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6 young Canadians share how they celebrated graduation after another pandemic school year

Canadian students tell CBC News about their pandemic graduation celebrations, ranging from backyard parties, working at a vaccination clinic and a lakeside photo shoot.

Outdoor and virtual events to mark the big day often came with a unique twist

Students graduating from Neil McNeil Catholic High School in Toronto pose for photos during an outdoor ceremony on June 29. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Another graduation season has come and gone. But with the COVID-19 pandemic still a fact of life, walking across a stage surrounded by peers was not a viable option for many Canadian students.

Young people across the country made it work, celebrating the big day with family and friends safely, responsibly — and creatively.

CBC News spoke with six recent high school and university graduates who marked their milestone with a unique twist.

Adriana Gonzalez, 27, and Devon Bowyer, 26

Adriana Gonzalez, right, and Devon Bowyer celebrate their graduation from the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the Auduzhe Mino Nesewinong clinic on June 22. (Dr. Mona Haidar)

Adriana Gonzalez and Devon Bowyer spent their graduation day working at the Auduzhe Mino Nesewinong clinic in downtown Toronto, a COVID-19 testing and vaccination centre for Indigenous people whose name means "Place of Healthy Breathing" in the Anishinaabe language.

"Essentially, we thought the most public health thing that we could do with our degree was go out to a clinic and have our graduation on the same day," Bowyer said. Both he and Gonzalez have a master of public health degree in Indigenous health from the University of Toronto.

Bowyer is the clinic's program and logistics manager, and Gonzalez supports him in that role. As they tuned into their virtual convocation ceremony on June 22, their colleagues threw them a small celebration, complete with cake and party props.

Gonzalez and Bowyer said they are both first-generation settlers grateful to be working in solidarity with Indigenous people. "Throughout our program, we've just learned that community leadership, community partnership really is the key to advancing the health needs of Indigenous peoples," Gonzalez said. "This was just ... such a special and significant way to celebrate together."

Javeria Pervez, 18

Javeria Pervez, shown in her cap and gown with her father, Pervez Akhter, beside Lake Ontario, graduated from the Blyth Academy in Mississauga, Ont., on June 23. (Aasima Sadiq)

Javeria Pervez celebrated her high school graduation in style: an outdoor photo shoot with her parents in her cap and gown.

Pervez graduated from Blyth Academy in Mississauga, Ont. The private school's Adamson Estate campus overlooks Lake Ontario, and graduates were offered the chance to have professional photos taken on the grounds by the water.

She said she was most excited by the prospect of seeing her teachers again after being taught remotely. Upon arrival, each graduate received a gift box with a hoodie, glassware, a pen, a lawn sign and a handwritten note from the principal.

"I'm glad that we at least got to do the little graduation thing at the lake, because otherwise I was expecting it to be totally virtual," she said. "So that was definitely a really happy moment for me."

Her father agreed. "They gave us the opportunity to celebrate," Pervez Akhter said. "And I really appreciate that."

Andrew Odegard, 22

Andrew Odegard stands inside an inflatable pub set up in his family's backyard on June 26 to celebrate his graduation from the University of Alberta with a bachelor of science degree. (Merilee Odegard)

Andrew Odegard's backyard celebration was a joint effort between him and his mom, Merilee: a giant inflatable pub, complete with a fake indoor fireplace and windows for serving drinks. The family won the setup at an auction organized by a local radio station in their town of St. Albert, Alta.

Odegard, who graduated from the University of Alberta in Edmonton with a bachelor of science degree, spent the day celebrating outdoors with friends and family.

"We had booked it about a month ago," Merilee Odegard said of the inflatable pub. "We didn't know what restrictions were going to be. And we thought even if it's just our family of six, we had to do something to celebrate grad. Right? It's a big deal."

The circumstances were disappointing, Odegard said. "I would've rather done it in person. Classes would have been easier; I would've gotten to see my friends in school and have that traditional grad. But it just wasn't possible."

But there was a silver lining: The special occasion gave Odegard an opportunity to be with his grandparents, two of whom he said he has seen only once or twice since the pandemic began. And with the entire family fully vaccinated, they were long overdue for some hugs. "It was all pretty fun."

WATCH | Canadian students share their unique graduation celebrations:

Canadian students share their unique graduation celebrations

CBC News

20 days ago
1:34
As ceremonies across the country were put on hold for the COVID-19 pandemic, 4 Canadian students tell CBC News about their creative graduation day plans. 1:34

Rylee Macey-Reid, 17

Rylee Macey-Reid stands in front of her family's house in Okotoks, Alta., on June 18. The yard is decorated with stars and messages of congratulations for the graduate of École Secondaire Foothills Composite High School. (Renae Macey-Reid)

Rylee Macey-Reid's high school graduation plans were cut short by a sibling's positive COVID-19 test, and she spent the big day at home in Okotoks, Alta. But that didn't stop her family from going all out.

"My mom woke me up, and she blindfolded me and brought me outside. And I took the blindfold off and our whole front yard was decorated with graduation stuff, which was a very big surprise," she said.

Macey-Reid tuned into her school's live-streamed, in-person ceremony, watching her fellow students walk the stage and throw their caps.

"It was a little bit bittersweet not being able to walk across with them, since I've been with them for so long, but it was as close as I was going to get to see them," said Macey-Reid, who graduated from École Secondaire Foothills Composite High School in the French-immersion program.

She received her high school diploma from her family, and her father, Brad Macey, who is a member of the Beausoleil First Nation in Ontario, presented her with a ceremonial blanket that the school gives to its Indigenous graduates. The celebrations will continue all summer long, said her mom, Renae Macey-Reid.

"It ended up being just as good as a real graduation, honestly," Macey-Reid said. "I enjoyed all the same things that I would've enjoyed if I went to the real one."

Chelsea La Vecchia, 29

Chelsea La Vecchia, second from right, toasts her graduation from the University of Waterloo with a master of arts in experimental digital media in her parents' Toronto backyard on June 19 with family. (Agnes Wong)

Chelsea La Vecchia celebrated her graduation in her parents' Toronto backyard, with her mom, Tracy, her dad, Tony, and her husband, George, present for an intimate, homemade lunch (beet salad, mango and scallops, and grilled chicken and shrimp). She received a master of arts in experimental digital media from the University of Waterloo.

To prepare for her virtual convocation, La Vecchia and her family moved their television set outdoors and attempted to stream the ceremony, but all did not go as planned.

"It was a bit of a mess," she said, referring to a slew of technical difficulties that arose just as the event began. "In the midst of trying to eat and then also trying to figure out the tech, I missed I think probably 30 minutes of the ceremony."

To top it all off, the screen froze just before her name appeared. "So I never actually saw my name!"

Celebrating remotely was a strange experience, since La Vecchia said she had hoped to graduate alongside her classmates after completing the "difficult but rewarding" program. "It was weird, I'm not going to lie. It took a little bit of the value away." But it was great to celebrate at home with family, she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jenna Benchetrit is a CBC News writer covering entertainment and education. She can be reached at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.

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