NISKAYUNA -- Ivanna Buckley, a newly-minted Niskayuna High School graduate, couldn't let up on school work when school buildings were closed in March and learning moved online.
She had to graduate first.
“It took a lot of dedication,” Buckley said. “I had to be very strong, because if I wasn’t I wouldn't be able to graduate.” But she did the work and finished strong, receiving her diploma Thursday morning at Niskayuna High School’s drive-thru commencement ceremony outside the high school.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking, a little surreal,” she said of the outside ceremony. “But I’m excited we had something to do in the pandemic.” She plans to study at SUNY Schenectady in the fall.
As Ivanna and family started to drive off from the ceremony, allowing other students and families to fill in behind them, her mother beamed with happiness and confirmed her daughter’s hard work in recent weeks.
“She just nailed it down to graduate,” said Janice Buckley, the graduate’s proud mother.
A total of 261 Niskayuna graduates received their diploma at Thursday’s ceremony. A second round of diploma distribution is scheduled for Friday and the entire senior class was invited to watch a virtual ceremony full of speeches Thursday night at the Malta Drive-In theater.
School and district staff set up a stage outside the high school, welcoming graduates to come by to pick up their diplomas and celebrate with family, who could watch their loved one cross the graduation stage from delineated spots in the grass.
While many of the graduates lamented they couldn't graduate alongside their friends and all of their classmates, they were grateful of the school’s effort to give them a memorable commencement. Teachers and staff lined the walkway in front of the school -- “The teachers keep showing up to stuff,” graduate Brennan Piper noted of recent months –- and school leaders carefully directed cars as students and families basked in their achievements one graduate at a time.
“The school actually had a stage for us to graduate,” said Mark Ian Talattad, who plans to study music industry at the College of Saint Rose in the fall. “We didn’t think we would be able to have that.”
Talattad, like many of his fellow graduates, said the experience of finishing the final months of high school from home has taught him to value the little things in life –- and the big things like marking the end of high school.
“Every little thing is important,” Talattad said. “Value every single little moment you have, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Graduates breezed across the stage like they would any year, but principal John Rickert and others on stage wore face masks and gloves as they handed out diplomas. Families waited in their cars, so only a handful of students waited outside to cross the stage. Family members, who waited in their cars until just before their child was set to cross the stage, were directed to “pods” outlined in the grass to take pictures.
“It feels cool, and it’s a little bit weird,” said Zach Merrill, summarizing the view of many of his classmates.
The graduates were all clad in cap and gown – young women in red and young men in silver – and had matching Niskayuna face masks too. But even the chance to walk across the stage was a moment of relief for seniors who went from thinking they would finish the year like any other senior class to thinking they wouldn’t be able to celebrate with anything more than an online ceremony. The whiplash of the final months of high school finally came to an end for many of Niskayuna’s seniors.
“It was super exciting to walk across the stage,” said Lillian O’Connell, who plans to study journalism and Spanish at Louisiana State University in the fall. “We’ve had to cope through a hard situation, and we all took it really well.”
Each student had his or her own vision of what high school graduation was going to be like, but by Thursday morning the senior class had largely come around to the reality that all they can do is make the best of what’s in front of them.
“I was expecting a normal graduation,” said Walter Ross, who plans to study economics and play lacrosse at Le Moyne. “Everyone learned to change with how everything else was changing. Everyone had to adapt.”
Siona Shetty said she had never given much thought to what her final moments as a high school senior would be like. “I never thought about the actual moment, because it seemed so far away,” said Shetty, who plans to attend SUNY Binghamton in the fall.
Shetty said the transition to remote learning was hard but that she and her classmates were as prepared as they could be to do it. Their generation, after all, has spent most of their lives online.
“It’s kind of like second nature to us,” she said of shifting all communications and learning online overnight.
Azalea KarDi said she also prefers learning in person but that she made the transition online eventually.
“It’s a different way to learn,” said KarDi, who plans to study biology at Hudson Valley Community College in the fall and hopes to transfer to Cornell after two years. “It’s harder for me to learn on a computer screen than in person.”
Like her classmates, KarDi also said she has come to appreciate things in new ways. “I’ve learned to enjoy the little things,” she said.