For Soldotna High School’s graduating class of 2020, their last semester was anything but normal.
The Friday before spring break, March 4, ended up being the last day of in-person classes for schools in Alaska. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the state transitioned to virtual learning for the remainder of the semester.
“When we left it was like, OK don’t forget to do that math assignment and have the reading done by next Monday,” Soldotna senior and class of 2020 Salutatorian Alexandra Juliussen told the Clarion on Monday. “It’s weird to think that that was our last goodbye.”
Juliussen and her classmates spent their last days of high school in front of a computer screen, participating in Zoom meetings and long-distance movie nights instead of going to prom or cheering on their friends at soccer games.
Juliussen said that finishing up her last semester online was tough, especially with taking Advanced Placement courses. Advanced Placement courses culminate in an end-of-year exam that awards students with college credits if they do well. Juliussen said that group study sessions and classroom discussions, both of which weren’t possible this semester, were very beneficial for her in preparing for past exams.
In her prerecorded speech to her fellow classmates, Juliussen homed in on the importance of always believing in yourself, regardless of what’s going on in the world around you.
“Believe in yourself when no one else does,” Juliussen said. “Believe in your talent, your intellect and your abilities. Believe you can impact your own destiny. Believe you can, and it will be, no matter what life throws at you — whether it’s something you can control or it’s a global pandemic … We are the class of 2020. Our vision is clear.”
Soldotna’s 2020 graduation ceremony was done with social distancing in mind and took place in the parking lot of the high school rather than the auditorium. Prerecorded speeches by U.S. Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, Commencement Speaker Andrew “Tai” Lepule, the valedictorians and the salutatorian were all broadcast on local radio station KDLL before the ceremony began.
The graduates lined up in their cars and walked up to the stage one at a time, received their diplomas from a masked principal Tony Graham, and briefly removed their own masks long enough to take photos. Social studies teacher Nathan Erfurth announced the names of the graduates from underneath a tent next to the stage to keep out of the rain, and the event was broadcast live on the school’s Facebook page as well as KDLL.
Despite the unconventional ceremony, the friends and families of the graduates were out in full force. Many of the cars, RVs and trailers were decorated with balloons and congratulatory messages, and the honks and cheers could be heard from across the parking lot as Erfurth announced the names of each graduate. A few residents from the neighborhood adjacent to the school even watched and cheered from the other side of the fence.
Soldotna High School had two valedictorians for the class of 2020: Cameron Blackwell and Autumn Chumley.
For her speech, Chumley talked about the importance of holding onto the memories that were made in high school, even if they weren’t the ones they expected.
“None of us could have predicted that March 5 would be our last day of high school,” Chumley said in her speech. “Growing up, we never pictured our graduation to look like this. Although we have our diploma, we won’t have the memory of walking across the stage or throwing our caps into the air. We have all made new, unique memories, like hosting Zoom hangouts or long-distance movie nights on Netflix. We’ve all missed milestone events, like prom and senior night, but we shouldn’t forget the memories we made before this pandemic.”
Blackwell talked about not taking anything for granted and the bittersweet feeling of having years of hard work recognized in such an unconventional manner.
“The class of 2020 is one resilient class,” Blackwell said. “We’ve survived major earthquakes, wildfires, walking to and from the prep school in subzero temperatures, and of course, this pandemic. But with all these hardships, we have managed to make the best of our situations. With such an anticlimactic end to our high school careers, I really hope this isn’t how we remember all the good times we’ve had these past four years.”
Blackwell also spoke with the Clarion ahead of her graduation on Monday and talked about some of the creative ways she and her friends managed to stay social: Once, a few of them drove down to the beach, formed a circle with their vehicles, and hung out with each other from the comfort of their trunks and truck beds. Another time, everyone made a different dessert and placed them all on one table, potluck style. Then everyone took turns going up to the table and grabbing a little of everything that their friends had made.
For these seniors, it wasn’t just the obvious things that they missed out on, like prom and Senior Skip Day. It was the little things, too, that so many seniors in the past may have taken for granted.
Galen Brantley III, who was the captain of the football team and also participated in track and field throughout his high school career, had his heart set on breaking the school’s shot put record this year.
“Last year I was second in the state for the shot put, so I really think I had a shot,” Brantley said. The record has been in place for about 20 years and was previously held by Brantley’s dad, so he was hoping to bring that prestige back to the family.
For Elena Dimitrovski, it was not being able to wear the prom dress that her grandma had made for her.
For Eve Downing, one of the strangest parts of this semester was having her final class without hearing that final bell ring for the summer.
“Even in other years there’s that feeling of, summer’s here, you’re out of class, you’re excited,” Downing said. “I had my last online Zoom class on Thursday and was sitting alone in my room when it hit me: this is it. High school is over.”
Despite the challenging situation they found themselves in, many seniors managed to find a silver lining or two in the midst of all the chaos.
Downing said she was appreciative of the extra time she got to spend with her family, helping her little brother with his school work and bonding with her parents before she moves all the way to Maine, where she plans to attend Bowdoin College in the fall.
Dimitrovski said that the extra time she had from not being in school actually helped her decide what she wanted to do after she graduated. Before the quarantine, she said, she had no idea what was next for her. Her time in isolation, as well as some inspiration from her English teacher Sarah Erfurth, made her realize what was important in her life. Dimitrovski will now be attending the University of Texas Austin, pursuing a degree in English and possibly a career in journalism.
When asked what advice they had for the incoming class of seniors at Soldotna High School, all of the graduates who spoke to the Clarion had the same basic message: appreciate what you have, live in the moment, and don’t take anything in life for granted.
“Follow your dreams,” Dimitrovski said. “If you don’t, you’re not living, you’re just surviving.”
“Maybe choose to spend a little extra time with your friends and family instead of cramming for that last test,” Downing said.
“Go to those sports games, prom, any event you can,” Juliussen said. “Appreciate it all.”
“Live in the moment, and be grateful for everything you get,” Brantley said.
“Keep a positive outlook, and take advantage of all the opportunities you’re given,” Blackwell said.
The commencement ceremony for Soldotna High School will be available for viewing on the high school’s Facebook page.