Meet the 5 Students Whose Inspiring Messages Made Won Them Graduate Together's Student Speaker Award

Though the coronavirus pandemic has been devastating for the world, it took a unique toll on high school seniors, who watched long-awaited rites of passage like prom and graduation vanish before their eyes.

Five of those seniors managed to turn their pain into inspiring words of wisdom, and thanks to the Graduate Together campaign, those students have been recognized for those very messages.

The winners each took home $5,000 for recorded video messages they submitted to Graduate Together, and were selected from more than 250 qualified entries.

Priscilla Arceo, valedictorian at Santa Ana High School in Santa Ana, California, won thanks to her inspiring video that talked of how she will be the first person in her family to graduate from college.

Ximena Escobar from Gladstone High School in Azusa, California, meanwhile, won with a short film that focused on the silver lining of COVID-19, and how it’s helped people strengthen their connections.

Janay Kelley, from White Station High School in Memphis, wrote and recited a poem that focused on the pain of the situation, while Matine Khalighi from Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, Colorado filmed a talk explaining why the pandemic was a wake-up call for him.

Justin Walton from Oakland School for the Arts in Oakland, California secured his win with a rap about the realities of COVID-19, topped off with a hopeful message.

“Along with XQ, EIF, and the LeBron James Family Foundation, PEOPLE was honored to support Graduate Together and to judge the student speaker submissions. Reviewing the nearly 250 entrants was to be reminded that our future is in great hands,” said PEOPLE Editor-in-Chief Dan Wakeford. “These seniors demonstrated their intelligence, introspection, determination, and wit, and though only five can win, they’ve all earned our respect. We’re so proud of them and excited to see where they go from here.”

Graduate Together— put on by the XQ Institute, The LeBron James Family Foundation and The Entertainment Industry Foundation — aired an hourlong special on May 16 to honor the class of 2020.

The event reached more than 50 million people, and featured more than 1,000 high school seniors, plus appearances by people like President Barack Obama, LeBron James, the Jonas Brothers, Zendaya, Dua Lipa, Yara Shahidi and more.

PEOPLE partnered with the campaign to help encourage graduates and their families and teachers to submit their own photos and videos for the chance to be featured — more than 5,000 submissions came in from across the country, and more than 250 qualified for the student speaker awards contest.

Russlynn Ali, cofounder and CEO of XQ Institute, offered congratulations to each of the five winners, and praised their courage and resilience amid trying times.

“They have given every American reason to be hopeful about our collective future,” Ali said.

Added Nicole Sexton, president and CEO of Entertainment Industry Foundation: “The graduates of 2020 have demonstrated perseverance and a strength of spirit that will benefit all of us as they prepare to lead us forward.”

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