Above: PDHS award winners, left-to-right, Ethan Lewis, Outstanding Graduate Award; Carson Brown, Principal’s Leadership Award; Kristy Johnson, Current Principal; James Merrick, Former Principal; Annalyse Wyght, Lieutenant Governor’s Community Volunteer Award; Kelly Mantel, Outstanding Graduate Award; Cecil Foubert, Governor General’s Academic Medal.

Graduating Class Shares Lessons in Resilience and Staying Inspired 

TUESDAY, OCT. 24, 2023


o say that the current cohort of Grand Erie graduates has had a unique secondary school experience is a bit of an understatement. Many of these learners were just getting into the swing of things at the high school level, managing timetables, exams, extracurriculars, new friendships and interests, and beginning to look to future plans, when a global pandemic that hit mid-year challenged everything they’d come to know and expect at this stage of their learning journeys. 

DSS valedictorian Justin Haalstra.

“Nelson Mandela famously said, ‘do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up,’” said Sam Wiens, valedictorian for Valley Heights Secondary School’s graduating class. “We’ve been through so much, but that’s brought us to this moment, and we’ve made a lot of good memories along the way.” 

Drawing inspiration from leaders like Mandela was a powerful way for Wiens to learn and lead in his own right, and the ability to rebound from challenges led him to the school’s hospitality program, which he was a huge part of. He’s now well on his way career-wise, having moved on to an apprenticeship in the hospitality sector. 

“These past few years have definitely been challenging, and we’ve all faced situations we never could have anticipated,” said Alison High, principal at Valley Heights. “But each of the students in this year’s graduating class persevered and pushed through, and that’s what’s shaped them into the amazing young adults they are today.” 

In another corner of Grand Erie, these themes of resilience echo. 

VHSS valedictorian Sam Wiens.

“We have a lot to celebrate in terms of accomplishments and exciting next steps, but it’s also important that we remember the lessons we’ve learned and the importance of kindness we were taught here at Dunnville Secondary,” said Justin Haalstra, valedictorian for the school’s graduating class. “This school will always hold a special place in our hearts.” 

For Haalstra, persevering through challenging times is shaping up to a future career path in environmental engineering, and Geoff Stead, principal at Dunnville Secondary, couldn’t be more proud of the school’s grads. He knows learning and leading means inspiring and being inspired, and shares a personal favourite nugget of wisdom with students. 

“As our graduates move on to their next stages of learning, I’m always reminded of Gandhi’s words: ‘you must be the change you wish to see in the world,’” Stead shared. “It’s inspiring to see what our students have achieved these last few years, and there’s no limit to what they’ll continue to achieve.” 

Similarly, at Paris District High School, graduates are feeling the strong community of support as they make their next moves. 

PDHS valedictorian Lisa Tichelaar takes the stage at this month’s graduation ceremony.

“Once you surround yourself with people who help lift you up, cheer you on, give you the real advice you need, and genuinely want to see you succeed, it makes everything so much easier for you to thrive in what you need to accomplish,” said Lisa Tichelaar, valedictorian for the graduating class. “And personally, during my time here, I found those people.” 

For principal Jim Merrick, now at Delhi District Secondary School, this year’s commencement was a chance to reflect on the years he spent at Paris District. 

“I had the absolute honour of being here to see this graduating class through their entire secondary school experience – they’ve taught me and inspired me, and we’ve forged a culture here at Paris District High School that was reminiscent of a family,” Merrick said. “Now that our graduates’ high school days are over, I know that change can be scary and uncertain, but it can also be beautiful and inspiring.” 

Congratulations, class of ‘23! Here’s when each secondary school’s graduates are crossing/crossed the stage this year:

  1. Pauline Johnson Collegiate and Vocational School: Oct. 5
  2. Hagersville Secondary School: Oct. 6
  3. Simcoe Composite School: Oct. 6
  4. Waterford District High School: Oct. 6
  5. Dunnville Secondary School: Oct. 6
  6. Paris District High School: Oct. 12
  7. Tollgate Technological Skills Centre: Oct. 18
  8. Brantford Collegiate Institute and Vocational School: Oct. 21
  9. Cayuga Secondary School: Nov. 3
  10. Delhi District Secondary School: Nov. 3
  11. Valley Heights Secondary School: Nov. 3
  12. North Park Collegiateand Vocational School: Nov. 4
  13. Tollgate Special Education: this past June 23
  14. McKinnon Park Secondary School: this past June 28
  15. Grand Erie Learning Alternatives: this past June 28

Grand Erie’s multi-year strategic plan includes the vision to learn, lead and inspire, and a mission to build cultures of learning, well-being and belonging to inspire each learner. 

More News