Snowy Peaks seniors celebrate graduation after a pandemic year

Arturo Higuera embraces his mother, Delfina Merino, after receiving his diploma during the Snowy Peaks High School graduation Wednesday, May 26, at the Silverthorne Performing Arts Center in Silverthorne.
Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

The past two years have undoubtedly been a strange adventure for students around Summit County as they’ve bounced back and forth between in-person and at-home learning and were forced to forgo many of the social indulgences most expect in the final months of their high school education.

But now, as public health restrictions begin to fade into the background, the community is eagerly beginning its slow return to normalcy. For the graduating class of 2021, that means gathering around friends and family to celebrate all that they’ve accomplished over the past four years.

The Snowy Peaks class of 2021 marched one by one across the outdoor stage at the Silverthorne Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, May 26, collecting their diplomas, sharing stories with their teachers, and trumpeting their triumphs over academic hardships and a global pandemic as they worked to better themselves and their communities over recent years.

Principal James Smith lauded the class not only for its performance in the classroom, but also for its dedication to supporting one another and keeping a positive attitude in the face of an unprecedented two years.

“Some of you thought this day wasn’t going to be possible,” Smith said. “You have battled forces that have worked against you, and you have won. Over the past 14 months, your world has been rocked by a global pandemic. In the midst of your junior year, everything changed. Some people your age quit, some students said remote learning was too hard and they failed their classes, and some students dropped out. You chose to be legendary.

“You came back to school in the fall and joined the largest cohort of students in Summit County. You walked into the building four days a week wearing masks, sanitizing everything, unable to hug your closest friends, unable to sit closer than 6 feet, and you faced the struggle of this new normal. Yet never once did anyone hear you complain.”

There was little to complain about Wednesday as parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and friends were able to look on as the young scholars tossed their hats in the air in a fit of long-awaited jubilation.

While the occasion was joyous, there was some bitter to go with the sweet as the students bid farewell to their classmates and teachers. And though every student had a different experience at the school, they all voiced gratitude for the lessons they’ll walk away with.

Hannah Thoma, left, and Alex McDowell, right, sit with other graduating classmates during the Snowy Peaks High School graduation Wednesday, May 26, at the Silverthorne Performing Arts Center in Silverthorne.
Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

“I’m just kind of one of those introvert-type people, so coming into a public school was really strange for me,” graduate Hannah Thoma said. “But I really feel like Snowy Peaks helped to turn that around for me. I’ve been a more outgoing person, and I’ve learned to do all sorts of things both socially and academically.”

“It’s been a great experience,” added graduate Lexi Vaille, who transferred to Snowy Peaks for her senior year. “They’re super welcoming to everyone, and I felt super welcome even being a first-year student. Everyone was super friendly, and I loved this school and the community, as well.”

While the class of 2020 wasn’t able to attend a traditional graduation due to COVID-19 precautions — and this year’s graduation ceremony was in doubt through much of the school year — the students expressed that they were grateful they were able to celebrate in person with their classmates and loved ones.

“Missing out on some of the senior year classic activities was a little tough,” graduate Sam Burke said. “But that’s the way the world works, and we’re still here graduating. I’m so happy about that, and you can’t look back. It means a lot to me to be able to have family come up and do all this stuff. It feels like we’re going back to normal a little bit, and it’s huge just being able to celebrate this day to the fullest extent possible.”

Being able to attend the graduation was also a well-earned treat for the students’ parents and guardians, who have worked for years to help them get to this point.

“To watch what all of our friends and family had to go through the last year was heartbreaking,” said Nancy McDowell, the mother of graduate Alex McDowell. “It was amazing how they overcame and still made it an amazing celebration. To get to be here in person, you just can’t compare it to anything.”

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