Throughout her tenure as a student at Washougal High School (WHS), Grace Jacobsen overcame a variety of academic challenges on her way to becoming one of four valedictorians for the school’s class of 2020.
But during WHS’ virtual graduation ceremony, which was held Saturday, June 6, at the school and broadcast live on the school’s YouTube channel, Jacobsen acknowledged the unique nature of the task in front of her at that moment. If Jacobsen ever dreamed of making a valedictorian speech, she probably imagined speaking in front of hundreds of people on a pleasant evening at Fishback Stadium with her fellow graduates sitting closely behind her, not in front of a camera in a semi-dark, sparsely-occupied assembly hall, with her classmates listening via a computer, television or smart device.
“Throughout these last four years, I’ve faced stage fright performing in band concerts, late nights creating notes for Science Olympiad, and many hours studying for Advanced Placement (AP) tests, amongst other things,” Jacobsen said. “One of the more unusual challenges that I’ve encountered this year is giving this speech to an empty auditorium.”
WHS, along with all other public schools in Washington, closed in mid-March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and moved to a distance-learning model to finish out the 2019-20 school year. After the closure was announced, WHS and Washougal School District (WSD) leaders repeatedly promised that they would do everything in their power to ensure that the seniors could participate in as many senior celebratory events as possible.
The final celebratory weekend began on Friday, June 5, when a car parade event drew large crowds of family members, friends and other community members to downtown Washougal to enthusiastically support the seniors, who lurched down Main Street with music blaring, balloons and/or signs waving from their vehicles’ doors or tailgates, and smiles on their faces. After the parade, the seniors drove back to WHS, where they watched the sun go down from the parking lot — following proper social distance protocols, of course.
And the next day, they tuned in to YouTube from the comfort and safety of their homes to watch the school’s first virtual graduation ceremony. The event, which can be viewed at youtu.be/EBovXP6Ak6I, featured speeches from senior class adviser Melissa Tauialo, WHS principal Sheree Clark, valedictorians Thomas Hein, Jacobsen, Conrad Jones and Emily Van Orden, salutatorian Logan Coffman, Washougal School District superintendent Mary Templeton and WSD board directors Donna Sinclair, Angela Hancock, and Cory Chase; an announcement of the recipients of the four senior class awards; and a photo slideshow of the seniors in their caps and gowns.
Not surprisingly, several of the speakers talked about the pandemic’s effect on the seniors, and how their reactions and attitudes have helped to display and develop their character and mental toughness.
“Let me personally commend and thank each one of you for exhibiting such determination and grace during this unprecedented impact of COVID-19 and school closure,” Templeton said. “I am impressed with you, and I am thankful that you have collectively demonstrated the spirit behind the (fact) that Washougal High School and the district are indeed rising.”
“You are entering the world in tumultuous times,” Sinclair added. “Do not be discouraged. You no doubt will carry the strength and resilience provided by this moment with you. You are the future. You will face difficult choices; know that they can make you stronger. You will make mistakes; turn them into opportunities. You will have successes; remember, success comes in many forms. You have opportunities ahead of you; seize them. That you are the next generation of leaders gives me hope. May you face the future with courage, compassion and integrity.”
When the idea of a virtual graduation ceremony was presented to the seniors earlier this spring, they expressed willingness and gratitude, but also a strong desire to participate in an in-person event later this summer if possible. WSD leaders hope to hold such an event on Saturday, Aug. 8, when current crowd-size limitations could be lifted.
“Seniors, I hope you have felt the love. I cannot express how much you have been thought about, cared about and loved,” Clark said. “If we’ve done anything, I hope we have empowered you to be you. I’ve never known this group to quit or to stand down in its beliefs. In your senior year, you have faced a global pandemic and civil unrest, two pivotal (events) that will contribute to how you move forward with grace, humility, love and compassion. But it is up to you. I am beyond excited to see how each of you writes the rest of your story (and remain) humble. As always, I tell you all the time — be kind, do kind.”
Student speeches praise seniors’ ‘fighting spirit’
Hein, the first valedictorian to speak, talked about the value of certain attributes, including patience, accountability, honesty, respectfulness, humbleness and kindness, that he acquired during his high-school years, and how he and his fellow classmates can apply those traits to their future lives.
“(I’ve learned a) few simple, but important lessons in the past four years, lessons that go beyond books and classrooms – lessons in character,” said Hein, who will attend Washington State University to study mechanical engineering and join the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program with the hopes of becoming an aviator. “However, life is not about what you learn; it’s about how you use (what you learn). Going forth from here, I urge you to take at least one of these lessons to heart, and better yourself, your community and the world.”
Jacobsen’s speech highlighted her classmates’ strength and fortitude in the face of a variety of collective and individual challenges.
“Every single one of us has overcome something to get here, and that alone is worthy of recognition and celebration,” said Jacobsen, who will attend Washington State University and study mathematics with the goal of becoming a teacher. “Aside from the pandemic, we’ve overcome mental health issues, familial problems, poverty and many other obstacles. It is our resilience that has carried us through our past, and it is resilience that will propel us into our future.
“Our class has persevered. Every one of us should be proud to be here today. Each challenge that we’ve encountered thus far has been met with resilience, and I hope we all use the things that we’ve overcome as fuel to our success. As Maya Angelou said, ‘I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.’ Though life may confront us with a plethora of battles, some that we may not always win, we must be proud of our victories and learn from our losses. I believe that is how each one of us can succeed in life – by being resilient.”
Throughout his talk, Jones referred to the book ‘The Giving Tree’ by children’s author Shel Silvertein as a metaphor for the seniors’ academic and social development, and the importance of possessing a caring, generous spirit.
“With a little bit of imagination, it is easy to see us, the graduating class of 2020, as a forest,” said Jones, who will attend the United States Naval Academy and hopes to pursue a career as an officer and engineer. “We have been nurtured, mulched, rooted, weeded and trimmed. Our skills and occupations vary, as do our natural inclinations and desires. There’s a little voice inside every individual – the quiet voice of a ‘giving tree’ urging us to grow and develop. Follow this voice to produce shade, bear fruit and spread your roots through rocks and dirt. Be high-quality timber. You have been preparing for this your entire life.
“Storms will come and force us to dig deep. Water will pour down – sometimes too little and sometimes too much. As time progresses, our trunks will become mighty and our limbs gnarled. The class of 2020 needs to be dependable. Our branches must be able to support those climbing for a view. There are people out there that need you. Grow tall, strong and magnificent. Fulfill your role as a giver. Sacrifice for your people, your community, and as Shel Silverstein taught us, your little boy.”
Van Orden praised her classmates’ never-give-up attitude, and hopes they “continue to push boundaries” and “challenge the norm.”
“We refuse to accept the status quo and are not afraid to stand up and fight for what we deserve, what we believe and what we want,” said Van Orden, who will attend the University of Portland and major in biology with a goal of becoming a doctor. “I know that as we part to pursue our goals, we will continue to embody the fighting spirit of the class of 2020 with our determination to create change. The class of 2020 is a class of firsts. Some of us are the first to graduate in our families, the first to graduate with honors, the first to graduate in the top five percent or the first to graduate as valedictorian or salutatorian. We are the first class to graduate in this decade and the first class to graduate in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. We are living history right now, and it’s our turn to make a difference.”
Coffman encouraged his classmates to never let go of their favorite school memories and always remember that Washougal is a special place.
“For the last 12 years, we’ve all been enrolled in some form of public education, and it’s all we’ve known. Now we move on to the unknown with hopes of something new and exciting,” said Coffman, who will attend Washington State University to study chemical engineering and hopes to pursue a career in the automotive industry with a focus on renewable energy. “These next years of our lives should not scare us. It’s going to be a time of uncertainty, but also opportunity. Some may be heading to the military, some to four-year universities, others to trade schools or the workforce. As we all spread across the country and world, we have to remember one thing — where we’re from. Washougal is a great city because of our strong roots and powerful community.”
Awards embody school’s ‘pillars of pride’
After the students’ speeches, several WHS administrators announced the winners of four teacher-nominated awards that “represent the pillars of pride that we hold in high regard at WHS – perseverance, respect, integrity, diversity and empathy,” according to Clark.
Lillyanna Carranza was named as the winner of the Bootstrap Award, presented to a senior who shows resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity.
“Although we have many students at this school who represent these attributes, (Lillyanna) stood out,” WHS assistant principal Mark Castle said.
Jerry Peterson was announced as the winner of the Black and Orange Award, which goes to a senior who consistently represented WHS with loyalty, dignity and pride; and Brianna Gonser was named as the winner of the Citizenship Award, which goes to the senior who participated in school and/or community service and has shown a positive attitude toward classmates, school and community.
“Jerry bleeds orange and black,” WHS assistant principal Gary McGarvie said. “He brings joy to everyone around him, and I can’t wait to see Jerry down the road because whoever he encounters, they’re going to experience the same joy he’s brought to us here at WHS.
“Brianna has immersed herself in community services since the day she became a Panther,” he continued. “She has a smile for everyone. She gets along with all of her peers, and her character does not allow herself to get caught up in any drama. She is reliable, and you always know that she’ll be responsible, tell the truth and do her best without being showy.”
Rachel Lyall was named as the winner of the Kyle Cook Award, which goes to a senior who played an integral role in the success of the school’s band, choir and drama programs.
“(WHS choir teacher) Jeremy Totten said that Rachel has been a true leader in every sense of the word. She has helped to create unity within the department and is quite a vocalist,” WHS drama teacher Kelly Gregersen said. “Kelly Ritter, our band director, said Rachel has been an integral part of the program since the first day of her freshman year and is 100-percent committed to the success of the group, which she shows through preparedness and performance. In addition to being an outstanding bass clarinet player, she set a strong example for the other musicians with leadership and service and managed to do all of this while attending Running Start and giving her time to other organizations. For me, Rachel has played iconic roles on the stage, has been a huge leader and supporter behind the scenes and friend to a lot of students who needed one.”