LEESVILLE, La. -- Over 100 high school seniors from Vernon Parish, Louisiana, were honored during the 31st annual Academic Achievement Awards Banquet -- hosted by the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce and Vernon Parish School Board - May 6 at East Leesville Baptist Church in Leesville.
The event celebrated 12th grade students with a 3.5 Grade Point Average or higher from Evans High School, Hicks High School, Hornbeck High School, Leesville High School, Pickering High School, Pitkin High School, Rosepine High School, Simpson High School and Anacoco High School. Several of these award recipients were military-connected students from Fort Polk.
Honor Graduate Colton Tilley of Pitkin High School kicked off the event welcoming attendees and leading them in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce President Jimbo Merritt offered opening remarks.
"It makes me proud -- as a life-long resident of Vernon Parish - to look out and see not only how successful all of our students are, but also how successful our school system and educators have been in helping develop our students in Vernon Parish," Merritt said.
VPSB Superintendent James Williams took the time to acknowledge the students for their academic achievements, and thank their parents, teachers, administrators and VPSB board members for supporting them along the way.
"I want to congratulate all the students. It's been a long journey, and they've put in a lot of hard work," Williams said. "The success of the students is greatly dependent on the support of the parents, teachers and administrators; thank you."
Williams then introduced the event's guest speaker, Suzette Kent -- a Leesville High School alumnus (Class of 1986) who currently serves at the Federal Chief Information Officer for the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C. She was appointed to this position by President Donald J. Trump in January 2018, becoming the first female to ever hold this title.
"This is an exciting milestone in your life," Kent said to the honorees. "You're here because of your tenacity."
Her key message to the students was, "No matter where you come from, you can do anything."
She spoke about her path from Vernon Parish to Washington, D.C.
"If I was sitting in your chair and somebody said to me, 'You're going to work in the White House,' we would have the biggest laugh," Kent said. "It is a privilege and an honor to serve this country every day [in The White House]."
Kent said that it's the education she received in Vernon Parish that has led her to where she is today, and will do the same for the student honorees.
"Many of the lessons that formed the foundation of my future and your future start right here. They start with educational experiences that you've had with the determination and the work ethic that brought you here tonight," she said. I had some of the most influential learning experiences here in these schools and they've shaped my learning, my life, my career and my experiences around the world."
She concluded by offering some final words of encouragement for the students.
"I've worked all over the world and met wonderful people everywhere. But my experiences here -- in the place that I call home -- and your experiences [here] will shape how you navigate your own journey in the world," Kent said. "Every day is about listening. Never stop learning. Keep the work ethic and the focus that got the honor of you being here tonight."
The presentation of the awards followed, with each honoree receiving medallions -- provided by the 30th Judicial District Bar Association -- for their academic accomplishments.
Leesville High School Senior Ryleigh Hicks expressed her excitement at receiving her award.
"It makes me feel very proud of myself and my classmates knowing that we've all worked hard to be here today," Hicks said.
"I'm super proud of her," Hicks' mother, Betty, added.
Kaitlyn Savage, a Rosepine High School senior, said she kept her mind right, did her work, and put her schoolwork and priorities first to achieve this recognition.
"I'm really honored and proud of myself and all my classmates," Savage said.
Her mother, Lydia, said it felt great to see her daughter be honored for her academic accomplishments.
"She's always worked hard and pushed herself to succeed," she said.
Fort Polk Progress Chairman Michael Reese expressed his appreciation to VPSB and the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce for hosting this event to celebrate the academic success of these military-connected and civilian Vernon Parish high school seniors.
"These students have been committed to their education throughout their journey as high schoolers in Vernon Parish," Reese said. "They deserve to be recognized for their determination, hard work and dedication to their studies. I wish them the very best, and I know they have very bright futures ahead of them."