The global pandemic may have spoiled prom and graduation plans for Detroit’s high school graduates. But it has given them this: the knowledge that if they can overcome the effects of the coronavirus, they can crush any obstacle.

That’s a message we heard over and over again from some of the city’s valedictorians, whose accomplishments over the last few years put them at the top of their classes.

“We will use this as motivation … to go and succeed in our postsecondary options,” said Von Elson, a graduate of Jalen Rose Leadership Academy. “We won’t just go out as any senior class. We will go out as the best senior class to ever leave high school.”

In this unusual year, which saw school buildings shut down and learning shift online to halt the spread of the virus, Chalkbeat Detroit and Detroit Public Television’s One Detroit teamed up to give valedictorians in the Detroit school district and charter schools a virtual outlet to share their messages with the community.

This project features the videotaped graduation speeches of nearly a dozen valedictorians who opted to participate. They’re a small fraction of the dozens of valedictorians named by city high schools this year, so to see a full list, scroll down.

Here are excerpts from the valedictorian messages, and their individual speeches.

Shyla Butler

Graduate, Denby High School. Plans to attend Benedict College, majoring in psychology and social work and minoring in business administration.

“To my fellow graduates, I want you all to know that we’re not just limited to the stigma and the statistics that we are labeled under. I hope that you all choose a path that makes you truly happy and brings you peace. The fact that we’re all decorated with accomplishments is just a testament to our perseverance and commitment to excellence. As we part ways, I wish you all love, strength, and happiness. You will lose some, but you will also win some. You will hurt, but you will heal. Cherish your high school experiences, friendships, teachers, and the knowledge that you have gained. One day, you will reflect on those exact memories with a smile.”

Von Elson

Graduate, Jalen Rose Leadership Academy. Plans to attend Eastern Michigan University, majoring in engineering.

“This is a moment we’ve been waiting for our whole lives, the moment to graduate. And now it’s finally here … There won’t be another senior class that goes through what we went through, which is why we will go on to bigger and better things which will prove how a virus won’t stop us from becoming great.”

Sarah Kabala

Graduate, Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine.

“Now we stand here at the end of the maze, facing an obstacle that nobody could have predicted or has ever faced before. But now, it’s our turn, Class of 2020. Soon, we’ll be out. Though some of our plans have been halted or changed, we have to remember to not let the COVID-19 steal any more of our time. We must claim back our lives and accomplish our dreams.”

Ellington King

Graduate, Renaissance High School. Plans to attend North Carolina A&T State University, majoring in finance and minoring in political science.

“None of us will ever forget how this pandemic caused an abrupt end to our senior year. Sadly, what has happened is beyond our control. However, what is within our control is our mindset and how we choose to react. While some may use this time and this summer to sulk and become lackadaisical, we must use this time as an opportunity for growth. It’s an amazing time to learn a skill, strengthen personal weaknesses, and prepare ourselves as we enter college.”

Therron Montgomery

Graduate, Cass Technical High School. Plans to attend the University of Michigan, studying computer science and music.

“I want to thank my mom for getting me this far and giving me the best life I could have asked for … I’ve had some wonderful people help guide me on my journey to this point. So, I would like to thank Principal (Lisa) Phillips, our vice principals, faculty, teachers, counselors, and of course my friends for always being there for me. Even though we can’t have a traditional graduation because of this pandemic, we are still very fortunate to have reached this milestone in our lives. With everything we’ve been through, it’ll only make us stronger.”

Davielle Randall

Graduate, Detroit College Preparatory @ Northwestern. Plans to attend Henry Ford College and pursue a career as a dentist.

“In whatever you desire to be, be productive citizens, desire to be great. Remember, you can do anything you conceive of. Believe it, do the work, you can achieve it. We’re all in this together. Educate ourselves and be the change that is needed in this world. We have shown that we are resilient, courageous, and capable of overcoming adversities, like with the coronavirus, aka COVID-19. Many of us know someone who has been afflicted with this or succumbed to it, yet we are still here.”

Stephanie Rodriguez-Vazquez

Graduate, Academy of the Americas. Plans to attend Wayne State University and study film.

“I’m sad to have to say bye to all of you and will hold every memory that I’ve made with you close to my heart. Most of us have known each other since we were little kids, and now we get to see each other graduate. When I’m older and have a house of my own, I’ll look at my high school years and will … smile. I know these last four years was stressful and scary at times, but now look at us. Now we get to go on to the next chapter of our lives.”

Alexander Smith

Graduate, Mumford High School. Plans to attend Wayne State University and major in construction management.

“First and foremost, I would like to thank God, my family, my friends, and the whole Mumford staff that supported me throughout my high school years. We have so much more to accomplish, so we can remember the lessons here at Mumford. No matter what you do and where you go, always remember this day. What feels like the end is often the beginning.”

Tahiat Tisha

Graduate, Cass Technical High School. Plans to attend University of Michigan, majoring in computer science and minoring in business.

“The word valedictorian came from a Latin word, valedicere, meaning to bid farewell. So I’m here to bid farewell to all my lovely peers to a brighter and better future. No, it wasn’t fair to us to not have a proper prom … or a full blown graduation. But we have made all these sacrifices to keep our community safe. And that’s what makes us the most unforgettable class of 2020.”

Aniyah Williams

Graduate, Renaissance High School. Plans to attend Michigan State University, studying pre-medicine.

“My next piece of advice is to not make it your goal in life to be absolutely perfect. I challenge you all to not strive for perfection, but the purpose you have in the world. My last piece of advice to you all will probably resonate with you the most during these times, and that is to not worry about your setbacks in life, but to focus on how you can come back even stronger. Yes, I know this is not the senior year you guys wanted, but let’s make the best of it. Keep setting higher goals for yourself. Come back and show everyone that you still prevailed and made something of yourself.”

Mya Wilson

Graduate, Early College of Excellence. Plans to attend Wayne State University, studying pre-medicine.

“We were born in the midst of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and now we are graduating during a pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement. It always seems as though we are being tested but through it all, we remain strong and persevere. And when you have made a bad choice, it is never too late to make a good one. Remember, you are the creator of your legacy. With that being said, let’s graduate knowing that we, the class of 2020, are stronger than we think.”

Class of 2020 Detroit Valedictorians

These are the top students who earned the valedictorian honor in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and many of the charter high schools. Is your school missing? Send us an email to

Academy of the Americas

Stephanie Rodriguez-Vazquez

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine

Nowrin Islam

Tafsia Tonmi

Sarah Kabala

Cass Technical High School

Emmanuel Hernandez

Therron Montgomery

Tahiat Tisa

Central High School

Savannah Hicks

Cody High School

Deatrianna Hawkins

Communication & Media Arts High School

Tiara Carey

Davis Aerospace Technical High School

Alisha Owens

Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School @ Northwestern

Davielle Randall

Aliyah Arnold

Denby High School

Shyla Butler

Cheyanne Robinson

Detroit International Academy for Young Women

Fabiha Siddika

Detroit School of Arts

Jaden Seldon

East English Village Preparatory Academy

Leniah Allen

Nyra Miller

Early College of Excellence

Mya Wilson

Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men

Donivan Dion’Dre Peoples

Henry Ford High School

Danyelle McCann

Jalen Rose Leadership Academy

Von Elson

Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School

Anthony Cotton

Carrington Stubblefield

Mumford High School

Alexander Smith

Osborn High School

Kenyetta Fagan

Pershing High School

Delann Pillivant

Renaissance High School

Caira Blevins

MaKayla Glenn

Ellington King

Sade’ Ried

Aniyah Williams

Autumn Williams

Elissa Willis

Southeastern High School

Kashon Sanders

Western International High School

Ahlam Rahimee

West Side Academy

Johnnie Hornsby

Voyageur Academy

Alyse Davis

Detroit Community Schools

Nykia Tate

Eriana Wilson