned merit-based scholarships, she said, which totaled an estimated $3 million.
“They are a great class — an exceptional group. They are very focused and excited about going to college. Tonight is their night,” Pullen said.
Each year, the school has a tradition of showcasing the school’s youngest students in the pre-K program who are paired up with seniors by having them sing a song to seniors as a way to say goodbye.
This year, the school’s pre-K students, also known as Falcon Fledglings, performed “I’ll Be There.”
The school also looks ahead by having a alumna from 10 years ago come to offer words of advice and encouragement.
Sara Glendening, an actor who graduated in 2000, told the new graduates their experience at Saint Stephen’s would stay with them forever and help prepare them for whatever path they chose to take.
“You’re a part of this,” she said. “I mean that. It’s like a sibling relationship — unless you’ve made out or something. ... Just know, no matter how far you get, Saint Stephen’s owns you — and now that you’re graduating — you own them right back.”