BROWARD (CBSMiami) – In a surprise video address, President Joe Biden praised Marjory Stoneman Douglas' graduating class, who were freshman during the massacre that took 17 lives, for turning pain to purpose.
"This class lost a piece of its soul. Tested in ways no young person should ever have to face," he said.
The president then pointed out they not only went through the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history, but they also had to deal with the disruption of COVID.
"From a freshman year, a year of unspeakable loss to a junior and senior year upended by a pandemic," the president said. "The story of this class, the Parkland community, isn't just a story of pain. It's a story of resilience, turning pain to purpose, darkness into light."
WEB EXTRA: President Biden's Message For MSD's Graduating Class Of 2021
Hundreds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas students collected their diplomas at the BB&T Center, but the absence of nine of their classmates could be felt throughout the arena.
Alyssa Alhadeff, Martin Duque, Jamie Guttenberg, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Alex Schachter, Alaina Petty and Peter Wang were freshmen at the time of the senseless Parkland massacre in 2018.
They all would have, should have, graduated Tuesday.
Instead, loved ones took the stage on their behalf, receiving shadow boxes and an honorary diploma.
Broward School Board Member Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was killed on that horrific February day, addressed the graduates.
"I'd be hard-pressed to find a group of seniors more resilient than the group of faces looking at me right now. Not only did you endure a trauma that arrived on Valentine's Day of your freshman year, but also the challenges of worldwide pandemic upside down," she said.
That motto of resilience was on full display as the students themselves took the stage to mark this milestone, acknowledging their challenges while celebrating their successes.
"Our graduating class has been through an immense number of hardships in our short high school experience. We've not even had a full year of school still, we have made it, we have pushed forward and we should be proud and appreciative that we are graduating today," said Jason Snytte, MSD's student government president.
"Class of 2021, I sincerely hope that in this next season of life, you take the bad cards that you have been dealt and turn them into a royal flush. I know that while times may not be what we once expected, we have the power to turn them around," said Lauren Avellanet, the senior class president.
It was a who's who of celebrities and sports stars, including Jennifer Hudson, Jimmy Kimmel, Demi Lovato, Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade, who sent their well-wishes to this very special class.
It was all capped off with that message from President Biden.
"No graduating class gets to choose the world in which they graduate. But every once in a while, every few generations, young people come along at a point in history, with the chance to make real change. The world has already seen just how capable you are. How strong you are. How resilient you are. There no question. You're already changing the world," he said.
for more features.