DOUGLAS — It took a little over five hours and four graduation commencement ceremonies for the 309 seniors from Douglas High School’s graduating class of 2021 to be awarded their high school diplomas Friday, ending what can only be described as a challenging past two years.

The sweltering sun bouncing off the hot artificial turf at Armando de Lucas Stadium and temperatures reaching the mid-90s failed to dampen the spirits of the graduating seniors and their families who were just happy to have an actual graduation, unlike last year when a drive-through ceremony was held and the speeches were done virtually.

Despite the joy of this year’s graduation there was a sense of loss and remembrance for classmate Samantha Felix, who unexpectedly passed away last June. An empty chair with what would have been her graduation gown was placed in front of the stage for all four ceremonies.

“She was a loving and amazing girl who didn’t make it to graduation,” America Rojas, the senior class president, said in her remarks. ”We know she is watching over us. We have set out a chair in her honor so she can be with us today. Please remember her as you receive your diploma today. May she rest in peace.”

Randy Walker, Douglas High School’s principal who was presiding over his last graduation before retiring, informed the graduating class this was a special occasion for them as they were doing something no other DHS senior class had ever done.

“Your journey at DUSD is almost complete,” Walker said. “Normalcy as we knew it has changed and some of those norms as we knew it may have been changed forever. Today’s ceremony will look and feel different from last year and from years in the past. But today is special because each of you were successful and are back on the field for this ceremony. I hope today is as special for you as it is for me. I admire you for what you have accomplished this past year and a half. Today you get the opportunity to do something that has never been done before, have loved ones seated with you.”

DUSD Superintendent Ana Samaniego presented the Huber Cup to Lynette Ortiz, who received her award in the third session. Outgoing Student Council President Gehrig Duarte was awarded the Carlson Cup. He initially received the award in the first session and was presented it again in the third session along with Ortiz.

The salutatorian address was delivered by Johanna Hernandez; the valedictorian address was presented by Pamela Duarte. Each of the graduation speakers spoke at all four sessions. They all admitted they were a little nervous for the first session but by the fourth session it had become much. Still, it was pretty tiring mainly because of the heat.

“I’m just glad I am one of the fortunate few that got to see all my classmates graduate,” Hernandez said. “I’m grateful to be done with high school. It was definitely an experience I will never forget. “

Duarte described Friday’s commencement in four words, “hot, hot and hot.”

“It was truly special for me to be up here today speaking to my fellow classmates as their valedictorian,” she said. “It was even more special seeing them get their diploma.”

Gehrig said when he entered high school as a freshman no one ever expected things to develop the way they did.

“I’m truly grateful we got to have this graduation,” he said. “I’m appreciative to the administration for allowing this to take place. Today is bittersweet. I’m excited for what’s about to come but at the same time, sad to see everyone go.”

Senior Marcus Thomas, who had to wait until the fourth session to receive his diploma, said he would have liked to have had one big graduation ceremony with his classmates, and seeing them post pictures on Facebook with their diplomas was tough. Now that he has his, he said it was worth the wait.

Thomas has been awarded a full-ride academic scholarship to Arizona State University.

Victor and Ariana Daniel-Stuppi were one of four sets of twins graduating from DHS and received their diplomas in the first session. Other twins in the first session were Karen and Karyme Arellano and Samantha and Stephanie Amaya.

Jacqueline Martinez and Yamileth Martinez were part of the third session.

Ariana is heading to the University of Arizona while Victor will attend ASU.

They both admitted this year’s graduation was different, and in a way sad because they didn’t get to graduate with their friends. Seeing what happened last year, they are grateful they had some kind of graduation to end their high school years.

Victor admitted having a twin to go to school with was pretty cool, joking that if he didn’t have the work he knew more than likely Ariana would have it done and be there to help him.

“It was fun,” Ariana said. “We’re known around campus as the twins.”

Ariana admitted between the two she is the smartest while Victor is the most athletic.

One more thing they now have in common is they are proud graduates of the Douglas High School class of 2021.