“AS INTERIM SUPERINTENDENT of schools and by the virtue of the authority vested in me by the State of California and the Board of Education of Stockton Unified School District, I hereby certify that these pupils assembled here tonight have completed the prescribed courses for high school graduation and are hereby qualified to receive their diplomas,” Dr. Traci Miller declared, as 467 students from Franklin High School graduated at the Stockton Arena recently.

According to the school Principal Anna Lotti, the graduating class of 2023 included both seniors and juniors who were graduating early.

Proud parents snapped photos and recorded videos of their children as they walked across the arena in their gowns and hats to be seated for the May 25 evening ceremony.

Nathan Vonghom, a junior at Franklin High School, tears up as he watches his senior year friends enter the arena in graduation gowns during the Class of 2023 Commencement at Stockton Arena on May 26, 2023. “I feel very proud of them,” Vonghom said. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News/Catchlight Local)

As the students entered the arena, a photographer and junior at Franklin High School, Nathan Vonghom, burst into tears watching his friends ready to graduate.

“I feel very proud of them,” said Vonghom, who has known some of the seniors since his freshman year and through the pandemic. “My friend Miriam Hernandez, who is graduating tonight, has supported me throughout my high school and seeing her go is making me a little upset.”

A posthumous diploma

The commencement started with Franklin high School honoring a late student by awarding his diploma to his family. Cristian Fernandez-Munoz, who was part of the Class of 2023, was killed in a shooting in Mexico on Christmas Eve in 2021. When a few of his friends asked their teachers about honoring Fernandez-Munoz on their big day, his family was invited to receive a diploma on his behalf.

“It felt honoring for me to go up there [on the stage], to remember him,” said Carlos Fernandez, Fernandez-Munoz’s brother. “But at the same time, it feels terrible knowing that it should have been him up there.”

Fernandez expressed his love and gratitude to his brother’s friends for remembering his brother and inviting his family on their big day.

Valedictorians Reese Halligan and Larissa Antonio Perez shared their experiences alongside some personal anecdotes during their speeches.

A proud Maria Salcedo smiles wide as her son Rafael Salcedo-Prado Jr. thanks his parents in his salutatory during the Franklin High School Class of 2023 Commencement at Stockton Arena in Stockton on Friday. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News/Catchlight Local)

“During our time in school, we have laughed together, cried together and supporting one another through the challenges we face,” said Valedictorian Halligan. “These relationships have taught us the importance of being there for each other, not only during the good times, but also in moments of struggle.”

The ultimate words of wisdom came from said Rafael Salcedo-Prado Jr. during his salutatory. “Let’s embrace the future with open arms knowing that the real world is waiting to shower us with endless opportunities and soul crushing taxes,” he shared.

Harika Maddala is a photojournalist based in Stockton covering San Joaquin County for Bay City News Foundation and its nonprofit news site Local News Matters. They are a Report for America corps member and a CatchLight Local Fellow.