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Des Moines' Hoover High Grads Step Forward While Looking Back

Rob Dillard

The student chosen to deliver the Hoover Class of 2019 commencement address before 223 graduates is a perfect representative of a high school widely acknowledged as Iowa’s most ethnically diverse. Tam Cao came to the U.S. at the age of 16 unable to speak English. She entered Hoover as a sophomore dreaming of becoming a cheerleader. She told her classmates she felt alone and scared.

“This was a dark period of my life, when everything appeared to be impossible,” she said to the graduates just before they receive their diplomas.

Tam Cao said she defied expectations and, with the help of English language teachers, pursued her dreams. She became a cheerleader, and a varsity tennis player and a member of the National Honor Society.

“And today, a girl who did not know English at first, is standing here giving a speech in her new language, on her graduation day,” she said as cheers erupted around the Knapp Center at Drake University.

Many students at Hoover bring similar background stories to their lives as American teenagers. They come from 45 countries and speak 40 languages. They represent a range of economic backgrounds from homelessness to upper middle class. Their visions for the future are equally diverse.

“I plan on going into advertising or web design for like computers and magazine covers,” said senior Katie Burns, a member of the state champion Hoover softball team.

“To major in pre-med and go into my career in medicine and be a doctor in the future,” said Tina Luu, who will begin her higher education at Grand View University in Des Moines.

“I want to do something in the construction field, whether it’s being a construction manager or just being a construction worker,” said Rodney Norris, who is considering coursework at Des Moines Area Community College.

A couple of weeks before Burns, Luu and Norris donned green and gold caps and gowns at Hoover’s graduation, they gathered to reflect on the year and to imagine what lies ahead. Sophie Reese is heading to Simpson College in Indianola to study multimedia journalism.

“I’m very nervous to move out because my mom won’t be there with me to help me with everything because I talk to her every single day and ask her so many questions,” she admitted.

Katie Burns has another summer of softball to complete before she too lands at Simpson to continue playing the sport.

“Coming down to the end, it’s been a little stressful just making sure I’m getting stuff done and getting things turned in on time,” she said.

Meanwhile, Rodney Norris is taking the end of his high school years in stride.

“I can honestly say this is something I’ve been looking forward to the past three years, just my next step,” he said.

It’s a time to look back for Hoover’s first-time principal Sherry Poole, as well. There were triumphs and disappointments. Two students died in a car wreck. The girls’ 4 x 100 meter relay team finished fifth at the state track meet. A hail storm damaged the roof and caused a massive leak.

“A lot of stuff you can’t ever plan for, nobody gives you a textbook to say how you walk your way through it,” Poole said.

During her first address to Hoover graduates during commencement exercises, Poole focused on the positives.

“Today is about the feeling of joy and happiness and hope you feel," she told them. "And I hope you remember for a long time because you’ve earned it class of 2019. Congratulations.”

She’ll return for a second year as Hoover principal in the fall. She says she wants to get better at connecting with parents. And she’ll continue working on one overriding goal.

“I want to make it a school where when people say I go to Hoover people go wow, that’s pretty cool.”

Credit Rob Dillard / Iowa Public Radio
Tam Cao, Hoover High 2019 student commencement speaker

The Hoover High Class of 2019 has a motto: Together we experience life, separately we pursue our dreams, forever our memories will remain. Among the final memories – hearing their names called to the cheers of families and friends.