Proud father Adam Whitson likes to quote an old expression: Pressure makes diamonds.
Standing in the hot sun Thursday at the Pace Center for Girls in Pensacola and staring at the recently turned tassel on his daughter's graduation cap, Whitson added a little flourish of his own.
"Pressure makes diamonds," said the Pensacola dad. "And she's shining."
His daughter, 18-year-old Emma Coyle, was one of 16 students in the Pace Center for Girls' Class of 2020 who waited all summer to attend a ceremony and receive their diplomas.
Many of the Pace Center graduates were once considered at-risk students but have since persevered through personal and academic trials and tribulations to earn high school degrees.
"Many of the girls we serve have given up on themselves and their futures before coming to Pace," said Laurie Rodgers, the center's executive director. "We find them courageous that they walk through our doors and take a risk on making change."
Members of the Class of 2020 told the News Journal that even as they prepare to enter a world turned upside down from the coronavirus pandemic, they feel more prepared than ever as they embark on the next leg of their journey.
"Here they teach us how to communicate. Like if something is bothering me, I will communicate about it and tell people, 'Hey I don't like that.' I'll just talk about it instead of hiding it," Coyle said. "Because my favorite thing is to hide my feelings, and I don't naturally open up."
Coyle was the first student to receive her diploma during a ceremony that was delayed over the summer due to COVID-19 and modified Thursday for social distancing purposes.
Throughout the day, students, along with a handful of their family members, arrived at the center at prearranged 15-minute time intervals. They then individually walked toward a podium to the sound of "Pomp and Circumstance" and were handed their diplomas.
School staff filmed the individual walks to piece together a video to broadcast during an at-home "virtual graduation" that would stream later that evening.
Unique ceremony: Pensacola seniors reach the finish line at unique racetrack graduation
Photos: Masked graduates receive diplomas at Pensacola State College Graduation
Before Coyle enrolled at the Pace Center as a 10th grader, her grades were low.
"They were like F's. Because I am not a very good reader and so with English it was my hardest class. And I was like, 'I'm done. I'm just done,'" she remembered. "My mom found this school. And we just came over here and found out what it was about. And I found out that they try to help you bring your grades up. You can go at your own pace and learn at your own time."
Her grades improved tremendously, and last year, Coyle was named the Escambia County School District Student of the Year.
"Teachers here helped me by reading the prompt to me and they understood it for me," Coyle said about the help she received. "I could get, little piece by little piece, what they were saying."
Fellow graduate Danielle Combs echoed Coyle's praise of the staff at the Pace Center. The 18-year-old said she became pregnant in high school at age 16 before transferring to the center.
"Most of the time when someone asks you how you are doing, you tell them, 'Oh, I'm fine.' You don't tell them, 'I'm going through these things at home, or I'm having to stress about being a mom or providing for my baby on my own or being a single teenage mother,'" Combs told the News Journal while her toddler, De'Mauri, played at her feet.
When she started at the Pace Center, Combs was overwhelmed with feelings of "closed off" anger, frustration and constantly felt tired from having to ride three buses after class to make it to her job on time at Burger King.
"This center just prepared me more for overcoming, overcoming obstacles," she said. "Because now, I have a better job. I don't have to work in fast food anymore. I kept pushing on, and the more I overcame, the more I have been motivated to go to college."
Another graduate, 18-year-old Kaitlyn Torres, said she also plans on attending college — something she never expected to do before going to Pace because she suffered from severe depression.
"At this place, you work on improving yourself by doing so many activities involving each other," Torres said. "I've overcome so much, and this place helped me realize I am a good person at heart. And I have gone through so much, that I should be congratulating myself."
Colin Warren-Hicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8680.