As hundreds looked on, walking across the stage at the Staples High School field house Wednesday for the Class of 2011 commencement exercises could have been intimidating for Devin Sussmane.

The graduate has Down syndrome and a shy public demeanor. But as she listened for her name to be called, she looked up and saw two smiling faces in back and front of her: Jesse, her twin brother, and his girlfriend, Kate McNee.

As soon as Devin's name was announced, a roar from the audience rocked the field house. Without hesitation, she strode across the stage to collect her diploma.

"I felt great to be up there with my sister," said Jesse, who will attend Tulane University in the fall. "We went through the last four years together, so I was so happy to share that moment with her."

Along with 466 other graduating seniors, the trio celebrated the end of their education at Staples -- and looked to the future during a buoyant afternoon ceremony.

More Information

MORE PHOTOS OF STAPLES GRADS For more photographs of Wednesday's commencement ceremony for the Staples High School Class of 2011, see page A16 of today's Westport News and for a large online gallery of color photos, check www.westport-news.com.

Representative of the scores of smartphones, digital cameras and HD camcorders that bristled in nearly every row of the audience, valedictorian Eric Lubin's speech noted that his class's coming-of-age coincided with a panoply of technological advances.

"The world, in the span of just four years, has developed into one highly aligned with technology," said Lubin, who will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Information is at our fingertips 24 hours a day with smartphones that respond to a single touch. And Internet sites like Facebook have redefined how we build communities and connect to each other."

While the ceremony highlighted a forward-thinking graduating class, the traditional outpouring of pride and jubilation among family members prevailed.

"It was a really nice moment to see Jesse and Devin and Kate up there together," said the Sussmane twins' mother, Elaine Zapfel. "This school has been great for both of them. For Devin, as a special-needs student, everyone has been so accepting."

Devin will attend a program at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield this fall, while McNee will attend the University of Maryland.

After escaping the stifling heat of the field house, the '11 graduates gathered in the Staples courtyard with family and friends to reflect on their accomplishments.

"It's pretty unbelievable; it hasn't quite hit me yet," said Samantha Hardy, who will attend the University of Tampa. "I've definitely learned a lot. Staples has helped to shape me into the person I've become."

For Samantha's two older brothers, Matt and Chris, Wednesday's ceremony evoked memories of their own graduation.

"It means a lot to come back to see the school, to see how it's changed," said Matt, a 2003 Staples graduate. "But it's good to be back here to see my sister graduate."

"It's odd that I was here six years ago, I can't believe it's gone by so fast," added Chris, a Staples 2005 graduate.

Reflecting on their high school careers, several of the graduates noted that their classroom learning comprised just a fraction of what they learned during the last four years.

"I'd say 10 percent of what I learned was academics, and the other 90 percent was how to deal with people," said Ross Gordon, who will attend Northwestern University in the fall. "If you don't know how to deal with people you're not going to get very far."

Forging new relationships will be a major factor in the collegiate experience, added Jesse Sussmane, who plans to pursue pre-med studies.

"I'm really looking forward to college," he said. Then, he glanced at his mother with a wry smile. "And now I can get away from Mom!"