Watts Lawn, we missed you! After two years of revised and relocated graduation ceremonies due to pandemic protocols, graduates of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics finally returned to NCSSM’s traditional commencement location beneath the Watts Lawn oaks that have welcomed every student and visitor to the historic Durham campus. It was the school’s 41st graduation ceremony.
The NCSSM-Durham Class of 2022 represents a diverse cross-section of the state. The 319 graduates came to NCSSM from 185 high schools in 62 counties from the state’s coast to its farthest western reaches.
As the clock ticked toward the 10 a.m. start time, graduates dressed in dark blue graduation gowns began queuing outdoors along NCSSM’s “Hill Street,” a paved pathway through part of campus that has served for decades as a focal point for students socializing after class. Up and down the line, the Class of 2022 made final adjustments to their attire, straightening knotted ties, brushing a strand of hair back into place, and adjusting their mortar boards again and again and again. For all those turning to talk excitedly with their classmates behind them, others stood hands clasped, looking ahead quietly, anticipating the moments ahead.
Kofi Agyei-Gyamfi, who came to NCSSM from Antioch Christian Academy in Lumberton, stood second in line beneath the spring morning sun. “Entering in a pandemic, I was really unsure how this NCSSM experience would turn out,” he said, “but now that I’ve made it, I’m able to look back on a lot of things and see that it was all worth it. And being here, of course, it is bittersweet. I’m leaving a lot of good people behind, but I am very excited for the future and what this school has allowed me to accomplish.”
Nitin Chinthapalli, from Triangle Math and Science Academy in Cary, stood a little further back in line, relieved that this part of life in the pandemic had reached its conclusion. “These last two years have really been a struggle, and I’m proud of myself and proud of everybody else for making it this far, and I’m excited for college,” he said.Candidates for graduation march in to their seats on the Watts lawn.
Finally, with a smile and a nod from a faculty member as “Pomp and Circumstance” began to play, the students began their procession, turning a corner to pass in front of NCSSM’s historic Watts building and its iconic cupola. Just two months prior, they had all gathered here on the Watts steps for the traditional class photo. Now they filed by, smiling and waving to family snapping photos as they took in the last moments of what will, if history holds, be remembered years later as one of the most formative experiences of their lives.
But it wasn’t without incredible challenges.
Hayes Hartpence, originally from Salisbury High School, spoke of the joy she experienced in spending the last year of school on campus with her peers. “It’s really exciting just to see the entire community all together at once,” she said, “because at the beginning of our high school experience we were all separated into different cohorts, so it’s really great to be unified in the last moments before we graduate.”
The past two years have seen tremendous upheaval that has touched nearly every part of the world. Despite that, NCSSM’s Chancellor, Dr. Todd Roberts, encouraged the graduates to continue looking forward and remain optimistic in the face of uncertainty and chaos by quoting from a 2004 essay titled “The Optimism of Uncertainty” by American historian and philosopher Howard Zinn. In that essay, Zinn wrote,
“If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act.… And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Winnie Wang, a graduating senior from Charlotte, delivered the student address on behalf of her fellow classmates who sat before her. (Because NCSSM eschews class rank, students interested in being graduation speaker submit a draft, and the best is selected.) She, too, noted in her remarks the challenges faced by the Class of 2022, perhaps none more daunting than returning to campus for their final year without a true feel for how a fully immersed residential life on campus was supposed to go after a mostly remote junior year.
“Stepping onto campus our senior year, we sensed a deep emptiness in the air: empty shoes to fill and the remnants of stories left unfinished,” Wang said. “The Class of 2022 was faced with an unprecedented task: revitalizing NCSSM and reigniting a community after a year that made even making meaningful connections difficult. The next few months signified a tremendous amount of growth for all of us.…
“It would be ingenuous to celebrate our accomplishments today without paying tribute to the circumstances that have shaped our experience here at NCSSM,” Wang continued. “But together, we were able to overcome the obstacles that have stood in our way, fight back against an increasingly hostile society that imposes the constant threat of oppression and inequity, and challenge the status quo that shapes our environment. Now, we graduate together — celebrating our determination, ambition, and strength, and the place that has allowed us to congregate from all corners of North Carolina, coming together to weave our unique backgrounds and goals into a mosaic.”
Returning to campus to deliver the keynote address was Dr. Laura Gerald, a member of NCSSM’s fifth graduating class in 1986 and now the president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. Dr. Gerald invoked imagery of the school’s mascot to inspire the graduates to live up to their potential.
“To me, to be an NCSSM Unicorn is to have both roots and wings,” Gerald said. “We have roots in a place with a rich history of giving, collaboration, innovating to solve problems and make life better for our residents.
“As NCSSM graduates, we also have wings,” she continued. “Fly, do all the things that feed your soul and your passion. But also stay rooted. Give back to the people and places who need you. At the root of most of our problems is an inability to see the full humanity of all human beings, regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or country of birth. We need your help to solve that problem. We apparently need mythical creatures to do that. We need Unicorns.”Dr. Laura Gerald ’86 delivers the keynote address.
When the tassels had finally turned and the tossed mortar boards returned to earth, the orderly recession of newly minted graduates melted into a loose, kinetic assembly of family celebrations that spread across the school’s grounds. Graduates hopped between groups of friends and families. First-time introductions were made and tearful goodbyes were said. On the periphery of the celebrations, others completed their move-out, rolling luggage and a final box of belongings to their family’s vehicles, graduation gowns already put away but their sashes still hanging about the necks.
Graduate David Bradley, who homeschooled in Chapel Hill before NCSSM, found a moment to reflect as he scanned the crowd for family making their way toward him. “It’s been an amazing journey, and I’ve loved every minute of it,” he said. “The school handled the online stuff very well, but I loved getting back on campus in-person with everybody and getting to see all the different events and all the different traditions we brought back.”
Standing with her friends among the joyful chaos was Olivia Chun-Ha Cole. Prior to NCSSM she attended Thales Academy in Rolesville, but now she was an NCSSM graduate. “It’s very surreal because all this time we worked real hard to apply here,” she said. “For a lot of us, this was our dream school. But because of COVID, we didn’t really see if we were going to get through it, but now it’s like, wow, we finally did it.”
Briana Brown’s family didn’t have to travel far for her graduation. Before NCSSM, she was a student at Riverside High School, just a few miles away. “I’m so excited. It feels really rewarding after having all that crazy stuff last year, and then trying to adjust this year,” she said, “but I finished it, I did it, despite all the stuff that was going on.”
“It’s incredible, just incredible,” Briana’s mother, Kimberly, said of having a brand-new high school graduate in the family. “The support system here, and her determination and will is what got her through. I’m so excited to celebrate her here today.”
Success awaits these graduates in the years ahead. There will be college degrees and fulfilling careers, new friends and forever relationships and perhaps, for many, children of their own who one day will don their own graduation regalia. And they will make a difference in someone else’s life, or perhaps the lives of thousands. It’s what NCSSM graduates do.
And there will be challenges ahead, too, but few for which the lessons learned at NCSSM haven’t at least begun to prepare them.