Graduating Portage High School seniors had more than two months to reflect on life and school as they stayed mostly at home during the public health emergency.
Jaden Perez thought a lot about his classmates, teachers and other school staff — the people he will see only virtually in Friday’s graduation ceremony. Perez, selected by his peers as the class speaker, will address for graduates the uncertainty of life after high school, the importance of resilience and embracing change as the class of 2020.
“Cherish what you have,” Perez said of the most important thing he’s learned during the pandemic. “I know that’s really cliché, but it’s true. This has been tough for all of us, but I think we’ve managed and learned to appreciate everyone.”
Perez will attend the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the fall and likely someday pursue a career in math or science. He and other graduates said they’re thankful for what the school and community have done for them under difficult circumstances. Local first responders, for example, will escort them as they drive to the high school in staggered groups to individually (and safely) walk across an outdoor stage Friday as a few of their loved ones look on.
“Nobody knew it would be our last day of school,” senior Gabrielle Garrigan said of March 13, the last day Portage students attended school in person. “I remember I was stressing out over a biology test and I thought we’d be back.”
She regrets missing softball season, a senior trip to Devil’s Lake State Park, Project Graduation planning and “just being there and finishing out the year with my friends and all those memories and milestones that we would have had together.”
The seniors picked someone special to them to hand them their diplomas earlier this spring – a process that was photographed for the school’s virtual ceremony that will be available on the district’s website and on social media beginning at 7 p.m. today.
Garrigan picked her father, Dan Garrigan, while Perez chose his mother and grandmother.
“Even though it’s not what we all expected, it’s really nice to see Mr. (Josh) Sween and the school push so hard for this,” Perez said of graduation. “I think what they’ve put together for us is amazing.”
Sween, the principal, will open today’s prerecorded ceremony with a speech to graduates followed by a speech from Perez. The school recognizes its top 10 scholars, seniors who finished their high school careers with a 4.0 or better grade-point-average and nine foreign exchange students who had traveled here from Spain, Mexico, Germany, Thailand, Ukraine and elsewhere.
All 172 graduates will receive about 10 seconds of pictures followed by a speech from Superintendent Margaret Rudolph. Toward the end of the ceremony they’re asked to all stand together – from home – and move their tassels from the right to left side.
“We’re trying to give them that one last memory so they can get that closure,” Sween said of the drive-by graduation arrangement and virtual ceremony. “We’ve said all along if there was ever a chance to do something in person, we would, but some of that is looking fairly unlikely right now. Some of our seniors, as early as next week, are heading to basic training for the military or leaving the state for college or something else. So if we planned for something in August, we knew, unfortunately, that many of them might be gone. That’s why we wanted to give them the sendoff they deserve (now).”
The entire class might still get together at Devil’s Lake State Park at some point in the late summer, if the public health emergency allows for it, Garrigan said. “Nothing is for certain, but we’ve been talking about doing that in August. We’re still waiting for everything to get better.”
Senior Abigail Leeland said the pandemic cost her the chance to play varsity soccer again — just two years after she lost a soccer season to a torn ACL.
As a former student of the K-8 St. John’s Lutheran School in Portage, Leeland said she also regrets missing the chance to address the St. John’s graduates about their opportunities in high school.
“But I’m not one to dwell on the negative and I really do see things looking up,” Leeland said of her mindset as a graduate. “I plan to go to college, study as hard as possible and get a degree in science.”
She will study pharmacy and chemistry at UW-Madison in the fall and someday wants to research cancer treatments and maybe help to discover vaccines for diseases like COVID-19.
“My grandpa died from cancer (last year) and then COVID-19 happened, and it really made it clear to me that finding vaccines and doing research is vital,” Leeland said. “We learned that (a pandemic) can cause a whole society to shut down and can take the lives of the people who are dear to us. So it’s really important to me to help people.”
Leeland — who chose her grandmother to hand her the diploma for the virtual ceremony — said the pandemic taught her to live in the moment and not take anything for granted.
“Other people had it worse than me,” she said. “I’m appreciating the fact that everyone (I know) stayed safe and I still get to graduate on Friday.”
Garrigan will study astronomy at UW-Madison in the fall and wants to do space research or work at a planetarium. At home she thought a lot about what she would otherwise be doing, if not for the pandemic, missing her friends, her teachers and even just eating in the school cafeteria.
“Treat every moment like it’s your last,” Garrigan said. “That’s my biggest takeaway.”
“We’re trying to give them that one last memory so they can get that closure. We’ve said all along if there was ever a chance to do something in person, we would, but some of that is looking fairly unlikely right now.” Josh Sween, Portage High School principal
Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.
“We’re trying to give them that one last memory so they can get that closure. We’ve said all along if there was ever a chance to do something in person, we would, but some of that is looking fairly unlikely right now."
Josh Sween, Portage High School principal
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