Surviving and thriving: Bemidji High School class of 2021 accepts drive-by diplomas

In a colorful procession through Bemidji on Saturday, the community sent off 339 new graduates of Bemidji High School into the world to forge new paths.

Bemidji High School graduates toss their caps at a ceremony following the graduation procession on Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- In a colorful procession through Bemidji on Saturday, the community sent the 339 new graduates of Bemidji High School off into the world to forge new paths.

According to BHS Principal Jason Stanoch, this year's crop of seniors was made up of the athletes, the artists, the dreamers, the leaders of tomorrow, but, above all else, the resilient.

Stanoch read out statistics about the high-achieving class -- 72 of the 339 students graduated with honors, a new school record. The class hosted three international exchange students and had a National Merit Scholarship recipient in its ranks.

Of the 339, 244 students participated in the Career Academy program, earning 86 medallions. Several students have committed to Ivy League schools, while others have signed on as Division I athletes. And 54 students were inducted into the National Honor Society.

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“During the past 15 months, we've embraced the most unique challenges faced by anyone alive today. It has tested our resilience, our patience and our ability to come together as a community,” Stanoch said to the graduates.


Lumberjack graduate Jenna Anderson receives her diploma from Bemidji Area Schools Board Member Jeff Lind during the graduation procession on Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

“Today, we are afforded the opportunity to celebrate our extraordinary group of students, and our families,” Stanoch said. “We're not completely out of the current era of COVID-19, but I believe that we are in the spring of hope. Moving forward towards a fantastic future, my optimism is derived from witnessing our students, family and staff persevere.”

Graduates of this year's class have certainly had their share of challenges and disappointments, and many of the other speakers throughout the day were also quick to praise the students' resilience.

According to the program, the class of 2021 has adopted the tongue-in-cheek motto, "It is what it is."

As the graduates wound through Bemidji in adorned vehicles, caravanning from the Sanford Center to Bemidji High School on May 29, a commencement program was broadcasted over the radio, hosted by Kev Jackson and Joel Hoover from 104.5 FM.


Two graduating students addressed their classmates via the airwaves.

BHS senior Kenneth Anttila gave a speech called, “Surviving and Thriving Through Thick and Thin.”

As he spoke about resiliency and the importance of being adaptive, he cited historical figures like Viktor Frankl, Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton. He advised graduates to focus on changing the one thing they can always control -- their own attitude.

A Lumberjack graduate hangs out of the top of a Jeep during the graduation procession on Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

“We must be ready to adapt when bad events happen to us. No matter how much we may wish to change these events, we must accept them and move on. The world will not stop changing once COVID ends,” Anttila said. “We have survived the whirlwind that was COVID-19, but we have not just survived -- we have thrived. We have continued our extracurricular pursuits, strived for academic success and stayed connected with our friends. When uncertainty comes, we benefit from it. The pandemic has not broken our bonds as Lumberjacks, it has only strengthened them.”

RELATED: Caravan-like Bemidji High School commencement to take place May 29
BHS senior Joel Roberts spoke about charting a course in the world as new graduates. As a class, he said he hopes they can make a difference so that their descendants may live in a better world -- perhaps one where future graduates won't have to worry about a worldwide pandemic interrupting their senior years.


Bemidji High School graduate Noah Leffelman hangs out the window of a truck during the graduation procession on Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

“We're here today because the first leg of our journey in life has come to an end. Today we go our separate ways for what is more than likely the last time. Never again will all of us be gathered together under one roof. From the very beginning we have grown to meet new challenges, solve new problems and build new relationships,” Roberts said. “I admit that I don't know any better than any of you here celebrating with us today, but I have hope. I have hope that we learn more from this year than simply the fact that making history is not nearly as fun as it sounds. But most of all, I have hope that tomorrow will be better than today.”

Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz also had advice and well wishes to share with the new graduates.

“Congratulations for not only completing your public K-12 education, but for completing the most challenging and difficult senior year any class has had to complete. You've dealt with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for your entire senior year,” Lutz said. “You have made it through this crisis and the dangers of a worldwide pandemic, and you have come out on the other side. Today, on your commencement from high school, you have survived this crisis. You took the situation handed to you at the beginning of this school year and you adjusted your sails, so that you can navigate the waters of a year that has never been experienced before in American schools. As a result, you have learned much more about yourselves than you ever have before.”

RELATED: Area high schools plan for a weekend full of graduations

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
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