Penticton Secondary School valedictorian, Claire Taylor. (Phil McLachlan - Western News)

In photos: Okanagan valedictorians reflect on graduating year amid COVID-19

“I think everyone remembers their grad year, but we’re going to be the year that everyone remembers.”

Graduating year for the class of 2020 is memorable for a variety of reasons, but not like the classes of years past.

For years leading up to graduation, students dream of what it will feel like to walk out their school doors for the last time.

Right about now is when graduates would be coming together to celebrate their accomplishments and mentally prepare for the next chapter in their lives.

For valedictorians, who represent and lead their class through graduation, being apart from their schoolmates for months during the COVID-19 pandemic was especially tough.

“I think the last couple months is when the grad class comes together, and we kind of missed that which is unfortunate,” said Penticton Secondary School valedictorian, Claire Taylor.

In a way though, they admitted this year will be memorable, in a different way.

“I think everyone remembers their grad year, but we’re going to be the year that everyone remembers,” said Penticton Secondary School valedictorian, Jack McLennon.

“I think we’ll remember it … in different ways than most people would … it’s so different from anything that anyone has gone through,” said Taylor.

READ MORE: COLUMN: A message to the resilient, innovative, storytellin’ Class of 2020

Before reaching senior year herself, Taylor had been to many graduating ceremonies before. With several older siblings, she saw from the audience what graduation looked and felt like for those before her.

When it came time for her to walk across the stage, she was excited.

“I’d always go to their graduation, and when you go, you just think that it’s a given you’re going to walk across the stage the same … when you think about entering high school, you think about the end of it, and walking across the stage, and getting to do prom and all these big events. And we kind of missed that I think,” said Taylor.

Rather than their traditional graduation ceremonies, students were separated into smaller groups and took part in a pre-recorded ceremony at the South Okanagan Events Centre, with limited audience members. At Princess Margaret, students took part in a pre-recorded graduation ceremony at the school.

“Obviously it’s not the same as it normally is, but with these circumstances, I think it’s the best that anyone could do,” Taylor said.

A highlight of their graduating year was together leading the Toys for Tots to Teens program, a community toy drive which supports local youth. Both students have been in the leadership program since Grade 9, and concluding their time with the school by organizing a large event like this, was the icing on the cake.

“It really brought the community together and you could see how much you can do for other people around you … this community has helped us so much … to give back to that was kind of cool,” said Taylor.

“It was cool to see that we made an actual difference,” added McLennon. “Kids got presents they wouldn’t have gotten, it kind of made Christmas special for them.”

Now that high school has concluded, grads are looking to the future. Taylor is set to leave for Scotland at the end of the summer, and will spend six years studying medicine. After obtaining her international medical degree, she plans on coming back to Canada to work.

McLennon plans to attend Western University in Ontario to study business.

Ten years from now, Taylor sees herself finishing her residency of orthopedic surgery. McLennan admitted ten years is a long way out, but hopes to be working happily in business.

Before COVID-19 hit, Matt Olsen’s graduating year was ramping up to be his best year yet. Taking part in and completing the theatre program and basketball season had been goals of his for a while.

A new, but enthusiastic member of both the band and theatre classes, the Princess Margaret Secondary School valedictorian says his senior year was especially memorable.

Also a member of the senior boys basketball team, Olsen fondly recalls their undefeated season, tournament, league and zone championship victories.

“With those combined, all that was just really awesome.”

However highly anticipated graduation events such as spy-vs-spy, dry grad, prom, and walk up, were cancelled due to the pandemic.

“That kind of ruined the whole grad feeling.”

Olsen sat in the band room reminiscing about his time in high school; he had been in band since Grade 6. On the chalkboard in the front of the class is a list of all the band trips planned for the 2019/20 school year. The final few on the list including the band trip, planned for May 11, was cancelled.

With basketball, theatre and band ongoing, Olsen spent most of his time at school, until COVID-19 closures came into affect. Staying at home allowed him to spend more time with his dog.

He encouraged others heading into graduating year to make the most out of it.

“Who knows, it could get canceled without even knowing, so try and get the most out of your school year, because it’s only going to happen that one time. And you don’t want to face regret.”

Olsen plans on pursuing baseball in post-secondary, and also hopes to eventually return to band or theatre. His long-term goal is to become a teacher in the arts, and if possible, take part in theatrical performances in the community.

Heading into graduating year, Autumn Janzen had several goals in mind, her biggest goal, to bring the grad class together. For the most part, she believes she succeeded in doing this, however due to the pandemic she was not able to accomplish all of her goals.

The Princess Margaret Secondary School valedictorian was in the process of creating an event to support cancer research. Western Week is a week full of games and activities which raise money for the cause.

A new activity this year, air band, which Janzen worked to get approved, was canceled due to the pandemic.

“It is unfortunate about what is happening, how I won’t get to watch all my friends graduate.”

She said the unexpected turn changed her roles as a valedictorian. The graduation speech, which she has always viewed as an integral part of concluding senior year, will feel different.

“Just for it not to happen live, for students to be able to watch in person, it’s kind of unfortunate.”

For the past 14 years, dance has been a huge part of Janzen’s life. Although this is her last year at the local studio, her long term goal in life still involves movement and the human body.

In September she will start her education at the University of Victoria for biology, after which she will further pursue a career as a pediatrician.

She thanked the school district, administrators, and supporters who are working to provide the graduates with the best senior year possible.

“I definitely understand that it’s a challenge and it’s something that everyone wants, but it’s something that can’t happen this year … a huge thank you to everyone who has been working towards trying to at least give us something.”

@PentictonNews
editor@pentictonwesternnews.com

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Penticton Secondary School valedictorian, Jack McLennon. (Phil McLachlan - Western News)

Princess Margaret Secondary School valedictorian, Matt Olsen. (Phil McLachlan - Western News)

Matt Olsen looks at the band trips planned for the year, the final few canceled due to COVID-19. (Phil McLachlan - Western News)

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