STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.– In a pre-recorded message Saturday to her fellow high school graduates at St. Joseph by-the-Sea High School in Huguenot, valedictorian Maria Elaina Gregotowicz revisited her freshman year at the school — when she and her family lost their home to a fire.

“The only thing I had left was the St. Joseph by-the-Sea uniform I was wearing,” Gregotowicz said. “It was the most terrifying day of my life.”

She recalled the high school community rallying around her family members at the time, helping to get them back to normalcy, and supporting her to ultimately reach the highest honor bestowed on a high school graduate — class valedictorian.

Four years later, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has presented a new set of challenges for most high school students in America and across the globe, as schools shut down and classrooms were replaced with virtual learning.

“As we gear up for the next phase of our lives with passion, perseverance and dedication to make it a successful future, I have realized during this time that external factors do not define us,” Gregotowicz said.

Despite several academic awards bearing Gregotowicz’s name on Saturday, she was not in attendance due to new state guidelines. The high school senior recently traveled from South Carolina, which is one of the states from which travelers must self-quarantine for 14 days– per the orders of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Our students work so hard and deserve to have a proper graduation,” said Father Michael R. Reilly, principal of St. Joseph by-the-Sea High School. “We’ve done our best to adhere to the guidelines and restrictions placed upon us to ensure the safety of our students and faculty.”

Addressing the graduating class Saturday, Reilly reminded the students that despite the unusual ceremony, their accomplishments are not overlooked.

“This does not in any way diminish what you have accomplished over the past four years,” said Reilly. “I’ve been a lucky person, I’ve been able to witness that from the time that you came in here as freshmen.”

A ceremony that typically takes place in the school auditorium was instead held on the football field and split into two sessions in order to maintain safe social distancing practices.