Nile C. Kinnick High School seniors have spent the last year living beside one of America’s pre-eminent symbols of naval power, the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.

Now, they’ll mark one of the most important days of their lives aboard the ship.

The senior class and 1,000 of their closest family and friends will come aboard the mighty Battle Cat at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, on Thursday for the school’s graduation commencement.

“It’s the biggest thing on base, and our whole world is on this base,” said senior council historian Greg Dietrich. “It’s the symbol of Yokosuka, so this is a big deal.”

Added senior class treasurer Samantha Delarosa, who grew up in the Navy, “It’s a symbol of where I came from.”

The ceremony is believed to be the first of its kind aboard the ship.

Weather permitting, the commencement for Kinnick’s 110 graduates will take place on the flight deck, followed by a banquet in the hangar.

“We’re excited about the graduation and the opportunity to have so many people come aboard to see such a special event,” said Lt. Brook DeWalt, a Kitty Hawk spokesman.

The ship’s commander, Capt. Thomas A. Parker, began the tradition of shipboard commencements while skipper of the USS Belleau Wood when it was based in Sasebo, Japan. Bringing seniors aboard helped bring together the base community and the ship, DeWalt said.

“It was a tradition he wanted to immediately have here,” he added.

The school’s students and staff had hoped to conduct the ceremony on the Kitty Hawk the past few years, but the ship’s deployment and dry dock schedule made that impossible.

This year, everything fell into place.

“It’s such a huge benchmark in their lives,” said senior adviser and U.S. history teacher Joy Bork, an event organizer. “I think it’s just the idea of graduating on the Kitty Hawk that’s so important.”

In addition to the prestige, the shipboard graduation saves the senior class money they’d spend on a venue in town. They plan to use those funds for a better banquet.

Sailors will help set up the 1,000 or so chairs necessary for the ceremony and banquet. Parker will be a speaker, and bands from the high school and 7th Fleet are set to perform.

The planning took about six months. Ship officials couldn’t nail down an exact date until about a month ago.

“All of this was touch and go,” DeWalt said. “It was all dependent on the operations of the ship.”

The graduation could be the first time aboard a ship or aircraft carrier for many, so DeWalt encourages people not to wear high-heeled shoes. Only those holding tickets will be allowed entry and balloons are prohibited.

Guests should also remember they’ll be climbing steep ladders between decks, which makes wearing a skirt or dress difficult.

If all goes as planned, DeWalt said, the ceremony could be repeated next year. “It’s a great opportunity to start a tradition here at Yokosuka.”

While having a ceremony aboard the ship is momentous, Bork said the emphasis is still on the seniors’ momentous day.

“It’s a big deal,” she said, “but it’s still a hometown graduation for the kids.”

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