‘A love-filled ceremony:’ Senior class partakes in an in-person graduation

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Photo credit: JD Renes

Seniors and their families listen to the welcome speech delivered by Head of School Elizabeth English at the graduation ceremony for the Class of 2021. Situated in the Eastern Star courtyard on the Archer campus, the seniors, dressed in the traditional white attire with flower wreaths on top of their heads, sat socially distanced to watch the ceremony live as well as on two projected screens featuring videos from Oprah, Brandi Carlile, and the grade themselves. “The in-person graduation had this collective energy. There was a lot of heightened emotion — a lot of tears flowing but also great compassion for one another,” student body president Francesca Cappello said. 

By Greta Irvine, Staff Reporter

Every Archer student’s adventure begins in the Eastern Star courtyard on Orientation Day, and for this year’s senior class, it concluded there as well. The graduation ceremony for the Class of 2021 was held last Friday, May 28, in the Eastern Star courtyard on Archer’s campus. This setting deviated from the ceremony that has been held at the Skirball Cultural Center or sport court in the past, with the exception of last year’s virtual graduation via Zoom webinar. 

“We wanted to center this year’s graduation on not only the senior’s connection to one another, but to the Archer campus itself,” Class of 2021 dean James Russo wrote in a recent email. “The symbolic importance of this event taking place at Archer, especially in the courtyard where so many wonderful memories are made, was on everybody’s mind as the planning took place. To have the opportunity for the girls to be there with one another, along with close family, to treasure this milestone together provided a sense of closure to what has been an arduous year.” 

The authorization of an in-person ceremony was a late development in the planning process of graduation, according to Upper School Director Meghan Tally. This sanctioning of a physical community gathering came as a result of the declining COVID-19 cases in LA county, and consequently, the easing of public health restrictions. Even so, certain regulations had to be adhered to at the ceremony.

However hard it may have been for them to say goodbye to each other, I’m happy that they got to have that sense of closure.

— Dani LeNoir

“Once we got our official word in early spring, we learned that it needed to be outdoors, and we also learned that the numbers of guests were determined based on the square footage [of the setting],” Tally said. “That’s when the idea came about to use our courtyard — to make something really magical in the courtyard, and to also make it hybrid as we would be able to include way more people by having a live stream.”

The live stream, via the platform Zoom, allowed those who were not physically present to watch the ceremony and share their love for the graduates using the chat feature. As each senior was permitted to bring only two guests owing to the size of the courtyard, family, friends, Archer students as well as faculty attended the ceremony virtually. 

Other regulations adhered to through the night were seating each senior and guest in intervals to maintain distance between individuals, wearing masks at all times barring senior photos with their diplomas and dismissing all attendees in rows to ensure no crowing in groups took place. In spite of these modifications to the ceremony, the seniors upheld the tradition of wearing white attire and flower crowns which senior Nicole Farmer said made the celebration feel absolute.

“It’s really come full circle and it’s so crazy to see how far we’ve come since sixth grade,” Farmer said. “A lot of us have spent the past 7 years at Archer and we’ve called it home, and so to be able to have an in-person graduation and to celebrate all of our accomplishments is incredible, but it’s also bittersweet because it’s truly the end of an era.”

Following Head of School Elizabeth English’s welcome to the Class of 2021 and guests, Senior Addison Lee took the stage to address her peers.

“What I hoped I really got across was how much I really love [my grade] and how much they’ve changed my life and allowed me to grow from their lead and support,” Lee said. “When I think of growth, I think of it as not necessarily like these big picture things. Rather, I think of the smaller, accumulative life changing moments that happen when you’re with people for that long.”

Dani LeNoir, who was the faculty speaker elected by the senior class, addressed the attendees later in the night and reinforced Lee’s message about the importance of the smaller moments.

“I hope they really remember all of the small things that made their experience so wonderful with Archer…and [make] time for those things in the future,” LeNoir said. “This group is very active in all of these social justice movements, and in order to sustain that work you have to make those moments of joy, otherwise you’re just gonna feel depleted and discouraged. This class has a lot of joyous things to look back on, and I just want them to remember to continue making those moments in the future.”

The Class of 2021 gathers on the front steps of Archer to take a class photo before the graduation ceremony. The seniors arrived on campus hours before their guests as to have an opportunity to take photos with one another, pass time together and get organized for the commencement of the ceremony at 8 p.m. (Photo credit: JD Renes for The Archer School for Girls)

The ceremony included a variety of musical performances which were displayed on the screens in the courtyard as pre-recorded videos. The first performance by musical guest and award-winning singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile featured her song, “The Story,” on par with the theme of the school year. The following performances were a continuation of graduation traditions: The senior song was a rendition of the One Direction hit, “History” where each student’s personal audio recording and lip-syncing video were fused into a collective performance projected on the screens, and later on in the night, “Within the Walls of Archer,” resounded in the courtyard. 

The commencement address was delivered by the famous Oprah Winfrey. During her speech addressed to the “future leaders of our country,” the senior class was left in shock, according to Lee.  

“It didn’t feel like it was actually happening until afterwards where we all were in the dining hall bawling our eyes out. But it wasn’t a numb feeling,” Lee said. “I felt a lot of pride in my class during the speech and a lot of pride also for myself — for these past four years and for Archer in general.”

A pioneering element of the graduation ceremony were voice recordings of the seniors that sounded in the courtyard as each student walked to the Rose Room stairs to receive their diplomas. The short recordings featured each senior recounting their favorite memory at Archer, thanking their teachers and family or giving advice to their younger self.

My greatest hope is that somewhere in the mixed emotions of saying goodbye was feeling celebrated and feeling joyful.

— Megan Tally

“It was [a] wonderful addition,” Russo said. “The students’ reflective responses not only served as lovely transitions but also gave the viewers a sense of the journey that these young women have been on for the past year.” 

One of Archer’s founders, Dr. Diana Meehan, brought the ceremony to an end with the wisdom to “help others, give a hand, make a difference [and] take a stand.” LeNoir reflected on saying farewell to the Class of 2021 as the night concluded.

“It was very surreal experience because I don’t know Archer without them. They have made up so much of my experience here, and there was a lot of growth on both our ends,” LeNoir said. “It’s a bittersweet goodbye because I’m very proud that they have completed this chapter in their lives and they’re off to the next phase – the bigger and better — and I’m excited to see them continue to grow.”

The week leading up to the graduation ceremony was Senior Week, where the Class of 2021 engaged in a variety of staple activities on the Archer campus, such as Desert Night and the Senior Tea Party. It was a rollercoaster of a week, Student Body President Francesca Cappello said, sharing her thoughts on the final moments of connection she had with her fellow graduates.

“Being next to each other so that we could live in the present moment together was so powerful,” Cappello said. “And when you’re able to look to your left, look to your right and see the people that you’ve grown up with over the past few years, it is such a beautiful thing.”