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Unicorns are supposed to be a rare creature, but on the morning of May 29, 345 of them ventured out into the larger world after turning their tassels at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics’ 40th graduation ceremony.
The Class of 2021 came to NCSSM from 176 high schools across 71 of North Carolina’s counties, representing all 13 of the state’s congressional districts.
Due to Covid-19 protocols, the ceremony was moved from its traditional spot beneath NCSSM’s hundred-year-old oaks to the school’s soccer field, with graduates and groups of guests spaced apart and masked. And though gray clouds tumbling across the sky promised rain later in the day, the ceremony went off wonderfully, a slight breeze occasionally unsteadying mortar boards already perched precariously.
“The NCSSM I know loves a challenge, and my, oh my, we face a big one,” said Anuragh Sriram from Asheboro, one of the student speakers delivering remarks. Though his statement anticipated future obstacles in a world reckoning with issues of public health and social and racial equity, he could just as easily have been referencing the past year and a half, which saw life at NCSSM — and life for most of America’s students — turned upside down by the pandemic. Until the final two days before graduation, when NCSSM seniors reunited on campus as a class to celebrate their forthcoming achievement together, the graduates had not all been together for nearly 14 months.
“Probably moreso than in any other year, I have looked forward to this day with both hope and worry, not knowing what today might look like and hoping so much that it would look like it does today, with all of us gathered here, together celebrating you,” NCSSM Chancellor Dr. Todd Roberts told the gathering. “Make no mistake, what you have faced over the past two years in the global pandemic has been a challenge of historic proportions. The challenge has been immense and many have lost much, including all of you. But true to who you all are … you’ve helped one another as well as the broader community.”
Like many graduates, Joselyn Council from Concord, North Carolina, found comfort in the graduation tradition after such an unusual senior year experience. “It’s cathartic,” she said.
Evan Campbell, from Jacksonville, felt that finishing high school during a pandemic has better prepared him for the twists and turns of life that lie ahead. “It’s daunting, knowing that things are going to be fundamentally different from how they’ve been the past 18 years of my life,” he said, “but if anything, I think I’m more ready because of the turbulence of the past year.”
For others, like Nnamdi Obi of Greenville, graduation highlighted the jarring contrast between the amended reality of the past year and a world beginning its return to its former self. “It’s such a sharp change back,” he said. “Graduating today feels so sudden. Everything is about to go back to normal but now [life at NCSSM] is all over.”
“What brings me so much hope in a time of historic challenges and uncertainty is all of you,” Roberts told the graduates. “Your resilience and action is what it takes to address great challenges like the ones that you have faced over the past two years and those that you will face in the future. This is who you are, what you have done, and what you can do.”
While the graduation, like all graduations, was filled with proud declarations and calls to service, Carson Campbell of Statesville put the most NCSSM spin on it, describing in cosmic terms the day that all high school seniors look forward to. “It’s like crossing the singularity of a black hole,” he said. “No one knows what’s on the other side of that.”