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Unique Graduation Celebrations During the Pandemic

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graduation covid
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Pomp and (Odd) Circumstance

Graduating seniors all over America are lamenting COVID-19's effect on their last semester of school, most notably on graduation ceremonies. And while some have done what they can to make this time memorable — including parades, socially distanced events, and more — a few schools and their communities have figured out some incredibly special and unique ways to celebrate their graduates. From creative uses of speedways and chairlifts to those involving celebrities and the efforts of some very dedicated individuals, here are a few ways that students are getting incredible send-offs from their schools and those who care about them. (If you have a graduate in your circle, here are 25 gifts to keep in mind.) 

Related: I’m a College Sophomore and the Pandemic Turned My Life Upside Down

Indianapolis Motor Speedway
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An Indianapolis Motor Speedway Celebration

On May 30, the 2020 seniors of Indiana's Speedway High School will celebrate their graduation at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The school announced a few weeks before that the famed racetrack, which usually hosts the Indianapolis 500 over Memorial Day Weekend, had agreed to help with the ceremony, writing on Facebook that students will "make their way across the start/finish line at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, signifying the end of their high school career and the beginning of the next step in their journey." The announcement was met with approval by locals, with one excited community member commenting, "Looks like the green flag has dropped for our SHS 2020 grads in a most appropriate way. May they all achieve their life goals and checkered flags!"

ski lift in summer
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Pomp and Chair Lifts in New Hampshire

On June 13, around 170 Kennett High School seniors will be flying high — literally — as they celebrate graduation from the ski lifts of Conway, New Hampshire's Mount Cranmore. Per local news reports, the idea came from an employee in the Conway School Board superintendent's office and quickly trumped all other ideas, especially after the resort agreed to host the event free of charge. Graduates will ride the quad chair lifts with their guests, stopping at the resort's East Bowl to be announced, receive their diplomas, and be photographed. After the local school board approved the plan, one member told a local newspaper, "I think this might be my favorite thing to vote 'yes' on ever.”

UC Berkely online commencement
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California Virtual Minecraft Commencement

In what might be the most 21st century of graduations, University of California-Berkeley seniors held a virtual ceremony on May 16 — in Minecraft, a popular video game wherein participants use blocks and other building materials to create buildings and landscapes. The idea began with former student Bjorn Lustic, who created a virtual version of the university's Memorial Stadium. Others joined in and soon an entire campus, appropriately nicknamed "Blockeley," began to take shape. Soon campus administrators and a production company came on board, and CEOs from companies like Twitch and Razer agreed to livestream the event, as well as serve as speakers. “Once we’re done with the speeches,” Lustic told a local TV station, “we made it so you can throw up a cap and gown so you kind of get that graduation feeling of celebrating.” After the ceremony, a two-day music festival was live-streamed.

Drive-In Movie Theater
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Graduation Night at an Indiana Drive-In

Two Indiana high schools, Hamilton Southeastern and Fishers, are celebrating graduation together in a very nostalgic way — with a night at a local makeshift drive-in movie theater. Seniors and their families will watch a senior video playing on a big screen while tuned to a local FM radio station. Afterward, the city of Fishers, Indiana, will set off fireworks. High schools in many other states, including Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, and Michigan, were also planning drive-in movie theater celebrations.

Related: 14 Best Drive-In Movie Theaters in America Open During the Pandemic

Graduation Yard Signs
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Miles and Miles of Yard Signs in North Carolina

In late April, rural North Carolina's West Craven High School principal and the state's 2018 Principal of the Year Tabari Wallace — led by local firefighters and police officers — dressed up in graduation regalia and personally delivered yard signs offering congratulations to 220 seniors. Each sign had the student's photo printed on it — a practice that high schools all over the nation have repeated — and Tabari drove about 500 square miles to accomplish the feat, clapping, cheering, and dancing along the way. In his own tweet about the process, Wallace noted that "every child is one caring adult away from success!" The video has since been viewed millions of times — see it here.

Fort Worth's Texas Motor Speedway
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Ritual Reimagined at the Racetrack in Texas

Indianapolis isn't the only speedway hosting graduations. By the time graduation season is over, Fort Worth's Texas Motor Speedway will have hosted more than 30 of them. Argyle High School was the first to conduct its ceremony there on May 18 and, while students sat near the speedway's starting line, families gathered inside cars or in the beds of pickups in the infield area, armed with car horns, air horns, and other noisemakers, cheering as students' names were announced. “This is really an honor to be able to play a little role in a big day for these graduates,” Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage told a local TV news station.

oprah winfrey
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Oprah in Chicago: “And You Get a Graduation Ceremony!”

In mid-June, all Chicago high schools will take part in a virtual graduation ceremony with a VIP celebrity commencement speaker: Oprah Winfrey. The news was announced by Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot in perhaps the most 21st century high school-appropriate way possible: via TikTok.

H-E-B
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A Grocery Store Gala in Texas

In Texas, grocery store chain H-E-B hosted a live virtual graduation ceremony via its website for all the state's seniors. In addition to a live performance by country singer Maren Morris, the event included messages from other famous Texans, including Mark Cuban, Chuck Norris, Eva Longoria, Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys, and many other athletes from Texas's pro sports teams, and it gave away 200 $500 Visa cards to high school and college seniors who entered a sweepstake via Twitter and Instagram.

Daytona Race Track
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On Your Mark, Get Set, Graduate in Florida

To complete the speedway trifecta, graduates from Florida high schools Flagler Palm Coast and Matanzas will celebrate their milestone on May 31 by riding with family in cars across the Daytona International Speedway's iconic black-and-white checkered start/finish line, where they will also be handed their diplomas. The ceremonies will be simulcast on the radio and streamlined on the school district's website.

Ryan Seacrest
Ryan Seacrest by Glenn Francis (CC BY-SA)

A Very Seacrest Celebration in California

On May 28, nearly 600 high school students at California's Walnut High School will receive a video message from TV and radio celebrity Ryan Seacrest at their virtual recognition ceremony. The school's principal, Ryan Maine, called into Seacrest's radio show on April 17 to make the request, and the "American Idol" host agreed. Afterward, a Walnut High senior told a local paperthat the news was like a “bright light in the darkness.”

Obama "Let's Graduate Together"
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Hailed by the Chief Across the Country

On May 16, former President Barack Obama addressed the graduates of 74 historically black U.S. colleges and universities in a streamed speech, as well as delivering similar remarks to the nation's high school graduates that were broadcast by major TV networks. He addressed recent events including the death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot by two white men in Georgia in February, and the leadership qualities of those leading the government's coronavirus response. He also offered words meant to inspire the next generation: “No generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world,” he noted. “Rather than say what’s in it for me or what’s in it for my community and to heck with everyone else, stand up for and join up with everyone who’s struggling ..." The former president will deliver a third commencement address with former first lady Michelle Obama on June 6 for a global virtual commencement celebration.

A Nazi Motorbike — Brad Pitt
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Once Upon a Graduation in Missouri with Brad Pitt

The Missouri State University graduating class got a special surprise when the school posted a clip of Springfield native Brad Pitt sharing some thoughts with seniors. "Must be very strange doing this in these trying times," he said. "But know we're rooting for you, our money's on you to make this world a better place, and we wish you all the best in your future endeavors. So, you did it! You made it! Enjoy, congrats again, and think big."

Rob Burgundy
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A Celebrity-Heavy Ceremony in Southern California

In mid-May, the University of Southern California got not one, but at least six notable celebrities and performers to participate in its nearly 12-hour YouTube livestream ceremony. Included were actors Will Ferrell, Mark Hammill, Mandy Moore, and Kyle Mooney, journalist/author Lisa Ling, and composer John Williams.

Congrats Grad Billboard
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Billboard Best Wishes in Georgia

In Georgia, one principal found a big way to recognize his seniors. Westlake High School graduates in the Atlanta area saw their photos up on six different billboards for a full month thanks to principal Jamar Robinson. Robinson told a local TV station that he "knew we had to do something huge" so that students would know "they are still recognized and still loved. So you drive up and down the streets and you see these gigantic billboards highlighting everything. Our students up there as well.”

#oñatestrong
Cheapism

A Mural of Admiration in New Mexico

Oñate High School principal Jim Schapekahm, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, spent hours painting a mural and writing all 354 of his seniors' names on a blank wall at the school, repeatedly climbing up and down a ladder to do so. Underneath all the names, he wrote #OÑATESTRONG. "These kids deserve absolutely all of this and more because of the 13 years they’ve put in,” he told a local TV station.