BIG CYPRESS — The Ahfachkee School graduation May 24 was an intimate affair; just one high school graduate, Eyanna Billie, and one general education diploma (GED) graduate, Elisah Billie, proudly walked down the aisle to claim their diplomas.
The Herman Osceola Gym showed no sign of the boisterous youth and adults who usually inhabit the hardwood. Instead, it was transformed into a luxurious space thanks to many yards of drapery, soft lighting and flower arrangements on the tables. Those tables were filled with the loved ones of these two young adults, who were about to step into the adult world.
“It’s an honor and a blessing to be here for this life changing event,” said Sue Jane Cypress, who gave the opening prayer. “Be humble but not invisible and God bless each of you.”
Big Cypress dignitaries also congratulated them on their achievement.
“This is a night you will always remember,” said Big Cypress Councilman Mondo Tiger. “I’m so proud of you, now get the rest of your education and come back and help the Tribe.”
“This is a small class, but a proud one,” added Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank. “This is a start, but you have a long way to go. We are fortunate that we have the resources to help you achieve your goals. Aim high.”
Ahfachkee principal Dorothy Cain told the former students she was proud of their dedication, perseverance and hard work to get an education.
“Education gives us knowledge of the world around us and gives us the perspective to build opinions,” she said. “Dream big, do something that tugs at your heart; you owe it to yourself to make your days count. Push yourself. With determination and the right tools, you can do great things.”
The keynote address was given by Lee Zepeda, the Tribe’s executive director of administration. He told them the world is full of distractions, so they must stay focused.
“The future doesn’t just happen by accident,” Zepeda said. “Choose your calling, not just a career. Don’t let others make that choice for you. The road to the future is not easy, not quick and there are no short cuts. It’s a long road and to reach the end, you must endure. Every day you have to choose to move forward, even though there will be potholes and distractions.”
In an Ahfachkee tradition, Eyanna and Elisah gave gratitude gifts to those who have supported them on their journey. They each delivered gifts and hugs to family, teachers, friends and others they considered important in their live.
English teacher Dr. Rona Olukolu presented Eyanna with the school’s Warrior Award, which is given to a graduate who exhibits strength and endurance.
“Eyanna, you said you had to grow up quickly to be an example to your siblings,” Olukolu said. “I admire how you used the pitfalls in life as a motivational force. You have toiled, you were tried and tested, but you prevailed and never gave up. You remained focused and committed to your purpose.”
Olukolu ended her remarks with a quote from author Dan Millman, “A warrior does not give up what he loves; he finds the love in what he does.” With that, she presented the school’s highest award to Eyanna, who addressed the crowd.
“Some of us don’t see education as essential,” Eyanna said. “We should value it and show our appreciation. If you utilize our blessings wisely, many more of us can graduate and be a service to the community. We are the leaders of tomorrow and we must be ready. We need to educate ourselves to sustain the Tribe and our resources.”
Cain awarded the diplomas as dignitaries and teachers lined up to shake Eyanna and Elisah’s hands. A video of Eyanna was played, in which she said she was the first in her family to graduate high school and go to college. She will attend California College of the Arts in Oakland.
“I like to be the first to do stuff,” she said in the video. “I hope all my siblings go for higher education.”