Faculty, staff, and students appeared in both live and pre-recorded segments from bedrooms, home offices, backyards, and NCSSM’s Durham campus. Here, Wolf Gordon-Escobar speaks to attendees.


NCSSM Online Class of 2020 recognized in virtual ceremony

On Saturday, June 6, 211 students in NCSSM’s Online program were recognized for their completion of the program in a virtual ceremony broadcast live via Zoom and YouTube. The NCSSM Online Class of 2020 represents 130 high schools and 60 counties from across the state. It was the largest class ever accepted into NCSSM Online as well as the largest class to complete the program. 

Though not the setting seniors would have envisioned at the beginning of the year, the virtual format featured a level of personality not typically found in graduation ceremonies. The event opened with a montage of student photos — senior portraits, cap and gown pics, casual shots — rolling across the screen. The customary “Pomp and Circumstance,” which NCSSM Instructor of Music Scott Laird and retiring NCSSM Chorale Director Dave Stuntz had met recently to pre-record, provided the soundtrack. Faculty, staff, and students appeared in both live and pre-recorded segments from bedrooms, home offices, backyards, and NCSSM’s Durham campus. 

And there were animals. Not every graduation ceremony includes a monkey, rooster, and dog. But this one did.

Dr. Melissa Thibault, NCSSM’s Vice Chancellor for Distance Education and Extended Programs, provided the opening remarks in full academic regalia, Curious George in view on the wall behind her. Addressing graduates from his home, chemistry instructor (and retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander) Bob Gotwals channeled Clark Kent/Superman with an instantaneous wardrobe change from the academic regalia he wore in announcing student awards to his full Navy dress uniform to recognize ROTC and service academy appointments. 

Dr. Todd Roberts chose a more formal background for his remarks to the Online seniors. With a colorful timeline of important events in the life of the school decorating the wall behind him, the regalia-clad Roberts acknowledged the particularly challenging circumstances — from the pandemic responsible for the virtual ceremony to the systemic inequalities and mistreatment of minority groups that have led people around the world to rise up in protest — that mark the graduates’ entry into the postsecondary world.

“As you reflect on the past two years, there is no doubt that the past few months will likely loom large in your thoughts,” Roberts said. “These months have been filled with challenge, disappointment, grief, and a sense of loss for us all, and you most especially.

“To me, you are all heroes,” he continued, invoking the school’s motto: “You all have ‘Accepted the Greater Challenge’ like no others before you, and you have done so with courage, grace, and tremendous resilience. One thing is for certain, the Class of 2020 holds a special place in the history of our school, and I believe that ultimately, you will in history.”

Kendall Hageman-Mays, NCSSM’s Director of Distance Education and Extended Programs, pointed out that the Online Class of 2020 are adept at a remote mode of learning that many are just beginning to experience. 

“Students around the world have [now] had the opportunity to experience … what many are calling ‘Emergency Remote Teaching,’” she said. “Unfortunately, many will equate what they have experienced to that of online learning. But you — we — know and understand the difference. For you, the Class of 2020, have made it so much more than that. Because of you, the NCSSM Online Program is a community of peers who are committed to not just your own academic and personal growth and successes, but for your classmates and for your program!”

Aliyana Campbell ’20 of Durham County speaks in a pre-recorded segment of the virtual ceremony.

As they entered the NCSSM Online program two years prior, all students were asked to create “future self” videos where they imagined themselves after completing NCSSM Online. In a forward-looking flashback, a diverse cross section of those pep talks were replayed. 

Aliyana Campbell of Durham County introduced her future self to her past self. “I am you, two years from now,” she said, then leaned in close to the screen. “Hey, remember when your mom got you to sign up for the Online program back in 2017? You were all like, ‘Oh, what’s the point of this anyway? I’m not going to get in and I’ve got all this work to do.’ Look at you now,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “You’re in! I’m proud of you.”

Ryan Baskerville of Warren County reminded his junior self that occasionally falling short was to be expected. “In the long run people care much much more about your work ethic and the time you put into something than if you fail. So if you fail one quiz, don’t think it’s the end of the world. Just try harder on the next one.”

Burke County senior Lillie Williams assured herself she would gain confidence. “Coming into this experience you were often shy and easily intimidated,” she said. “From now on, never doubt your abilities and talents. You were placed into this program for a reason, so always believe in yourself and what you can do.”

Later in the ceremony, student speakers addressed their fellow classmates, congratulating their peers on their accomplishment.

Kenly Montes of Sampson County stood outdoors on a sidewalk bordered by evergreen shrubs. “This year may not have been the year that many of us seniors were planning for, but I am glad that we are still being celebrated today for all our accomplishments, and the accomplishments that we will achieve in the future,” she said as a rooster crowed somewhere off camera. “I am proud to share my journey with you all and celebrate the beginning of greater things. So let us rejoice!”

Baskerville returned to speak to his fellow graduates in his cap and gown, tassel swinging in his face as he alliteratively recounted the previous two years in the program. “We’ve all done things that most would not do. And we did it all on top of home school work, hormones, and high school drama,” he said. “We have thrived in environments most would buckle under, and came out looking flawless.”

The keynote address was delivered by Alex Sheen, founder of the nonprofit Because I Said I Would, an organization that promotes the betterment of humanity by committing to promises we make to ourselves and to each other.

In his brief but inspiring remarks, Sheen encouraged graduates to separate themselves briefly from the uncertainty dominating their daily lives and soak in the significance of their accomplishment.

“You kept a commitment: a promise to graduate. [That’s] something that many people will never reach,” he said from his home as his small dog, Rocky, sat in his lap. “Know that whatever pride you feel right now, that’s the kind of pride that comes from a promise kept, and I hope that through the course of the rest of your life you feel that sensation again and again and again, a sense of dignity and respect that you followed through, that you are a person of your word. Many moments like that are ahead of you should you keep your promises.”

The NCSSM Online Class of 2020 has come of age in a particularly trying time. To facilitate change, Chancellor Roberts implored the graduates to lean on each other and the sense of community they have created.

“In general, when people ask me what’s special about NCSSM, one of the things I always mention is the community,” he said. “People often think of this as being related to life on campus … but community is not confined to a place; it is the place that you help create … a place where all of you collectively make each better than you might have been on your own … As you leave high school, I encourage you to take with you this spirit of community you have created, your determination, your resilience, and hope and optimism. Please share your light with others. There is a lot of what you have that is going to be needed wherever you will go.”

Watch a recording of the ceremony.