Virtual graduation ceremony, surprise performance creates ‘gratitude’ among graduates


Photo credit: Sophie Larbalestier

Seniors, also known as the “girls on fire” after being assigned the color red in Color Wars four years ago, pose in front of their banner at the Color Wars 2020 event hosted by Student Council on Feb. 14. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, all forms of social gatherings, including graduations are prohibited until further notice. For this year’s annual ceremony, the class of 2020 celebrated their commencement virtually via Zoom.

As the soon-to-be graduates and family members took their seats, Archer’s class of 2020, the Girls on Fire, dressed in their formal graduation attire with flower wreaths on top of their heads, now prepared to close this chapter of their lives and start anew.

However, families and graduates were not in the Skirball Cultural Center as originally planned. Following safer-at-home regulations to limit the spread of COVID-19, students and their families were not allowed to gather as a community for this year’s celebration. As a result of this, a Zoom webinar was set up on May 29 for all of the graduates and their family members, both immediate and distant, to tune in and attend the graduate’s annual ceremony.

This year’s line-up included several speeches, given by both faculty and students, along with individual senior tributes and the continuation of graduation traditions such as the senior song and the performance of “The Walls of Archer.” Along with these moments, a special guest performance and rendition of the hit song “Girl on Fire” from musician Alicia Keys also tallied the agenda.

When Head of School Elizabeth English announced the virtual celebration, Student Body President Grace Wilson said she felt “heartbroken,” and wasn’t even looking forward to attending, given the circumstances.

“Going into the ceremony I was really nervous that it wasn’t going to feel like graduation or have a finite ending,” Wilson said. “But then it really did — I felt like I got my closure from this ceremony.”

Though she also yearned for physical connection with the graduates, Class of 2020 Dean Jennifer Dohr said she felt that this commencement was “virtually epic.” Along with the “uplifting” speech from the two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion and Olympic gold medalist Julie Foudy, Alicia Keys made an appearance and performed her hit-single “Girl on Fire” for the class, who began calling themselves the Girls on Fire after being given the color red for Color Wars four years ago.

“The speakers, from Willa Frierson to Julie Foudy to the surprise of Alicia Keys, were unforgettable. Closing the screen was the hardest part — I yearned for the post-ceremony hugs,” Dohr said. “But those shall come another day.”

Alicia Keys speaks to Archer’s Class of 2020, the Girls on Fire, at their commencement ceremony. She urged them to sing along as she later sang part of “Girl on Fire.” Head of School Elizabeth English reached out to an Archer community member, who contacted Keys through Universal Music and asked if she would perform for the class as a surprise. “Your faces, GOF,” faculty speaker Kathleen Niles typed in the chat, “it’s amazing.”

After careful and meticulous planning, Dean of Students Jenn Babin said she felt the ceremony went “beautifully” and was satisfied with the intimate and personal connection that occurred between all students.

“Since we were not able to be together in person, our main goal was to find as many ways to make the ceremony feel personal and intimate as possible in an online platform. It was so special to see each senior highlighted and hear her speak about her time at Archer,” Babin said.

In addition to the personal connection that Babin and the rest of the administration hoped to achieve within this virtual gathering, Babin said she wanted to make an effort to ensure that this graduation would be one that the seniors would never forget.

“I hope that they felt loved. They have been so resilient and gracious and understanding throughout our time in distance learning, and I just hope that they felt honored and celebrated in the way they deserve, even if it wasn’t what any of us originally imagined,” Babin wrote.

Following the ceremony, senior Andrea Campos said she felt “extremely appreciative” of all of the work and dedication that the administration put forth.

“My heart is full of gratitude for everything that Archer accomplished within this ceremony,” Campos said. “There was so much work put into this event and I am just so thankful to everyone who made this night so special.”

Commenting on Keys’ surprise performance, Babin said she felt that it marked an “incredible” moment within Archer history.

“The speeches were also so specific to this graduating class and so inspirational, and of course to have Alicia Keys sing the class’ theme song…that was an incredible moment. I cried,” Babin said.

Echoing Babin’s statements, senior, Grace Wilson, said she felt utterly “shocked” when Keys appeared on the screen, which later prompted Wilson to jump with pure joy and excitement as she sang along.

“When Alicia Keys came on, everyone in the grade was flipping out,” Wilson said. “They couldn’t have gotten a better performer for us and for that I am beyond grateful.”

Reinforcing Wilson’s excitement, senior and executive board member Angelica Gonzalez said she felt ecstatic while watching Keys’ surprise performance.

Pullquote Photo

Although it was not what we had originally hoped, I know it is a graduation Archer will never forget.”

— Angelica Gonzalez ('20)

“I mean, Alicia Keys performed for us. I am so happy to have spent just a few last moments with my class before we each part our separate ways,” Gonzalez said.

Looking into the future, Babin has still made it her priority to host an in-person ceremony for the class once safer-at-home regulations have been lifted.

“We’ve committed to hosting an in-person celebration for the Girls on Fire once it’s safe to do so,” Babin said. “What exactly that will look like will depend on a lot of unknown factors, such as the timeline and any remaining restrictions on gatherings, but most importantly, what the class wants to do and how they want to celebrate. I look forward to working with them to plan whatever it ends up being.”

Mirroring Babin’s statements, Dohr said that she also hopes to coordinate an additional ceremony for this year’s graduates, with hopes that the ongoing effects of COVID-19 were to decrease sometime soon.

“We’ve promised the girls — I mean the youngest alums (!) — that as soon as we can safely gather, we’ll throw them the party or fancy dinner or dance of their choice,” Dohr wrote in an email. “Ms. Samuelson, our Alumni Relations Associate, has taken the lead on this future event, which I greatly anticipate. What a celebration it will be of the Class of 2020’s enduring legacy.”

As Wilson prepared to hand the gavel to future Student Body President, Francesca Cappello, she offered some words of wisdom and advice to the greater Archer community in times of crisis.

“My recommendation would be to go full-out and do it for the student body in challenging times such as these. Be selfless and recognize that there are five hundred girls sitting at home right now and it’s a super unique yet upsetting situation,” Wilson said. “You have the power and the agency to make everyone’s lives more joyful when serving on student council.”

Even though the graduates were not physically together during this ceremony, Gonzalez said that the administration did a phenomenal job curating a meaningful and personal celebration for all graduates.

“Overall, I am so grateful to our administration and faculty who worked so hard to put the entire commencement together,” Gonzalez said. “Although it was not what we had originally hoped, I know it is a graduation Archer will never forget.”

Senior-class president Grace Wilson worked with the other members of the Executive Board to put together this compilation of seniors carrying on the tradition of jumping into the courtyard fountain on the last day of classes, despite not being able to be on campus. Watch the video they put together below. The original version of the video shared privately with the class used “What Time is It?” as a score. Oracle staff replaced that song with a copyright-free music track for publication.