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Bittersweet sendoffs: The Class of 2019 says goodbye to their high school years, hello to their futures

Students wave goodbye to their high school years — and say hello to the next chapter.

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Jackson Hole High School 2019 commencement ceremony

The imposing staccato opening notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” echoed through halls across the valley as high schools sent off their graduating classes of 2019.

They moved tassels to the left to symbolize their shift from students to alumni as their peers and loved ones looked on. Ceremonies also included time to recognize exceptional faculty accomplishments, and to bid farewell to retiring faculty members.

The five members of the tight-knit graduating class of Journeys School of Teton Science Schools each gave a speech reflecting on their time in Jackson and their futures.

Faculty and staff at the Summit Innovations School recognized each student with a speech highlighting what made them integral members of the school community over their time there.

At the Jackson Hole Community School, “Free Solo” director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi spoke to the class of 2019 about the challenges of figuring out a career path and the obstacles she has faced as a documentary filmmaker.

Graduates of Jackson Hole High School celebrated their ability to overcome obstacles and make it to this point despite coming from all walks of life, and alumnus Andrew Munz reminded them that there are myriad definitions of success and that the path to success is often not a conventional one.

As the ceremonies commemorated the years the graduates spent in Jackson they also reflected the unique nature of growing up in the valley, where traditional extracurricular activities like debate and Model United Nations are often accompanied by extensive skiing, mountain climbing and whitewater rafting.

As to where they’re headed next? The members of the Jackson classes of 2019 have diverse plans for their futures, from heading to community colleges and universities across the United States and abroad to joining the Marine Corps to pursuing dreams at cosmetology school to taking a break by spending a gap year traveling.

Here are recaps of the four graduations that happened the first week of June.

Journeys School graduation

Journeys School commencement

Graduate Leila Sandlin helps Elisa Cink with her cap before the Journeys School’s commencement at the Jackson Campus on Wednesday.

When Citlaly Giselle Chávez transferred to the Journeys School of Teton Science Schools she was initially reluctant because of stereotypes she had heard.

“I didn’t really like the whole rich kid, tree-hugger thing,” she said.

But she kept on, aided in large part by the strong advice and guidance of her parents. She remembers her father telling her, in Spanish, “Si te vas te meter, metate. Pero metate.” If she was going to go in, she had to go all in. And so she did.

Now, as a graduate, she credits Journeys School with changing the course of her life and teaching her the value and impact her words can have.

This fall Chávez is headed to the University of Vermont to study biochemistry. She is one of five members of the small but driven graduating class of the Journeys School Class of 2019, which is rounded out by her classmates Avery Absolon, Elisa Cink, Joseph Heimerl and Leila Sandlin.

Sandlin is the Journeys School first “lifer,” having attended Teton Science Schools since she was just 3 years old.

Last Wednesday evening, friends and family gathered at the verdant Jackson campus of Teton Science Schools, decorated with gold and blue balloons and stars and illuminated by abundant natural light, to celebrate the graduates.

Kristie Wade, chairwoman of the board of directors for Teton Science Schools, kicked off the ceremony by reiterating the school’s mission and goals.

“Here at TSS,” she said, “it is our mission to inspire curiosity and leadership through transformative place-based education.”

Place-based education is an apt description — only a week before the ceremony, the seniors were in Costa Rica completing their capstone class project. In addition to their capstone project, each senior had to write a 4,000-word research paper, complete a creativity, action and service project, and take an epistemology course to earn their International Baccalaureate Diploma.

The hard work paid off — all five graduates are headed to four-year colleges across the country.

The commencement speaker was Nathaniel Kimball, the senior policy advisor for infrastructure and energy in the New York City mayor’s office. He graduated from TSS in 2005 and worked in renewable energy and as an environmental consultant before he stepped into his current role.

Kimball shared some lessons he has learned in the 14 years since he graduated and expressed faith in the new generation’s zeal to improve the world and find creative solutions. He urged them to use that collective momentum to their advantage.

“Your generation gets that we can’t take progress for granted and your generation understands that we are at a crossroads and need to find solutions quickly,” Kimball said.

Kimball went on to urge the graduates to find joy in the things they do, to fail creatively, to not be afraid to ask for help and to not be afraid to say “yes” to new opportunities. And he left the graduates with one final piece of advice:

“Fight like hell for what you believe in, but open your mind and listen to those who disagree with you, and make friends with them,” he said. “Share your love and joy. Nothing in life happens without compromise. In order to drive real change, we need to first convince people that the world needs to change.”

Sandlin is going to New York University with plans to study public policy with a prelaw track. Cink is headed to Tufts University to study global health with a premed track. Absolon is headed to the University of Vermont to major in environmental studies. Heimerl — who joked, surrounded by his four female classmates, that he was “the last man standing” in the Journeys graduating class — is headed to Tufts University to study mechanical engineering.

Head of School Nancy Lang recognized not only the five seniors, but also the fifth grade and eighth grade classes, which also completed capstone journeys. Fifth graders received a gift bag with a picture from their capstone journey in an engraved frame. The 15 eighth graders each received a gift bag with a Journeys School-branded boomerang, to symbolize their hopeful return to campus in the fall.

This year the Rich and Sue Sugden and Nate McClennen Teacher of the Year Award was presented to elementary science teacher Bari Bucholz for her 15 years of service to the Journeys School and her ability to inspire children “to love science and care for our planet.” This award will provide Bucholz with a professional development opportunity and a scholarship in her name.

To end the ceremony John Morgan, Lang and Beth Caputi presented the graduates with their diplomas. Each senior also received a very Journeys School parting gift — a compass engraved with the coordinates of campus.

Summit Innovations School

Summit Innovations School's graduation ceremony

Graduate Angela Nava holds up her diploma Thursday during Summit Innovations School’s graduation ceremony at the Center for the Arts.

Last Thursday Summit Innovations School Principal Pier Trudelle capped her first year as head of the institution by sending off the 15 seniors of the class of 2019.

Summit graduations include a tradition that sees each student receiving a speech from a teacher who lists values that endeared them to the community.

Counselor Pam Coleman paid tribute to Rylee McCollum’s year at Summit Innovations School and wished him luck as he embarks on his future in the United States Marine Corps. Though McCollum attended Summit only one year as a senior, Coleman said she remembered meeting him as a little boy, when he would be around the campus as the younger brother of Summit alumnus Cheyenne McCollum.

“Today Riley is far from that little boy. He is now a grown adult, waiting to start his basic training for the United States Marine Corps. We are very proud of you,” Colman said. “…You are a very strong individual. You are strong in mind and body, you possess focus, determination, assertiveness, intelligence and fortitude.”

Some grads wore sparkly heels, others Converse sneaks. Two teachers quoted Tupac Shakur in their send-off speeches. It was clear that there was a strong kinship between faculty, staff and students at the small public school.

A senior tribute video assembled by the Computer Applications class played a highlight reel of pictures and videos of the 2019 graduates as they went about their school lives. It was received with smiles and applause.

Summit Innovations School's graduation ceremony

Senior August Wittig high-fives William Mercer on his way back to his seat during Summit Innovations School’s graduation ceremony at the Center for the Arts on Thursday.

Two graduates were recognized with the Berkenfield Scholarship: Karlie Greenwood and Arianna Plennes.

History teacher Stan Morgan paid tribute to Plennes’ driven intellect in his speech.

“Whether it was raising the levels of classroom discussion, or, more importantly, improving the way we treat each other, Ariana has had a really positive impact on school,” he said. “... Arianna, you see a need for change in this world, and you’re inspired to do something about it. You stand up for what you believe is right, both in the classroom and the larger world.”

She is headed to Prescott College in Arizona in the fall to study marine biology. Other Summit School grads are headed all over — from colleges in Wyoming and across the country to cosmetology school and even gap years.

Students high-fived each other as they received their diplomas to cheers of “you did it” from the crowd. Once they all received their diplomas, they collectively flipped their tassels and gathered in the Center for the Arts lobby for a reception and a last chance to be together as a class.

Jackson Hole Community School

Jackson Hole Community School's graduation ceremony

Members of the class of 2019 throw their caps in the air Friday to conclude Jackson Hole Community School’s graduation at the Center for the Arts.

The 15 graduates of the Jackson Hole Community School sat in three rows on the Center for the Arts stage last Friday, their wide eyes and nervous giggles betraying their excitement and nerves for the last ceremony they would share as a class.

In the front row the class’s five women graduates, in a touch of whimsy, wore paper princess crowns over their grad caps.

Graduate Isaac Grossman started out the festivities by addressing the beaming crowd of family and friends with humor and heart.

“I know everybody would agree with me that it’s been a pretty wild ride,” he said. “And, man, we’re all a little sad and a little happy that it’s over with. It’s so fantastic that we got to experience this time of our lives at a place like Jackson Hole Community School.”

Grossman then introduced his classmate Thomas Mercer, who addressed his peers with his distinctive wire-rimmed glasses, big smile and energetic delivery. He paid tribute to his classmates as a sometimes less-than-functional group, but one with a lot of character.

“When we get going, we can turn a discussion in class about the South African apartheid to the conclusion that there is no objective reality and that the world around us may not even exist in, like, five minutes,” he said.

“I’m not just looking at my classmates; I’m looking at my lifemates.”

The commencement speaker for the Community School was Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the Academy Award-winning director of “Free Solo,” which chronicled rock climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to be the first person to reach the summit of El Capitan without protective ropes or gear. She told them that even though she might seem to have it all figured out, she still struggles with questions of identity.

“In the coming months and years, we’re going to be faced with numerous choices. You’ll surely feel pressure to define yourselves,” she said. “You’ll want to choose your path, succeed, make the right decisions. These are all important things, of course, but just so you know, I’m still struggling with these questions — and I have two beautiful children and an Oscar.”

She spoke about the process of making “Free Solo” with her husband and filmmaking partner, Jimmy Chin, and the challenges of following the story of Alex Honnold from a lonely, awkward teen to record-breaking climber. Even though the project received praise and an Oscar, the two got there only through hard work.

“Jimmy and I are both the children of immigrants who got to that stage because of our tireless pursuit of our dreams, and our abilities to make change and evolve.”

She stressed love, passion and urgency as key values for the graduates to carry throughout their lives.

“So, here’s to wishing you your best on your ‘Free Solo,’” she said. “You’re off to pursue your adult lives outside of the security of high school and your parents’ cozy houses. May Alex, Jimmy’s and my story stay with you and remind you to face your fears.”

Following the commencement address, Grossman and classmate Georgia Eidemiller performed “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” written by John Denver, and invited the crowd to join in, which they did for the moving chorus of the classic song about tough goodbyes and new beginnings.

Head of School Amy Fulwyler and college counselor David Heinemann gave a heartfelt tribute to each graduate as they presented them with their hard-won diplomas.

Heinemann even added several personal mementos to his speeches, like when he pulled out from the lectern a stuffed rabbit that Georgia Eidemiller gave him after he experienced a bad medical reaction and how he revealed, Clark Kent style, that he was wearing a University of Tel Aviv T-shirt under his button-down in honor of Grossman’s college choice.

The Community School graduates are off to college everywhere from Maine to Florida to Israel, but their thoughtful work in high school has already made an impact on the community — like Natally Hernandez, whose senior podcast took a comprehensive look at the issue of sexual assault in Jackson.

The closing speech at the graduation was delivered by graduate Brooks Bradford, who capped the ceremony by focusing on his classmates and his high hopes for each of their futures.

“We are all conscious of each others’ phenomenal trajectories in life. Amongst us are future professional dancers, doctors, thespians, Wall Street tycoons, photographers, filmmakers, professional athletes, engineers, carpenters, musicians and maybe a future president,” Bradford said. “I’m not claiming to have any sort of skill and clairvoyance — but I know enough to say the world will be a brighter place with each of you in it.”

Jackson Hole High School