For the seniors at the Maryland School for the Deaf, it has been a journey taken together.
Years of taking the same classes, and even living together in dorms for some, culminated Saturday morning when 38 graduating seniors received their diplomas at the school's 144th commencement.
"I'm a little anxious and nervous," Kyle Andrew Blakely, 19, from Silver Spring, said through a sign-language interpreter. "School has been my life. ... This was like my second home."
He has ridden the same bus each day for the last 12 years.
"I'm nervous, but I think I'm ready," said Blakely, who is set to study mechanical engineering in the fall at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Of the 38 graduates, eight were inducted into the National Honor Society and one is an Eagle Scout. Students from all over the state attend MSD.
"I am absolutely overwhelmed with their ability to beat the odds and get their high school diplomas," said Adrienne Rubenstein, first-year high school principal. "It's a very emotional moment for me."
She said the sky is the limit for these graduates.
"They are strong to overcome obstacles," Rubenstein said. "They are able to conquer what they need to because they are not used to everything being accessible 100 percent of the time."
Commencement speaker Khadijat Rashid became the first deaf person to be named a White House fellow in 2010.
She was one of 13 chosen from a pool of about 1,000 applicants. She admitted being afraid at first but said she learned so much from the experience.
"Do not give up," she told the graduates. "Fight through your fears. You'll come out a better person in the end."
Life was different even 20 years ago for deaf people, she said. She urged the graduates to give back to the community, especially the deaf community, so that strides can continue to be made.
"You have a choice," she said. "As a deaf person, you have many choices. ... Those rights didn't happen magically. Many people -- both hearing and deaf -- fought to get us those rights."
Class President Leeann Wadsworth said it has been a lot of hard work, but worth it. She started in a mainstream school before transferring to MSD in eighth grade.
Like Blakely, she plans to attend RIT in the fall, studying biology.
"There's such a strong deaf bond here," said Wadsworth, 18. "MSD is something I will always treasure -- forever."
Derek Frank, of Frederick, has been attending MSD for most of his life, and he said it hasn't always been easy. Still, he leaves with fond memories.
"When I look back at it, I've enjoyed every minute, and I'm really going to miss it," Frank said.
He has learned to be independent. He plans to commute to Gallaudet University in the fall and study business administration.
"I don't consider my deafness a handicap," he said. "I really see no difference."
Graduate Liv Polzin is also set to attend Gallaudet this fall. She played three sports in high school and was involved in other activities.
"I've been here my whole life," she said. "It was more than a school. It helped me a lot through all of my days."
The Frederick 18-year-old said being unable to hear is "just one little difference" between her and other teenagers.
"People think we can't do everything," Polzin said. "We can do anything just like anyone else. We can. We can. We can."
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