As Nelena Peterson walked across the stage inside Mohonasen High School’s auditorium, her dad, Mozelle, called out in celebration.
“There’s my baby,” he said.
Nelana, joined by a handful of other Mohonasen seniors, received her diploma and stood for countless snapped pictures: she was the newest Mohonasen graduate.
“It feels amazing,” she said after completing a small ceremony at the high school, one of about 30 small graduation ceremonies the school has scheduled throughout the week in an effort to offer an intimate and family-full recognition to over 200 graduates in the Class of 2021.
At set time slots, about a half dozen students were scheduled to cross the stage, with the smaller ceremonies enabling as many family and friends to join as possible. Some students were joined by groups of 10 or more supporters, many pulling out camera phones to snap pictures. Some students made sure to schedule the same graduation time as their closest friends.
The graduates and their families also recalled family members they have lost in the past year – family who joined in spirit.
Nelana said her older brother died in the last year, another challenge to overcome as she worked through the difficulty of virtual learning in a pandemic on her way to earning her diploma.
“It was hard because he was supposed to be there with me,” Nelena said of her brother. “But I did it without him, and I did it for him.”
Nelena was joined by a coterie of families and friends who cheered her on.
“I feel like it was better because more of my family could see me graduate,” she said of the small ceremony.
Nelena’s dad, Mozelle, said he enjoyed the format that allowed for more visitors and didn’t mind the shortened version over the long slog of graduation ceremonies where more than 200 students are called to the stage one-by-one.
“It feels great, she did it,” he said. “I’m so proud of her.”
Gillian Oleksiak, who also crossed the graduation stage Tuesday afternoon, said that her dad who died in January was watching her on her special day.
“I did this for my dad. He’ll be proud,” she said after the ceremony. “He was my everything and my best friend, and I know he is looking down on me today. I did this for him, it’s all for him.”
She said she was glad to have her family and friends at Tuesday’s ceremony to support her and acknowledged that the unknown of what comes next is scary. But she also said she felt excited and relieved to put the challenges of high school – especially virtual learning – behind her and set out on her next adventure.
“I’m going to take each day at a time and find my way to find what I love,” she said.
Mohonasen Principal Craig Chandler said the small ceremonies, which the school initiated last year amid pandemic restrictions, has won positive feedback from students and families who appreciate the intimate setting. Other districts have to limit guests at larger planned ceremonies. The school is also hosting a June 24 event at the Jericho Drive-In, which will include pre-recorded speeches and a slide show.
“We wanted kids to bring as many special guests as they wanted to,” Chandler said.
Mohonasen senior Brianna Santiago said her final year was a struggle with most learning happening online, noting that she learns better inside a classroom. But she was also happy to have her own cheering section at the small graduation.
“School was really tough this last year, and the other years I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she said. “It was nice seeing everyone, seeing that the people that support me were there.”