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News / Clark County News

Clark College graduates gather after long separation

By Meg Wochnick, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 18, 2021, 11:48am
3 Photos
Associate in Arts graduate Alejandro Tapia-Garcia triumphantly holds up his diploma to a crowd watching outside the fence of Kim Christiansen Field on Thursday during the Clark College Commencement ceremony.
Associate in Arts graduate Alejandro Tapia-Garcia triumphantly holds up his diploma to a crowd watching outside the fence of Kim Christiansen Field on Thursday during the Clark College Commencement ceremony. (Taylor Balkom/for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Clark College’s newest graduates were separated by screens for much of their community college careers, but the Class of 2021 — and even handfuls of 2020 graduates — finally came together Thursday night to graduate and bid farewell.

Compared to an all-virtual ceremony in 2020 because of COVID-19 concerns, an in-person commencement was the overwhelming top choice for the Class of 2021 when surveyed by college leadership.

Graduates Delainey Phelps and Mila Smook couldn’t agree more.

“Being able to have it in-person is huge,” Smook said.

Phelps and Smook saw doubles on their diplomas — Running Start graduates who completed their high school diplomas along their associate degrees in business administration. As student government leaders, Phelps and Smook were in awe to see so many faces of students and faculty — even if they hadn’t met most of them. They only had two academic quarters on campus. That never deterred either from their goals, and a commencement ceremony symbolized the end of some “but the beginning of reaching the next goals,” Phelps said.

Campus has remained closed with most classes staying in remote-only instruction since COVID-19 concerns first shut down campus March 2020. But Thursday, the graduates gathered on Kim Christensen Field, home of Clark’s mens and womens soccer teams, for the college’s 85th commencement. Blue, teal and white caps and gowns dawned on the field where some 600 graduates chose to participate. Most walked away from the field with associate degrees, but others earned bachelor’s degrees, high school diplomas and other academic certificates. The ceremony was limited to graduates, faculty and staff, cabinet members and volunteers, but was live-streamed for guests to view on the college’s website.

8 Photos
A decorated cap sits on the head of a graduate during the Clark College Commencement ceremony Thursday at Kim Christiansen Field.
Clark College 2021 commencement Photo Gallery

“They (the guests) can see you and hear you, so give them a roaring ‘thank you,’” college president Karin Edwards told the graduates. Many turned to find the nearest camera.

In her first commencement address Thursday, Edwards touched on COVID-19’s impact beyond a closed campus, learning virtually and canceled activities by speaking about the losses of connection, employment and every day events. And even for some, the loss of loved ones.

But Edwards said what she believes is gained most is a perspective on what really matters in life.

“We learned the power of togetherness, and how we should not take for granted our ability to be together,” Edwards said. “We missed being with each other and learning together.”

Board of Trustees Chair Rekah Strong, a Clark graduate herself, said the Class of 2021 is the most resilient, tenacious and determined class of graduates. She reminded graduates that whatever goals are set in life, the graduates have proven it can be achieved.

“If you reached this milestone during a tumultuous year,” Strong said, “imagine what you can accomplish in years when the water is calm.”

Student speaker Jaelyn Sotelo, also a Skyview High graduate this week, spoke on how each graduate’s sacrifice, struggle and vulnerability are important in the quest for what their future holds. At 14, Sotelo said her mental health deteriorated when her father walked out, which made her question what’s ahead while at the lowest point of her life.

She called her experience at Clark “life-changing” by helping her reach her full potential as a student leader.

Graduate Moses Kimeli Korir received the President’s Award, in Honor of Val Ogden. The scholarship provides full tuition to a graduate transferring to Washington State University Vancouver.