Nearly all of the students thanked their parents. Most of them also praised their teachers. And then they expressed gratitude for the variety of career-building courses offered as electives at their schools.

Don't pinch yourself. This really happened Thursday at the Concord Senior Center, where 45 Students of Excellence were honored for their achievements in the Contra Costa County Office of Education's Regional Occupation Program.

About 12,000 East Bay students from 38 high schools participate in ROP, as it's known, studying under expert instructors in fields ranging from radio broadcasting to automotive technology to robotics engineering. The aim is to provide youths with experiences that can lead to careers, but the takeaway often is more than that.

"I discovered my career choice and my passion," said Cameron Susa, who studied advanced sports medicine at Monte Vista High and interned with the Danville Oaks Rugby Club. "I met great people along the way, and I had great opportunities. I can't wait to see what the future holds."

There were award winners who excelled at cabinetmaking, web design, play production and digital photography. Brandon Osborne, of Heritage High, was commended for his achievements in law enforcement training. Saamia Haqiq, of California High, excelled at analytical forensic science.

"It was one of the best decisions I've ever made," Haqiq gushed. "I've learned to lift fingerprints and to check on how long a body has been dead with only a few resources."

Well, sure. Somebody needs to know how to do that.

The award winners, nominated by their teachers, each received $200 cash scholarships -- John Muir Health, Chevron and Walnut Creek Honda supplied the funding -- and certificates of achievement as they were individually acknowledged on stage. They also heard from Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, who reflected on the importance of the career training he received in high school.

"I was on the path to play football in college," he said, "and I got hurt my senior year. Because I took wood shop and metal shop classes, I had a skill set that enabled me to enter the carpenters' apprenticeship program and become a journeyman. I don't know what I would have done if I didn't have that."

The students honored Thursday didn't need much convincing about ROP's value. Many talked about how the program had helped them explore their hidden passions. Others said classes opened their eyes to opportunities they didn't know existed.

Logan Silliman, a San Ramon Valley High senior who studied introduction to engineering, said, "I went into the class not knowing what engineering entailed, and I'm leaving the class to study chemical engineering at USC next year."

There were also moments of humor as the winners took turns at the microphone. After Josephine Huynh, of Richmond High, thanked her parents and sports medicine instructor Stan Nakahara, she added, "I'd like to thank my little brother and two sisters for being my practice dummies for wrapping and stretches."

The occasion was poignant for a couple of reasons. It marked the 40th year of Contra Costa ROP -- and the last appearance as emcee for retiring county Superintendent of Schools Joe Ovick, who got the last word.

"This is one of the best parts of my job," he said. "By honoring these kids today, it reminds me our future is in good hands."

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.