Families and friends shed a tear and cheered on their student as each of the 590 students making up the graduating class of 2011 stepped across the stage at the Verizon Arena in Little Rock Saturday afternoon. Organizers estimate that more than 5,000 people came to witness the rite of passage as the Conway High School seniors made their transition into adulthood to begin the journey that will lead them into colleges and universities around the country.

Dr. Greg Murray, Conway Public Schools superintendent addressed the crowd and advised of the notable distinctions among the graduates.

"In this class, we have 13 National Merit Scholars, 29 students received the top scholarships granted at the college they will be attending and four students have enlisted in the service and will be serving their country," he said. "All together, the class of 2011 has earned more than 10 million dollars in scholarship funds for their continued education at colleges throughout the United States."

Bill Clements, president of the Conway Public Schools board of educators presented the Distinguished Service Award to a representative from Hewlett-Packard for the commitment the company has made to Conway schools.

"This award was started in 1975 and it is a way to recognize an individual or organization that is dedicated to the success of Conway students," he said. 

Hewlett-Packard earned the award for their willingness to volunteer to help with the needs of the community and for donations that helped with building funds and needed materials.

Prior to the graduates receiving their diplomas, Destiny Hemphill gave the valedictorian address to her classmates. She reminded them of the journey that had led up to graduation day.

"We have shed tears together, laughed together and faced tragedies together," she said. "We lost four classmates throughout our journey, we will forever remember this."

She encouraged her class to celebrate triumph in the friendships they have made over the years and in each individual’s hopes and dreams. She also reminded the class that their journey is far from over.

"Our journey is far from over," she said. "We still have many joys waiting for us. Do not give in to temptation. We need to seek the truth as we travel on this next journey and not be complacent."

The arena erupted into a round of applause when Hemphill reminded the class of the possibilities of their future.

"We are not condemned to the fate of statistics and stigmas around us," she said. "I will repeat this so we all hear it and remember it."

As graduates lined up row by row to receive their diplomas, proud family members stood and cheered on their graduate. When each graduate had received their diploma and were back to their seats, they happily took part in what will be the last activity they share as the class of 2011 by holding hands and singing the school’s alma mater.

A sea of blue hats were thrown in the air as students said their farewells and celebrated a day that has been 12 years in the making.

(Candie Beck is a staff writer and can be reached at 505-1238 or at candie.beck@thecabin.net)