ST. CROIX — The stories began the same for most of them. Traditional students who encountered one challenging circumstance or another that prevented them from completing high school. While their stories may all end differently, Thursday night, the members of the Adult Continuing Education Program walked across the stage at St. Croix Educational Complex either having earned their high school diploma or their General Education Diploma.

Surrounded by energetic friends, family and well-wishers, the members of the Class of 2019 beamed with pride.

Class salutatorian Kenisha Henderson said she was excited about graduating with distinction in her class, noting that it has been a long hard road from her initial planned graduation year in 2003 to Thursday night.

“I became a mom in 9th grade at the age of 16 and everything just changed from then,” she said. “I stopped going to school so that I could care for my daughter and then I began working and going to night school on and off over the years, but never completed” high school.

Henderson said she has since had three daughters and has stressed the importance of education to them all. On Wednesday, her first born graduated from St. Croix Central High School and she said that made her proud.

“There came a point where I realized that if I’m telling them that education is important, I have to buckle down, get serious and finish mine,” she said. “It was hard with me working, going to school and raising my girls, but I had a great support system and I believe it is all going to be worth it in the end. It is never too late.”

Henderson has plans to attend the University of the Virgin Islands to major in criminal justice and hopes to pursue a career as a forensic technician.

Valedictorian Daisy Sanchez’s story mirrors Henderson’s

“For most of us this took a lot of hard work, but we did it despite the obstacles in our way,” she said. “It was always most important for me to be an inspiration to my children. It was never important how long it took me to finish, the only thing that was important was that I did my best and that I completed.”

Sanchez worked full time and that caused her to be late to class many nights, but she always showed up, and the hard work paid off, she said.

Adult Education Principal Avion James encouraged graduates to not only enjoy the accomplishment but to also reflect on the hard work that it required. And she added that they are entering another phase in their lives where they will pledge to be and do more.

Education Commissioner designee Racquel Berry-Benjamin told the graduates that she attended an adult secondary program years ago and earned a GED. She said it took dedication and commitment, but she worked her way up through the ranks of the Education Department and is living proof that hard work pays off.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., told the graduates to not allow anyone to put labels on them based on their youth or their abilities. He applauded them for the sacrifices they have made, the struggles they have overcome and the success he knows that is in their future.

Bryan said as the territory continues to recover from the hurricanes of 2017, there are billions of dollars in recovery money coming into the territory.

“As we use these billions in federal dollars to build a stronger Virgin Islands, many people are coming to get a piece of the action. You are already here. Make sure you take out your knife so you can get a piece too,” he said.

Keynote speaker Dr. Oneida Granger compared the graduates to a vehicle that needs the right type of fuel to keep functioning at its best. She said their education is the key to them running their lives efficiently, adding that they can be more than conquerors by believing in themselves.