Mount Edgecumbe High School graduates make history in first virtual ceremony

May 20, 2020

Tara Nicole Nassuk of Koyuk, right, was one of 94 seniors to graduate from Mount Edgecumbe High School in 2020. Because students have been home for nearly two months, the ceremony was held virtually. Instead of walking across the stage to receive their diplomas, students sent in photos and videos shaking hands with loved ones as their names were read. (Photo courtesy of Mount Edgecumbe High School)

Mount Edgecumbe High School graduates made history May 7, 2020, when they received their diplomas during the school’s first ever virtual graduation ceremony joining in from their home villages all across the state.

Baby pictures, cap and gown portraits, and photos encompassing four years of high school memories rotate through a slideshow, and a little “Pomp and Circumstance” signifies that Mount Edgecumbe High School’s graduation has begun.

Superintendent Janelle Vanasse welcomes the graduates first.

“Like many of you, I came to Mount Edgecumbe four years ago with my eyes wide open,” she says. “The class of 2020 has always held a special place in my heart as the class I started with. I have loved watching you grow.”

The students’ chosen faculty speaker, art teacher Katie Mulligan, shares what she’s learned from this year’s graduates.

“Your class has taught me many things,” she says. “Helping others will get you through the toughest times in life. Being true to yourself is the bravest thing you can do and life is meant to be squeezed to the last drop, and lived with joy regardless of what is thrown at you.”

Then honored students from across the state join in, clad in graduation gear, to share the speeches that, in a typical year, they would have spoken from the podium. Now they’re speaking to a webcam. First, salutatorian Robin Masterman from Bethel and then Valedictorian Vernae Ramoth from Ambler share words of encouragement for their fellow graduates.

“Although our final year did not end as it traditionally would, we are still fully capable of starting our adult life as strongly and as lively as we can,” says Ramoth.

They’re followed by the 2020 student representative speakers, Drew Jackson of Kake and Adeline Dyment of Bethel. Both Jackson and Dyment spoke about how they considered their fellow graduates as family, more than classmates.

“Whenever I think back on the laughs and jokes and good times, I don’t remember it as joking with my classmates or even my friends,” Jackson says. “I think back on it as joking with my family. I miss all of you, and there’s no other group of people that I would rather graduate with.”

Dyment speaks of perseverance in the face of obstacles- and said when a door closes in life, graduates should open it again.

“Our time as seniors has come to an early end and this is not how any of us imagined any of it would end. This pandemic has canceled events that we were looking forward to. The state basketball tournament, Native Youth Olympics, prom, the sports awards banquet, the academic awards ceremony,” she says. “And now it has canceled one of the most important events in our lives. A traditional graduation ceremony, a ceremony that we’ve been working hard for years.” 

“We together, notwithstanding the pandemic, did not give up. We did not leave the door shut. We opened the door again and still continued to virtually go to class and study remotely in our homes. We didn’t let the difficulty fully discourage us,” she continues. “So seniors, the class of 2020, keep opening shut doors. They’re doors, that’s how they work.”

As graduates' names are read, pictures flash in front of the screen — students shaking the hands of parents and loved ones in place of the handshakes that would have happened on stage when receiving their diplomas. And finally, principal Bernie Gurule directs them to move their tassels over to the other side. They’ve done it, they’ve graduated.

Though the graduates don’t get to be in the same place to mark  the occasion, the ceremony includes a video clip from back in March, shortly before their unexpected early departure, when everyone was still together in Sitka.

The clip shows students in their gowns, on a sunny day outside the school taking photos and throwing their caps in the air, celebrating this momentous occasion a couple months early.