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Drive-through diplomas
Denair seniors partake in unique graduation ceremony
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Jennifer Tachiquin prepares to receive her diploma from the sun roof of her family’s car at Denair High School’s drive-through graduation ceremony on Friday (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

Though their graduation ceremony wasn’t quite what they expected at the beginning of their senior year, that didn’t stop Denair High School’s Class of 2020 from celebrating on Friday night.

Due to social distancing requirements caused by the coronavirus pandemic, schools throughout the state are experiencing a different kind of commencement this year. DHS seniors voted earlier this month to host the school’s first-ever drive-through graduation ceremony at their football stadium, rather than postpone the ceremony until later in the year or film a virtual graduation as other schools have done.

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Denair High School principal Kara Backman hands Alyssa Bedari her diploma through the window during the school’s drive-through graduation Friday evening (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

“They were really adamant on making sure they celebrated on the original day of their graduation,” DHS principal Kara Backman said.

The balloons, signs and family members that typically fill the stands on graduation day in Denair were confined to cars this year, but that didn’t make the ceremony any less memorable. Vehicles piled into the stadium with graduates comfortably seated in the beds of trucks, poking out of their sunroofs or seated in the passenger side alongside those closest to them.

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Denair High School valedictorian Jacob Carlos gives his speech from the bed of his family’s truck (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

Backman began her position as DHS principal the same year the Class of 2020 started their freshmen year, she said, so she feels a special connection with the group and was emotional seeing them leave under such circumstances. They made the most of it, however, with students giving speeches from their cars and Backman delivering diplomas from the side of the track — with plenty of sanitizing wipes involved.

“When I realized (graduation) wasn’t going to be real for them, I immediately went into principal mode just trying to really make sure we celebrated them to the fullest,” Backman said. “We’re very traditional in Denair. We’re community-based and we really want to be around each other. We wanted people to be able to congratulate all the hard work they’ve done.”

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Salutatorian Brigg Wenstrand speaks to the Class of 2020 as his family watches from the car (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

Backman held back tears as she delivered her speech congratulating the Class of 2020. Special farewell messages previously recorded by DHS seniors played over the loudspeakers as students arrived, and signs featuring photos of each student decorated both the football field and Lester Road alongside the high school. The ceremony was also live streamed on the DHS Facebook page for those who couldn’t get a coveted seat inside one of the vehicles.

Backman said the reaction to a drive-through graduation varied from student to student, but 47 percent of the 58 seniors who voted said they’d like to celebrate in their cars on May 22.

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Students and their families decorated their cars for the ceremony, which saw graduates receive their diplomas in drive-through fashion at the football stadium (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

“It’s sad for them, and they’re super excited because this is the first-ever class that this has happened to,” Backman said. “I think it’s amazing and sad at the same time.”

Senior Haylee Combs said she voted to have a drive-through graduation so that her class could celebrate together.

“I thought that if we waited until July we wouldn't have (a ceremony) because people would be moving to wherever they were going to college. I felt like it just wouldn’t work out...I thought we should take this opportunity to have one,” Combs said.

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Twins Brianna and Jacob Lewellen brought their family to the graduation ceremony on the back of a well-decorated flatbed truck (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

Combs’ classmate Blain Cole brought his parents, sister and uncle along in the family truck to watch him receive his diploma. He reflected on the final seven weeks of his senior year, from distance learning to missing out on some pretty special events, like a standard graduation ceremony. Though there was some sadness that he wasn’t sitting on the football field with his friends, he said, he was still able to appreciate the moment.

“This is probably one of the best graduations I could have asked for. It’s unique,” he said. “I think it’s cool because we’re making history.

“We were able to push through it and we’re all graduating.”