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Newport-Mesa seniors ride to the future after graduation in celebratory car parade

A Costa Mesa student smiles from inside a car as it passes by Estancia High School June 9.
A Costa Mesa student smiles from inside a car as it passes by Estancia High School during a senior graduation car parade on Wednesday, June 9.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

With clear skies and a sunny day, there was just no raining on the car parade of Newport-Mesa’s graduating seniors.

Car horns honked and pop songs blared over the speakers of cars lined up bumper to bumper. Teenagers screamed and sang along, laughing every so often when one of them got a lyric wrong.

Some stood, their heads peeking out of sunroofs and their arms outstretched toward the sky, while others sat up on the backs of convertibles — an activity that received light admonishments from police officers monitoring the scene. Windows were painted with the names of high schools and the graduating seniors riding aboard. Banners fluttered, balloons waved.

Compared to this time last year on the same street, the corner of Irvine Avenue and 15th Street teemed with life as ceremonies take place for graduating seniors of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. Many of the events will take place throughout Thursday, with the exception of Early College High School, whose seniors graduated on June 3, and Cloud Campus, which held its graduation on Wednesday.

Students drive by Estancia High School during a senior graduation parade.
Students drive by Estancia High School during a senior graduation parade for the Newport-Mesa School District on Wednesday, June 9.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

About 1,600 students will be graduating this year, district officials said.

Matt Eimers, who organized the parade and is a parent of a graduating senior at Newport Harbor High School, said planning for this year’s event began in March before the district officially announced plans in April to hold graduations in person.

Eimers was involved with planning last year’s unofficial graduation car parade, which was organized by parents districtwide in an effort to celebrate graduating seniors. The Newport-Mesa Unified School District last year made the move to pivot all commencement ceremonies to be virtual as the pandemic continued.

“With planning, you just need months to do these things, so I started in March to now and, at that point, you can’t tell the kids that ‘You can’t have a parade now,’” Eimers said. “It was two people, then four people and stuff like that. We had to move forward with the parade.”

“This class got screwed more than last year’s class because these kids didn’t have a prom. They didn’t have a prom last year. They’ve been out of school [physically] for almost a year and a half, where last year they were only out of school for half a year,” said Eimers.

Anna Burton shows her support for graduating seniors.
Anna Burton shows her support for graduating seniors during a car parade on Wednesday, June 9.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“These kids had it harder than any other class, so that’s why we need to honor them for this. Next year, it’s back to normal,” he said, adding that he’d love to make the parade an annual tradition if the cities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa allowed it and if the schools could be more involved.

Newport Harbor senior Kendall Kelly, 18, said Wednesday she was excited for graduation and had been looking forward to it for the past four years.

“I’m really grateful we get to have an in-person graduation. It’s going to be super special with all of our classmates,” said Kelly, adding that she was similarly excited for the parade. “I think it’s really rewarding for all our hard work and I think it’s a super special tradition for all the graduating classes to have, so I’m super glad we can do it.”

Her friend, Lindsey Blanchfield, who is also graduating from Newport Harbor High School, said she felt having an in-person graduation ceremony was like having a hint of normalcy return to daily life. The two rode together in their friend’s Jeep and would lead the parade just behind police and firefighters.

“Even the rehearsal yesterday, it was really cool to be with everyone in the whole [graduating] class,” said Blanchfield. “We haven’t been with our whole grade in such a long time. It was really fun. I’m really looking forward to [Thursday].”

Students from Newport Harbor High School drive by Estancia High School.
Students from Newport Harbor High School drive by Estancia High School during a senior graduation parade for the Newport-Mesa School District on Wednesday, June 9.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Santo Gezelin, 17, said he was feeling a mix of emotions Wednesday.

“I’m excited to continue with my life and kind of see where the next chapter takes me, but I’m also really sad to see where I grew up and saying goodbye to all of that,” said Gezelin, who will be attending the University of Utah this fall to study mechanical engineering. “It’s bittersweet. I’m definitely going to be sad to say goodbye to everyone here, and I’ve become so close with so many people.

“It’s hard to say goodbye,” he added, laughing.

Cooper Steck, a graduating senior from Costa Mesa High School who was toting around a boombox and a shirt of his soon-to-be alma mater, said he was excited to be graduating.

“It’s unfortunate that the beginning of our year started off like it did, but I’m also glad ‘cause we get to finish it off like normal as the pandemic is slowing down,” Steck said. “It’s a bummer that it started out slow, but it’s good that it’s ending like this. It was fun.”

Seniors Jaden Manuhutu , 17, and 19-year-old Miles Dwight were riding together in Manuhutu’s car. Dwight said he felt the school year had been a journey, but he’s looking forward to the summer. Manuhutu said the ceremony was a great way to close the school year.

Students drive by Costa Mesa High School during a senior graduation parade.
Students drive by Costa Mesa High School during a senior graduation parade for the Newport-Mesa School District on Wednesday, June 9.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“We can just worry about having fun and being with each other and spending time together before we leave,” said Manuhutu. “I think it’s a great way to end the year and end our high school careers.

“Everyone’s experience during COVID in 2020 is all different. Some people had really great times. Some people, it was a really bad year for them, but I’d say overall, the experiences we’re having especially now in our senior year, everything is just going back to normal and everyone’s just focusing on the positives,” he continued.

“I think that’s a big difference between this year and last year’s [graduation]. Everyone’s focused on positives,” he said.

Sabrina Harrison, right, and other friends and and family members cheer for seniors.
Sabrina Harrison, right, and other friends and and family members cheer for seniors during a graduation car parade on Wednesday, June 9.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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