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PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — Amid cheers and fanfare often reserved for student athletes, all Umatilla High School seniors who are pursuing post-secondary education signed letters of intent during the school’s third annual Signing Day.

“This is a big step,” Principal Bob Lorence said, congratulating the students. “As you sign your name, just make a commitment to further your education.”

Umatilla High School Dean of Students April Dirksen said this year, 72 students will be signing to post-secondary education of some kind, whether a four-year college, a two-year college, the military or trade school. That’s a jump of nearly 20 students from the previous year — something Superintendent Heidi Sipe noted when she challenged the underclassmen in the stands to “beat their record” when it was their turn to graduate.

Sipe said this year’s senior class has 96 students, and 75 percent of them have committed to a college, trade school or the military.

She said the district’s graduation rate last year was 82 percent, and she expects this year’s class to hit at least 86 percent.

Before the ceremony, five students discussed their path to graduation and some of the obstacles they’ve encountered along the way.

Some students said their biggest obstacle was the lack of financial support they’ll have, and having to navigate the world of higher education alone.

“I’ve always known I was going to go to college,” said Maria Moreno, who will attend the University of Oregon to study biology. She said while she has always been self-motivated, it was a little difficult because her parents had no experience with the system.

“It would have been a little easier if they’d been to school, and understood how things work,” she said.

For others, the challenges included the loss of a family member. Ayana Reyes, who will attend Blue Mountain Community College, lost her mother when she was a freshman.

“That’s been the biggest thing,” she said. Reyes lives with her two siblings.

She said while it has been a challenge, she has received support from the community.

“My mom was a teacher in the district, so the whole district feels like family,” she said. “I have McNary moms always on me about my grades. It’s basically a second family for me.”

Some students made their decision with the long-term picture in mind.

Trey Dohman, who is joining the Navy, said being raised in a military family informed his decision.

“I definitely figured it was something that would help me in my future,” he said. “That job security made me feel more comfortable.”

Mayra Ortiz will play soccer and study physical therapy at Columbia Basin College in Pasco. She said she picked CBC because she had the opportunity to keep playing a sport she loves, but also keep the future in mind.

“I knew that after CBC I would transfer,” she said. “If I don’t keep playing soccer after CBC, I can still look for a place I like for education.”

These students, and others, were honored at the schoolwide assembly Wednesday afternoon, which took place after a talent show. A few student athletes were also recognized, including Nestor Chaves, who signed an official letter of intent to run track and field for Warner Pacific University.

For the big finale, each senior grabbed a handmade poster displaying the name and logo of their school and took a turn at the microphone, announcing their name and post-graduation plans. Those plans covered military service, private and public universities, community colleges and trade schools.

Afterward the students sat down at rows of tables and signed their own, unofficial “letters of intent” to further their education.

“They’re really conquering things,” Sipe said, congratulating the senior class.


Information from: East Oregonian,