Fueled with optimism for the future, high school graduates from Lafayette Parish walked on stage at the Cajundome as they celebrated their commencement exercises Saturday.

“Four years ago, these kids come in lost and confused,” said Joe Craig, principal at Comeaux High School. “The time goes so fast and you stand over them and you see they’ve grown into really great young adults. They’re prepared and ready.”

More than 2,100 graduates are set to take their respective places in college, the military or the workforce following graduation. For Comeaux High’s Hunter Ahia, UL-Lafayette is where his future plans will play out.

“This is an amazing feeling,” Ahia said. “Comeaux is where I met friends that I will have for the rest of my life. There is no better feeling right now.”

John Sledge, president of Comeaux’s National Honor Society, welcomed his fellow graduates with a message of change and tolerance.

“Our country is growing more polarizing as we speak,” Sledge said. “We have a growing disrespect for one another. It is up to this generation to end the cycle. Now is our time to scream and yell for change.

“Whether you are Christian or you are Buddhist. Whether you’re white, black, purple, gay, straight, transgender, no gender. You are human before you are slapped with one of those labels that are put on you and ultimately ourselves.”

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Superintendent Pat Cooper credited teachers for keeping students in school and pushing them toward graduating. Cooper said kids who wouldn’t graduate in the past are now receiving diplomas and Lafayette Parish’s graduation rates continue to rise.

“Our teachers are doing a lot better job of keeping these kids in school,” Cooper said. “They are leaving school with an opportunity. Sometimes it is easy to think this is not a big deal because you’ve seen so many (graduations) and we’ve went through it, but for these kids, it is just as exciting as it was when we went through it and the celebration never changes.”

Cooper admitted to being frustrated at times with legislation and getting mired in bureaucracy. He said he appreciates having days like Saturday and seeing kids graduate makes his career worthwhile.

“This is what the teachers are here for,” Cooper said. “This is what I am here for. This grounds us and makes us realize how important our jobs are. We can’t mix politics with this. These kids are too precious. We have to do what’s right for them and not what’s right for us. That hits home when you come to a big graduation like this.”

Sledge, who plans to major in economics and minor in chemistry and music at either Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine; Georgetown University in Washington; or Connecticut College in New London, Conn.; implored his fellow graduates to never stop learning.

“Whether college is the next step for you or not, I want you to know there is no wrong way to continue on this path of education,” Sledge said. “Never cease to educate yourself, even in the simplest of ways.”