Nikiski Middle/High School’s graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 was a little unconventional — or as Principal Dan Carstens put it in his introductory speech Tuesday night, “historic.”
“After all,” Carstens said. “This is the first Nikiski graduation that will be taking place outside.”
Carstens spoke from a flatbed trailer that was set up as a stage in the parking lot of the high school to an audience of cars filled with the 40 graduates and their families.
Because of the social distancing mandates put in place by the state, traditional graduation ceremonies weren’t an option this year, so schools around the district had to improvise.
At Nikiski, graduates were in cars spaced 6-feet apart, and listened to the ceremony from their car radios. The scene resembled a drive-in theater, except the cars were facing a stage decorated with balloons and bulldogs rather than a silver screen.
Speeches were given by Carstens, commencement speaker and retiring teacher Joe Rizzo, class president Bryan McCollum, salutatorian Tika-Marie Zimmerman and the school’s three valedictorians: America Jeffreys, Kaitlyn Johnson and Joseph Yourkoski. Graduate Madeline Weeks performed the national anthem, and Zimmerman and Johnson crafted a senior slideshow that couldn’t be aired during the ceremony but is available on the school’s Facebook and YouTube pages.
Rizzo is retiring after teaching, coaching and directing at Nikiski High School since 1998. He was chosen by the Class of 2020 to be the commencement speaker. His speech revolved around asking the students one question, a question that director Ron Howard often asked his kids as they were growing up: If life were a movie, would the audience like the character that you play?
“In other words, are you Jim, or are you Dwight?” Rizzo said. “Are you Pam, or are you Meredith? Justin Hammer or Iron Man? Sniveling General Hux or Han Solo? Do you want to be Claire Bryce, the kick-butt girl from Jurassic World? Or that annoying assistant that gets eaten by a dinosaur?”
After the speeches, the graduates exited their vehicles one a time as their names were announced by Assistant Principal Shane Bostic, made their way to the stage in masks and grabbed their diplomas off the table before heading behind the stage to take photos and grab a goodie bag.
When these seniors left school to go on spring break this year, they had no idea that would be their last time in the hallways and classrooms of Nikiski High School. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person classes were canceled across Alaska for the remainder of the semester.
Ahead of the ceremony, a few of the graduates spoke to the Clarion about what it was like to finish their last semester of high school behind a computer screen.
Hamilton “Hammie” Cox told the Clarion on Monday that when in-person classes were canceled, a lot of his motivation, like many other students, went out the window. Cox said part of the struggle was worrying that he wouldn’t get the recognition for all his hard work over the years that normally comes with traditional graduation ceremonies.
Cox spent his fall semesters at Nikiski playing football, and during the spring he participated in track and field. For the last two years, Cox has been a member of the National Honor Society, and this year he was co-president of NHS along with his classmate Sidney Epperheimer. Cox was also student council vice president and a member of the school’s TATU (Teens Against Tobacco Use) club.
Cox said that at first, not returning to school just meant a welcome extended spring break. He spent his extra free time focusing on his hobbies, like reading, blacksmithing and playing guitar. After a while, however, the novelty of not being in school began to wear off, and the realization that he wouldn’t be going back began to set in.
“It was kinda like if you ate your favorite meal every day for a year,” Cox said. “The first week or so is great, but after a while, it gets old.”
On the bright side, Cox said, he was finally able to catch up on his sleep.
Cox has plans to attend Asbury University in Kentucky in the fall, but only if he can physically attend classes. He said that the school is trying to make that happen, but if it doesn’t, he will likely start his college career at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Either way, he’ll be pursuing a degree in secondary education with a focus in history and hopes to become a teacher like many others in his family.
For senior Mason Payne, some of the biggest letdowns of this semester came from missing prom and his last high school soccer season. Payne said that they had just started practicing for the season, but didn’t make it to the first game before the lockdown began.
It wasn’t all bad news for Payne either, because the extra time he had on his hands helped him figure out his post-graduation plans. Payne said he’d like to work his way to becoming a wildlife trooper for the Alaska State Troopers, a decision his dad helped him make during their time together outside of school.
While the soccer season wasn’t even able to start, the basketball season was well underway when everything got canceled.
Senior Kaycee Bostic recalls being at the regional basketball tournament in Anchorage over spring break when the world suddenly got a little crazier.
“We were just there to play basketball, and all of a sudden there were all these health announcements being made in the gym,” Bostic said.
The Nikiski girls team played their last game against Anchorage Christian School, and while they didn’t win, Bostic said that she and her teammates played the best that they had played all year. In the last 30 seconds, ACS allowed Bostic’s teammate Jeffreys — who was out for the season from an injury — to make one final basket.
The seniors of Nikiski High School know that hindsight is 20/20, and in all their speeches and interviews with the Clarion, they touched on the importance of living in the moment and appreciating the journey they took together, regardless of how they got there.
“Live every moment, because you never know what’s going to try and stop you,” senior Jordyn Stock told the Clarion.
“Always go all in on everything,” Bostic said.
“We will look back at this year, and instead of being sad that our senior year was different, we’ll laugh at the memories of looking like bank robbers as we receive our diplomas,” Yourkoski said in his valedictorian speech.