After a year of Zoom classes and hybrid learning, face masks, social distancing, quarantining and COVID-19 mitigation plans, both Homer High School and Homer Flex High School gathered in person May 18 to celebrate the 91 graduating seniors in the class of 2021.
Members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, including Mike Illg, school board member and treasurer, John O’Brien, superintendent of schools, and Pegge Erkeneff, director of communication, community and government relations, presided over both ceremonies.
Homer High School held an outdoor ceremony on the turf to host the 86 graduates and their families to congratulate the seniors for their accomplishments in a safe setting. With the effects of COVID-19 evident in the commencement, the Homer High administration and teachers praised the students for their determination and drive to complete their high school education during the pandemic.
“They took a bad situation and didn’t just deal with it. They thrived. They wore masks, distanced, washed their hands all with good humor and flexibility,” Homer High Principal Douglas Waclawski said. “They earned national awards, earned scholarships, and took control of their learning all in the parameters of COVID-19. … They say adversity really shows the character of a person. If that is the case, the class of 2021 is full of wonderful young adults, and you should rest assured that when it is time for them to run this country, you’ll be in good hands.”
The graduating class of 2021 has faced many challenges, including the pandemic, political turmoil, as well as social and racial unrest. With these issues as a focal point during the ceremony, the commencement speaker, Saundra Hudson, and the valedictorians, Austin Cline and Lawrence Dunn, encouraged students to remain hopeful and kind and to be the difference the world needs.
Hudson explained that after her traumatic brain injury five years ago, the now senior class was the reason she got better. The compassion and respect displayed by the students during her recovery showed her the class would be able to succeed as long as they continued to invest in others.
“I remember the quote in our classroom ‘We are the hero of our own story.’ I am here to say you are the hero of mine,” Hudson said. “I realize you can’t always just be the hero of my story. You get to continue to craft your own. You have a solid start. You are a Mariner with the wheelhouse of life-saving, game-changing, play-making skills. Remember what you taught me — that small gestures are the most important work you can do.”
In a joint speech by Cline and Dunn, the pair challenged the class to be vocal and stand up for what is right while accepting the differences of other cultures.
“This community of ours, composed of radically different people with fundamentally different beliefs, shows how Old Believer Russians, multiple Native tribes, olympians, wildlife biologists and groundbreaking artists can coexist with fishermen, hunters and homesteaders,” Cline said. “This communal awareness has molded who we are today. As we continue our paths through life, I encourage each and every one of you to bring this sense of Homer with you. For as our community brings us together, it is what sets us apart.”
“We should not limit ourselves by what is, but rather what could be,” Dunn continued. “Hear new perspectives and genuinely listen. Don’t be afraid to radically rethink the way we approach issues in a way that hasn’t been done before. Most importantly, don’t forget where you came from.”
Homer High School graduates ended the ceremony with a parade through town in decorated vehicles.
Homer Flex met at the Land’s End Resort quarterdeck for a small, intimate ceremony to recognize the accomplishments of the four attending graduates. With speeches of praise for persevering through the pandemic, teachers, staff, family and the students spoke of the caring environment that has prepared them for success after graduation.
“Graduation day is always special, but arriving at this day required extra fortitude,” David Lefton, Homer Flex teacher, said. “Four students are here on this stage marking this wonderful milestone in their life, looking out onto the wide world. To each of you, I am elated that you came to Flex as part of your journey.”
Madison Mayer, or Mac, a 2021 Homer Flex graduate, thanked the Homer Flex staff for treating her with respect and helping her overcome the many challenges she has faced.
“My experience at Flex was extremely comforting because I knew I was accepted for saying the things I needed and wanted to say,” Mayer said. “At Flex, I had someone who was willing to listen to me about my problems and help me overcome them, not just the educational aspect of getting the work done, but also the emotional part of dealing with the root cause.”
Another Homer Flex graduate, Lexi Jimerson, said that without the dedicated attention and care of her teachers, she probably wouldn’t have graduated high school. Jimerson says she is thankful for the experiences she had during school, but is especially thankful that the graduates were able to participate in an in-person graduation ceremony.
“(Graduating) feels fantastic,” Jimerson said. “I really appreciate that we have (an in-person graduation) like this happening instead of driving through in a car. … This is a better memory.”
A final quote from Hudson’s graduation speech reminded graduating seniors of the ability they have shown to persevere that will carry them forward in future endeavors.
“You are so very prepared for your next steps in a way that no other graduating class in recent times has been. You know loss. You know challenging times. You know disappointment where everything is not what you imagined and that it’s still going to be OK,” Hudson said. “You will manage, and in these times of loss, you have gained hero skills: patience, perseverance and perspective. When you bump up against the next tough thing, your brain and your heart will remember that you have been there before, and you, at the very least, will survive and maybe even thrive. You can hold your head high, embolden with grit and with grace to not only meet that challenge but come out on the other side braver and kinder because you know what struggle feels like. You know that everyone has them. You know that vulnerability takes strength and courage and the collective power of empathy and compassion saves lives.”
Homer High School graduating class of 2021
Ella Blanton Yourkowski
Makana Keona Visaya
Homer Flex High School graduating class of 2021