The tassels were turned and plenty of pictures were taken Saturday when the Marshall High School Class of 2020 walked across the stage to accept their diplomas.

But, instead of a gym packed with supporters and the students sitting next to each other, eagerly anticipating the final step in their 4K-12 school career, each individual senior took that last step without their peers present. Just like many high schools across the nation, the planned graduation ceremony was interrupted by the coronavirus, but the school district found ways to keep aspects of its traditions.

Several speeches including those by four selected seniors were pre-recorded and available to view online as part of the virtual ceremony

Gianna Dugan said while the Class of 2020 may not have gotten the traditional end to its school career, her fellow seniors can say they made amazing memories along the way. She recounted the shared memories of the Early Learning Center and elementary school. Among them was when district activities and athletics secretary would help them zip up coats and tie boots before heading outside for recess.

“We still look to Amy to send us out into the real world as she has been with us every step of the way,” Dugan said. “So, shout out to you, Amy, for being the best role model a group of chaotic students could have.”

Aubrie Kappes continued to share memories, focusing on middle school.

“Middle school might not have been the best years for all of us but we still made some pretty good memories,” she said. “Whether that be launching eggs in (Clark) Bliske’s class or laughing a little too hard in P.E.; falling down a staircase one too many times or forgetting to unclip the microphone in band class.”

Gabriella Campos said thankfully, the Class of 2020 was able to get the first 70% of senior year “but unfortunately, the world had other plans for us.” She mentioned this made the senior class the first to experience the final year of school amid a pandemic.

As she recapped the four years in high school, the senior talked about how the class had matured since freshmen year and accomplishments along the way.

But Campos told her peers failure is going to be a part of life.

“We spend so much time working toward what society defines as success that we sometimes forget why we’re striving for success in the first place,” the graduate said. “This is why I believe it is important to keep reminding yourself of what makes you happy. … I want you guys to know if you are not happy on your journey to your goals, it might be time to refocus and shift your goals… Unlike most graduation speeches say, it should not matter if you reach your end goals or not, as long as you’re having fun and moving forward. That’s all that matters.”

Ireland Virgil told her classmates being a Marshall Cardinal has made them all hungry to always get better and never be satisfied with a comfortable plateau.

“Now is the time to transfer our dreams into reality, turn our aspirations into actions and define our legacy,” she said.

The student recalled the 2019 commencement speech JJ Watt gave at UW-Madison, where he said the path to one’s dreams often never go the way it was expected. Virgil found this to be true for people’s high school education.

“But here you are, accomplishing one of your dreams,” she said. “And if you still have no idea what to do with the rest of your life, that is OK.”

The senior told her classmates to be appreciative, be optimistic and look for the best in people, and stay true to themselves.

To quote education advocate Malala Yousafzai, the Marshall student said: “I know we are heading into an uncertain future and everyone claims that things will not be the same as they were before, but I know they will get better because when we go through some tough challenges, we learn about who we are and what we value in life.”

Virgil said while the seniors may not know who they are or what they value just yet, but they will continue to grow and find value.

Dean of Students Matt Kleinheinz said while the pandemic changed the date and structure of the graduation ceremony, it did not impact who the seniors wanted as their staff speaker. High school science teacher Danielle Bendt recalled when as freshmen, many of the students walked through the door of her biology class were eager to learn, do all things deemed “high schoolish” and even test the limits.

“Over the last four years I have watched them grow and mature into leaders,” Bendt said. “With this leadership, they demonstrated the importance of involvement in their community, the importance of tenacity, and the importance of overcoming adversity.”

Bendt said even with all the challenges brought on by the pandemic, she admired their tenacity to succeed at the end of their senior year.

“In a world that is unfair, having the ability to turn adversity to opportunity demonstrates exceptional character,” she said.

Her final advice for the seniors was: no matter what obstacles or challenges the teenagers face, those do not define the individuals; be curious and ask questions; and make lots of new mistakes because “it means you are actually living.”

Superintendent Dan Grady said the Class of 2020 demonstrated resilience, optimism, perseverance and kindness.

“None of us would have ever predicted the end of your senior year and your ability to celebrate graduation together would have been changed so dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Grady said the past two years he has seen the students excel in the classroom, on stage and competition fields. The superintendent told the graduates to be proud of their accomplishments.

“Dream. Set goals and work hard,” Grady said. “Don’t stop learning. Read books, take classes and participate in learning things that interest you. Live and share your passion with others. Find time to give of yourself.”

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