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Digital high school holds live drive-thru graduation

By Kyler Litson
Special to the Times

PHOENIX

After a school year of adjusting to new learning routines, weekly Zoom meetings, and countless hours in front of a computer screen, the time for celebration had finally arrived. For the 300 high school seniors at ASU Prep Digital, the K-12 online school out of Arizona State University, the celebratory festivities began this past Saturday at Lot 59 on ASU’s main campus with graduation day.

Courtesy photo
ASU Prep High School graduate Kyla Billy of Chilchinbeto, Ariz., shown with her masaní, Rinah Laughter, after receiving her diploma this past Saturday at Arizona State University’s main campus.

Restricted to a drive-thru graduation due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Lot 59 was refitted with an avenue for graduates —20 graduates at a time in their own vehicle with family and friends — a stage for them to walk across to receive their diploma, a live DJ with music, and banners of school spirit to mark their momentous occasion.

The all-online school serves students across the country including the Four Corners area, like senior Priya Simpson from Farmington who traveled to Phoenix to attend the event. Simpson talked about the difficulty of transitioning from in-person to online learning and the early effects it had on her and other students’ mental health. “It was truly difficult from going in-person to online,” she said. “I felt like for a lot of students it took a huge toll on their mental health.” Simpson credits her teachers and learning success coaches at ASU Prep Digital for helping her get through those early struggles. “I truly appreciate my teachers,” she said, “because they understood the difficulties with online learning. They taught me well and I retained everything they taught me.”

Simpson wasn’t fazed by how the pandemic altered her graduation ceremony. “For me, it’s special because nobody does a drive-thru graduation,” she said. “I’m excited about that. I’m going to be the odd one out. I’m excited to go up there, meet my principal, and get my diploma.” Simpson’s mother, Tammy Charley, expressed her emotions about her daughter’s graduation and the stark differences from past graduations before the pandemic.

“I’m excited about how different this is compared to my graduation and everybody’s graduation before 2020,” said Charley. “I’m excited and sad. “You got to go up and hear your family scream,” she said. “You’re not just four or six people. That’s the amount allowed to join this year.

“With my graduation,” she said, “I could hear my family and friends from across the gym. That’s one thing I’m sad about for her and all the other graduates. They don’t get to experience that.”

Priya Simpson dressed traditionally as a White Mountain Apache and plans to enlist in the Army.

Many seniors at ASU Prep Digital, like Chelsea Seletewa, transferred to the school to seek a better environment for online learning. Seletewa detailed the struggles of finding the perfect schedule and managing time in the day to build her own learning system. “I was fixated on the normal schedule of high school where you do one hour of each class every day,” she said. “I talked to a counselor and she gave me some ideas. I found out I work best working on one class the entire day.”

Seletewa is from the Hopi Reservation and is an aspiring filmmaker who explored more of that goal in her final year when she took a cinematography class that ASU Prep Digital offers. “I enjoyed it,” she said. “It was a nice place to study more of the logistics behind a camera and more screenplays and shots.”

Seletewa hopes to pursue cinematography or screenwriting after high school. “I would like to be a cinematographer, behind the camera or a screenwriter because I do like writing,” she said. “I really enjoy storytelling, world building, and characters.”

Seletewa’s best takeaway from her time at ASU Prep Digital was the support from the staff. “They are extremely helpful,” she said. “Transitioning from traditional to digital can be hard. Lot of the teachers are really understanding of that, especially since a lot of the teachers came from traditional to digital. No matter what time of the day they can always be there to answer.”

ASU Prep Digital senior Michaela Salabye, from Lower Greasewood, Arizona, found graduation week surreal. “It’s very dreamlike,” she said, “it doesn’t feel real. I feel very excited about it.

It’ll be fun.”

Salabye summed up senior year with one word – hectic. “Adjusting to life regarding the pandemic overall,” she said. “It has been very nice to just have school online and having that freedom to do classes when you need to. Going on without having to worry about being in class and all those requirements needed to stay safe.”

Themes of senior year for Salabye are staying on top of things and the reward that a work ethic brings. “Realizing at the very end of it, you’ll have everything that you’ve been working for,” she said. “You’ll be able to look back on it and say, ‘I’ve done all this work and it finally paid off — I’m graduating now and doing whatever I want to do.’”

Salabye’s mother, Jacelyn Salabye, talked about the importance of patience and self-care in a year that was like no other. “We need to be patient with ourselves, the learning, the movement in the world,” she said. “It really did bring some glimpse to me that you need to be patient with your daughter, the pace she’s moving, her mental health and the family’s mental health.” Michaela Salabye plans on attending Fort Lewis College this fall with a major in criminology.

Fellow senior Kyla Billy, from Chilchinbeto, Arizona, missed the memorable activities of a senior year. “It sucked that I didn’t get to do what most senior students experience like homecoming, prom and cheerleading season,” she said. “Overall, it was a good experience. It was very challenging and got me to work hard.”

Billy looked past the restrictions that kept the class from having a typical graduation day and relished the deeper meaning of it all. “It’s not the whole big event at a high school stadium or anything,” she said. “I’m still excited because I’m going to be celebrated for the hard work I put in these past four years.” Billy worked a part-time job during her senior year and sees her final year of high school as good preparation for adulthood. “It really made things challenging for me, learning how to time manage, having a job, doing school, cleaning, cooking, and taking care of my family,” she said. “It taught me a lot of life skills.”

Kyla Billy is attending the Art Institute of Chicago and hopes to expand the Native perspective of the world through animation.

Drive-thru and virtual graduations continue to take place and there is no doubt that there is a longing for the traditional – the loud cheers of packed stadiums, the congratulatory hugs from friends and relatives, the gentle expressions on a loved one’s face in a special moment.

There is also no doubt that the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 are rediscovering the true meaning of it all, finding that the true source of what is missed comes from their own hard work. A stage is built and taken down, but the time and effort of their accomplishment stands forever.


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