As the sun set Wednesday, extending the shadows over Ed Brown Stadium, a long double-file line of students in orange and navy-blue mortarboards and gowns marched onto the football field.

Cholla High Magnet School’s class of 2016 was graduating.

Forty-two years ago I marched onto the same field, when Ed Brown was the Chargers’ football coach.

As the the school’s band played “Pomp and Circumstance” — the same processional my class heard in 1974 — I was hit with a rush of memories. I recalled some of the names and faces of my classmates, teachers and administrators, and the many “good times” I had at the school at the edge of the desert behind Tumamoc Hill.

Cholla was still a new school and not completely built out when I stepped off the football field. It opened in 1969 at a time when the Tucson Unified School District was struggling to build enough schools to meet the growing student population. That same year Santa Rita High School opened on the east side, near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

The student parking lot was rock and dirt. Some structures on the campus today didn’t yet exist. Walls did not separate the open classrooms and there was no security fencing encircling the grounds.

My class was diverse ethnically, racially and in sexual orientation. There were kids from the nearby west-side neighborhoods of “A” Mountain and Menlo Park, along with others from the Tucson Mountains and kids from far-flung Three Points, on the road to Sells.

We graduated a couple of months before President Richard M. Nixon resigned in the midst of the Watergate political scandal. The country was hemorrhaging from the self-inflicted wounds of the Vietnam War which was quickly coming to an end, at least for the U.S. military.

As last week’s Cholla graduates took their seats — including my wife’s son, Adan Joaquin Velazquez — my thoughts turned to their future. Looking back is a fun exercise, but peering through the fog of the future is trying.

Certainly some of the challenges that this year’s class will face are will be similar to those that my class confronted: jobs, college, early parenthood. And while my class had Nixon and Vietnam, this year’s graduating class has Afghanistan and Iraq, and the political sideshow named Donald Trump.

But just as my graduation night was filled with optimism and hope, so was this year’s group of seniors, who are overwhelmingly Latino. In their faces I saw the happiness of accomplishing a major goal. I heard the equivalent of the words “sí se puede” from the student speakers who took to the podium on a windy night.

When valedictorian Corina Yvonne Oroz spoke to her classmates, I heard encouragement and enthusiasm. When salulatorian Bernardo David Moyza Portillo (no relation to me) spoke, in English and Spanish, he gave sincere thanks to his family for supporting him.

Both Oroz and Moyza represent what is good and positive about Cholla and public education. They graduated at the top of their class, No. 1 and 2 respectively. Both participated in the school’s International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, rigorous college preparatory courses taken in junior and senior years. Both students received scholarships to Pomona College in California, among the country’s best four-year undergraduate colleges and universities.

Corina and Bernardo were not alone. There are scores of other graduating seniors from public schools who excelled and exceeded expectations.

Just as important, they upend the public perception that high school graduates today are undereducated slackers.

I have faith that today’s high school students, with their knowledge of technology and creative ways to use it, will overcome the challenges awaiting them.

When Cholla’s class of 1974 left the football field after its graduation ceremony, its members did the best they could. I expect nothing less from its class of 2016.

Go Chargers!

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at netopjr@tucson.com or at 573-4187.