‘We are excellent. We are Firebirds’: Free State graduation celebrates unique journey of each student

Share this post or save for later

Post last updated at 9:22 a.m. Wednesday, May 22:

Ava Rivera started writing her graduation speech while crying on her bedroom floor. But she made it — to graduation and to the lectern. At Free State High School’s graduation ceremony Tuesday, she said her story was similar to many of her fellow graduates.

“Me being at this podium was not only the result of hard work that I put into my years here at Free State, but also all the battles that I had to fight; all the times that I cried on my floor struggling with the thoughts in my head telling me that I wasn’t good enough or I’m not loved enough.

“The reason I’m telling you this is because I know I’m not the only one,” she continued. “And I want any and all of you out there to know that you are not the only one. I felt alone in my struggles, but I’m not the only person that felt alone.”

Pancho Metz / Lawrence Times Ava Rivera speaks to the Free State Class of 2024.

Two sets of packed bleachers came together to recognize 427 unique stories, all of which led the high schoolers to this same moment: graduation from Free State. 

“I’m proud of all of us, because, you know what? These last few years were not easy,” Rivera said. “But being here today is realizing that we did it.”

She encouraged her fellow graduates to embrace balance. She told them to find their purpose, but not work themselves too hard. Rivera plans to attend Wichita State University and double major in musical theater and voice performance. 

Due to Ruby Godsey’s time in Free State speech and debate, her speech aimed to make a clear and persuasive argument. In this case: you can’t really fail. 

“Yes, it’s overwhelming to step out into the real world,” she said. “At the same time, we now have the opportunity to go forth and define ourselves. Expand on your current hobbies and explore new ones too. You can and should do whatever you want, because it’s your life.” 

Pancho Metz / Lawrence Times Ruby Godsey speaks to the Free State Class of 2024.

She said many graduates likely have mixed feelings about the prospect of moving away from home, leaving Lawrence or taking their next step in life. But they should all be excited about what’s to come, whatever that may be. 

“We are intelligent. We are strong. We are excellent. We are Firebirds,” Godsey said.

Godsey plans to major in political science and sociology at Wichita State University before attending law school. 

Teachers Jeffrey Haas, Kelly Barah, Shayne Henry and Elaine Hendrickson were honored as Educators of the Year and read the names of the graduates. 

Rebecca Craft and Brandon Sikes were recognized as winners of the Kansas State High School Activities Association Citizenship Award, presented to students who demonstrate respect and responsibility within their school communities.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis, in his speech to the graduates, shared a story about a fictional student named Emily, who pursued her dreams through a litany of obstacles. Emily had a similar story to many of this years’ graduates, he said, who persevered through online learning and other challenges.

“As you embark on the journey ahead, remember that setbacks are not roadblocks, but rather stepping stones on the path to greatness,” Lewis said. “Embrace those challenges as opportunities for growth and never never lose sight of your dreams.”

Senior members of the Free State choir sang the national anthem and alma mater. Board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood read a land recognition. 

Thirty valedictorians were honored with gold medallions for achieving perfect GPAs: Marcella Allison, Leonard Bass, Julia Bourquin, Madi Brosa, Connor Brown, Lily Bruffett, Logan Hannah, Thomas Henderson, Luna Hu, Julia Kwan, Jayne Landers, Alannah Lohfeld, Constance Lollar, Jake Loos, James Loyless, Lina Matthews, Ellie Moore, Stella Mosier, Olivia Nagel, Coby Ochsner, Ava Rivera, Brandon Sikes, Bailey Smith, Hannah Stone, Elliott Storm, Owen Thompson, Gretchen Weinkauf, Ryan Whittlesey, Lizzy Wood and Yejun Yun. 

School board president Kelly Jones encouraged graduates to stand, find their supportive communities and take a moment to thank them for the sacrifices they have made for their graduates. She read the poem “Now that I am forever with child” by Audre Lorde.

“Congratulations, Free State Class of 2024,” Jones said. “Go forward and be who you most want to be.”

Here’s a list of scholarships awarded on Senior Night and self-reported by the graduates, provided by Free State High School:


If our local journalism matters to you, please help us keep doing this work.
Don’t miss a beat … Click here to sign up for our email newsletters

Click here to learn more about our newsletters first

Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.

Latest Lawrence news:


Previous Article

Governor signs Lawrence disability advocate’s bill into law

Next Article

Clay Wirestone: Never forget – A senator was bludgeoned as tempers flared over slavery in Kansas 168 years ago (Column)