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Minnesota’s 2020 graduates take nontraditional ceremonies in stride

This past weekend marked the final wave of regularly scheduled high school graduation ceremonies in Minnesota. Some have opted to postpone the event to a date later this summer, banking on more relaxed social distancing guidelines that will allow for larger in-person gatherings. 

Even those clinging to hopes of a more traditional commencement experience would describe the final weeks of their senior year as anything but. They’ve been doing school from home since mid-March, after the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to transition to a distance learning format. Spring sports were canceled, along with proms, spring performances and awards banquets. 

For students in the St. Paul Public Schools district, the disruption began about a week earlier, when their teachers went on strike. And the school year came to a close in the midst of protests that spread nationwide and beyond in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Determined to still honor their 2020 graduates, school leaders across the state came up with alternative commencement ceremony plans — settling on everything from completely virtual events to drive-through ceremonies.

Mindful of social distance guidance from state public health officials, MinnPost trailed seven graduates from five different high schools last week to capture their nontraditional graduation experiences. 

Washington Technology Magnet School & Central Senior High School

Both of these St. Paul Public Schools high schools held completely virtual graduations on June 3 — a format that the district announced for all of its schools on the last day of April. Families had the option to livestream the event online, watch it on cable TV, or catch an archived version for a later viewing. All graduation speakers prerecorded their speeches, in their caps and gowns. The speeches played at the beginning, then each graduate’s headshot showed up on the screen as their name was read aloud in lieu of walking across a stage to receive their diploma. Many schools also added personalized touches like additional photos from throughout the school year and student musical performances — also recorded in a virtual setting — to commemorate graduates. 

Bao Vang, 18, got to fulfill a long-time dream of delivering a farewell commencement address, which she watched alongside her parents in her living room on graduation day, texting with her Washington Tech friends as it aired. “Everything has been hard on all of us, but on the bright side, we all made it,” she said.   

This fall, she plans to attend Augsburg University, on a full-ride scholarship, to study business administration and finance.

Bao Vang watching her Washington Technology Magnet School graduation ceremony, surrounded by family, in her living room on June 3. They gathered at 5:30 p.m. to livestream the ceremony, by connecting a laptop up to their TV.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Bao Vang watching her Washington Technology Magnet School graduation ceremony, surrounded by family, in her living room on June 3. They gathered at 5:30 p.m. to livestream the ceremony, by connecting a laptop up to their TV.
Instead of delivering her farewell address in front of a large crowd, Vang had to get up early one morning — before the rest of the house woke up — to pre-record her speech. In it, she shared some advice about being flexible that she’d picked up during her high school years: “Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
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Instead of delivering her farewell address in front of a large crowd, Vang had to get up early one morning — before the rest of the house woke up — to prerecord her speech. In it, she shared some advice about being flexible that she’d picked up during her high school years: “Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Reflecting on her virtual graduation experience, Vang said it all left her feeling “kinda sad.” She felt she’d missed out on some of the details that make a more traditional ceremony feel special, like flowers and getting to take traditional graduation photos.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Reflecting on her virtual graduation experience, Vang said it all left her feeling “kinda sad.” She felt she’d missed out on some of the details that make a more traditional ceremony feel special, like flowers and getting to take traditional graduation photos.
Cassie DeVries, 18, also delivered a prerecorded graduation speech to her Central Senior High School peers, which she watched surrounded by a small group of family and friends as it streamed live on June 3. She talked about missed opportunities to make the in-person memories they’d all envisioned for their senior year and shared words of encouragement. “This finish line was brought to us,” she said. 

In the fall, she plans to attend Gustavus Adolphus College to study economics.

Central Senior High School’s virtual ceremony included a number of student music performances — a personalized touch that DeVries appreciated. “I got to see all of their faces,” she said, noting she’s known many of her peers since elementary school.
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Central Senior High School’s virtual ceremony included a number of student music performances — a personalized touch that Cassie DeVries appreciated. “I got to see all of their faces,” she said, noting she’s known many of her peers since elementary school.
Cassie DeVries and her parents
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Cassie DeVries and her parents pose for a photo prior to livestreaming her Central Senior High School graduation ceremony in a friend’s apartment on June 3. In her prerecorded commencement speech, she talks of dashed hopes for this day along with the need to “make the best of the situation.”

Eden Prairie High School

Based on student and parent input on alternative graduation ceremony plans that school officials collected through an online survey, the Eden Prairie High School graduation ceremony, originally slated for June 5, has been postponed to July 31. By breaking the graduating class into smaller groups and holding multiple in-person ceremonies outdoors, district officials hope to maintain a fairly traditional graduation ceremony experience. Prom has also been moved to July 25 and will be held at US Bank Stadium, with the possibility that it may still be canceled due to COVID-19. 

Troy Brown, 18, returned to Eden Prairie High School on June 4 to return his school-issued laptop and to pick up his cap and gown. School officials staggered seniors by assigning them time slots. They also taped arrows along the floor, directing students on a one-way course through the school. 

Brown says he enjoyed seeing some of the staff he liked playing basketball with during the school year. “I just wish we still could have come to school, because it’s like you’re missing a part of it,” he said while trying his cap on outside of the school building. 

He plans to attend either Mankato State University or another local college for two years, then transferring to a school in the south, to be closer to his extended family members. 

Upon entering Eden Prairie High School on June 4 to pick up his cap and gown, Troy Brown followed directions to put on a face mask and sanitize his hands. Staff had taped out a one-way path, winding through the building, for students to follow.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Upon entering Eden Prairie High School on June 4 to pick up his cap and gown, Troy Brown followed directions to put on a face mask and sanitize his hands. Staff had taped out a one-way path, winding through the building, for students to follow.
Troy Brown
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Brown dropped off his school-issued laptop, before heading to the cap and gown pick-up station. He says distance learning was a real challenge because he struggled to find motivation once baseball season got canceled, and to stay off his phone without reminders from his teachers to stay focused. He also picked up daytime work hours to help make car payments, and had to juggle work appointments with school work.
Troy Brown
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Brown could hardly wait to try on his graduation cap, once he exited the high school. He’s looking forward to the delayed in-person commencement ceremony, scheduled to take place in back-to-back waves of smaller cohorts on July 31. “I want to be able to throw my hat in the air with my friends.”

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School

This private Catholic school, located right off Lake Street in Minneapolis (at 2924 4th Ave. S.) sustained a few broken windows from the protests after the death of George Floyd. Staff boarded them up in advance of the school’s drive-through graduation ceremony, held on June 6. Each graduate had instructions to pack family members into one vehicle, and to pull up to one of two stations, where they received a diploma cover and posed for two photos — one alone, and one with two family members. 

Jennifer Agustin Ambrocio, 17, drove through the mini in-person graduation ceremony with her parents and three younger sisters. She says she was a bit nervous at first because she didn’t know what to expect. But seeing her teachers wave from the school’s rooftop and getting that in-person, formal recognition left her “feeling grateful.”

She plans to attend the College of Saint Benedict, on a full-ride scholarship, to study prelaw in the hopes of becoming an immigration lawyer.

Jennifer Augustin Ambrocio
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Jennifer Augustin Ambrocio’s father adjusts her graduation tassel, as they wait in line at the drive-through commencement ceremony at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School on June 6. She decorated her cap with quotes, flowers to represent her family’s landscaping business, gemstones and more.
Jennifer Augustin Ambrocio
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Augustin Ambrocio poses for a graduation photo with her parents, holding her diploma. “I didn’t expect it to be this meaningful,” she said of the event. “It’s a great way to feel loved and appreciated.”
Jennifer Augustin Ambrocio
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Augustin Ambrocio and her family drive past the graduate announcer in front of Cristo Rey, who read out names of graduates as they filed vehicles through two separate graduation stations.
Jaylen Cargill, 18, drove through with his mother and niece, with a few other immediate family members parking nearby and walking over to capture his official graduation photo op as well. He was pleasantly surprised by the event: “I thought it was going to be bland,” he said. “I didn’t expect all of this.”

He plans to attend Point Park University, in downtown Pittsburgh, this fall, on a basketball scholarship, to study electrical engineering.

Teachers and staff lined up along the rooftop of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School to partake in a drive-through graduation ceremony held in front of the school building on June 6. Their view from the opposite side of the building included a burnt down AutoZone — a relic of the riots that followed the death of George Floyd.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Teachers and staff lined up along the rooftop of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School to partake in a drive-through graduation ceremony held in front of the school building on June 6. Their view from the opposite side of the building included a burnt down AutoZone — a relic of the destruction that followed the death of George Floyd.
Jaylen Cargill
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Jaylen Cargill got out of his car for just a few minutes, to receive his diploma and to pose for a few photos, while listening to his name called out over a loudspeaker, with "Pomp and Circumstance" playing in the background. Distance learning posed some added challenges in closing out his senior year, he says, adding it “was part of the journey and I had to get it done.”

Delano High School

While most high schools in Greater Minnesota wrapped up graduation events in May, Delano High School waited until June 7 to hold a hybrid event. At 1:30 p.m., students watched a video portion that included remarks from school leaders and traditional graduation speeches, from home. Then they all filed to the high school — one graduate, plus immediate family members per vehicle — to take turns walking across a mini stage for an official photo op. As they drove up, each graduate received a face mask, embroidered with the school mascot, and social distancing instructions.

Tate Pappas, 18, pulled up in a convertible with his three older siblings and his parents, happy to make the most of a graduation event set-up unlike anything that his family had experienced before. “I’m just really grateful that we have a graduation,” he said, noting he especially appreciated the in-person element.

He plans to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago this fall to study business and run both track and cross country.

Tate Pappas
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Tate Pappas, along with his parents and three older siblings — all graduates of Delano High School — waits among the first wave of vehicles to complete the drive-through portion of this commencement ceremony. All of the speeches were livestreamed, earlier that afternoon. He watched it with his family, in their basement.
Tate Pappas
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Pappas poses for a few photos while walking across a stage set up outside of the front entrance to the high school building. He says he was grateful for the in-person element. He noted that he got together with other graduates earlier on to take some photos and to throw their caps up in the air together.
Olivia Taylor, 18, pulled up to the graduation stage station set up in front of the tennis courts in a van with her mother, step-father and two siblings. While waiting in line, her 9th-grade language arts teacher commemorated her with an impromptu guitar solo and song. “I’m surprised I didn’t cry at all today — no happy tears,” she said, before driving home to continue celebrating with family and a few friends. 

She plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to study elementary education.

Olivia Taylor
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Waiting in a lineup of vehicles filled with graduates and their family members, Olivia Taylor watches her peers take turns walking across a mini graduation stage set up outside of the tennis courts at Delano High School.
Taylor's family pulls up to the front of the drive-thru graduation queue, waiting to be handed a packet that included a face mask, embroidered with the school mascot, and social distancing instructions.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Taylor's family pulls up to the front of the drive-through  graduation queue, waiting to be handed a packet that included a face mask, embroidered with the school mascot, and social distancing instructions.
Olivia Taylor
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
After posing for a few photos, Taylor climbed back into her family’s van and headed home for a celebratory dinner. Reflecting on the drive-through experience, she said was a bit relieved that she didn’t have to worry about a thousand people watching her. “I’m surprised I didn’t cry at all today — no happy tears.”

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