While hundreds of friends and family members usually gather in the large gym at Unalaska City School in anticipation for the seniors to begin their ceremonial walk down the aisle for graduation, this year's UCSD event looked far different.
In groups of five – each with two selected family members present, sitting socially distanced from other families – Unalaska's 35 graduates marched across the gym stage in seven mini ceremonies throughout the afternoon. And while the familiar melody of Pomp and Circumstance brought up memories of former graduations packed full of families, on Saturday, most loved ones watched from screens at home, in an effort to observe various health mandates that restrict social gatherings and proximity in the wake of the coronavirus.
Officers from the Department of Public Safety later led a caravan of graduates around the island. In cars decorated with happy graduation messages in glitter and gold, the seniors were greeted with cheers and waves from Unalaskans standing in their doorways and along the side of the road, keeping their distance.
Despite the joy present during the graduation festivities, the Class of 2020 has faced an incredibly difficult year: from losing a number of classmates to facing the effects of a global pandemic that cancelled their prom, required them to learn from home for the past few months of their high school careers, and called for a graduation ceremony that was far from traditional.
Valedictorian Ariel "JR" Go said the past few months have been hard. From doing school work from home and not being able to spend the last few weeks of high school with his classmates, he's felt like he's missing out.
"I think it's not as satisfying," said Go. "It's not like other seniors in the past who got to actually do their graduation with the rest of their class. We are divided into cohorts, and it's just not as fun and exciting as it could have been if we were having the full experience, you know?"
Even though Go's prom and graduation – and last couple months of the school year – were unconventional, he's excited for the future. Go is planning on moving to New Jersey for college to major in accounting and legal business studies, if universities open back up by the fall. But he said it's going to be a hard transition after growing up in such a small, supportive community.
"I'm used to leaving my car keys in my car and just being able to walk around without worrying about people mugging me," he said. "That sense of trust here in our community and that support that we get from people – that's kind of hard to find in other places. And again, I'm going to New Jersey, and that place is way different from here. So it's going to be a pretty hard transition."
Ellen Yang agreed with Go. She said she's fortunate she grew up in a town where she's known all her classmates since kindergarten.
"Even though it's a small community, we got close with the 30 people that we were with while we were growing up. So I think it's special," she said.
Yang is planning on attending Fresno Pacific University in California to study business administration. But she's unsure whether or not classes will be online or on-campus because of the pandemic. No matter what her classes end up looking like, she said she's excited to live in a larger city and to meet new people.
Gilmar Tapaoan, who plans on attending University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) in the fall to study journalism and communications, with minors in gender studies and sociology, said he wanted to graduate for his grandmother, who died two years ago.
"This was her dream," said Tapaoan. "Every night when I was asleep or sometimes when I was going to the bathroom, I heard them talking. She and my grandpa were always talking about my graduation, her dream. Her dream was watching me walk down that aisle, turning that tassel, and saying 'I did it.'"
Tapaoan said Saturday was a big day, not only for his class, but for the entire community. He's loved every minute of the past year that he was able to spend with his classmates and friends, who he's known nearly his entire life. And seeing the hardship his class has endured over the past few years, he said it's a big accomplishment.
Following the tragic loss of senior Alexis Magalong earlier this year, as well as the loss of Karly McDonald and Kiara Renteria Haist last spring, the Class of 2020 has been worn thin emotionally. In combination with the abrupt loss of recent graduate and local Trey Henning this February, it was a devastating year for the graduating seniors, as well as for the community at large.
"Our class has been through so much," said Tapaoan. "Knowing that we've lost five people in our class over the years that we were all close to, that we all know, that we all grew up with, it hurts. It hurts because we expected them to have a great future. I expected Alexis to have a great future. She had everything ahead of her. I know Kiara wanted to be a makeup artist in New York and she wanted to be a therapist. She wanted to do so much good in the world and it was taken away. But while I know that they're all gone physically, spiritually, I know they're here."
Tapaoan said that following an incredibly rough year, he's shocked that he's graduating. And while he was sad to cancel his plans to go to a number of Pride parades around the country this summer, he said he has never been happier than on graduation day. He was excited to put on his high heels and makeup and walk down the aisle with a few of his friends to accept his high school diploma.
"Knowing that I finally did it and thinking about [how] I'm the first generation of my whole family that's actually going to college is kind of exciting," he said. "I'm excited to graduate, and at least I get to walk down the aisle with some of my friends and my classmates. I'm extremely overwhelmed with joy because I did it. And I can say that I'm out of high school now. I'm an adult and I'm going to college soon. Well, hopefully."
The coronavirus pandemic has altered many events this spring, and the future is uncertain. Whether Go, Yang, or Tapaoan will be able to attend classes at their colleges in the fall is still unclear, but they said this day wasn't about that. Saturday was a day to honor the accomplishments of the Class of 2020, and like UCSD Superintendent John Conwell said to the graduating class in their virtual graduation video, "There will be brighter days ahead."