Tassel worth the Hassle: Graduation across the Southern Willamette Valley

Cottage Grove High

COTTAGE GROVE – Thankfully, Wisper Pilling sees the world from a vastly different lens than the one she used as a 5-year-old. 

“She wanted to quit kindergarten – she said she hated it and just wanted to go,” said her mother, Penelope Pilling, after Saturday’s outdoor commencement ceremony at Cottage Grove High School. 

A school-record amount of scholarships was distributed, and Pilling was one of the big winners in that department, receiving four years of free tuition from Portland State University. 

“I only got one scholarship from the high school, and I was hoping to get more than that,” Pilling said. “But when I found out about the PSU tuition scholarship, that really blew me away.” 

She plans to major in marketing and business management. And she’s setting her sights high. 

“I’m planning to intern with Google or another big company,” Pilling said. 

Char Hawks received four scholarships totaling $10,000 as she prepares to attend Western Oregon University. 

“I want to be a music teacher, singing is my passion,” Hawks said. “I want to teach choir and band, hopefully at the middle school level, that’s my dream.”

She said that after what this senior class had endured, it’s a great feeling of accomplishment to graduate. 

“Covid was really hard because we couldn’t have band or choir classes,” Hawks said. “So we had a lot of ups and downs.” 

Also honored on Saturday were valedictorians Rylee Guthrie and Elizabeth Hankins. Guthrie, the Key Club president, will attend the University of Oregon in the fall. Hankins, who helped coordinate the Lion Pride Pageant that raised almost $10,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network, will also attend Oregon. 

Both are undecided about their majors, but both plan to minor in Spanish. 

Em McDonald is the Lions’ salutatorian, and plans to attend the Oregon Institute of Technology to study Nuclear Imaging Technology. 

The Class of 2023 leaves CGHS remembering their class motto, a quote from Taylor Swift: “No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.” 
Ron Hartman, reporter

Pleasant Hill High

PLEASANT HILL – Graduation week is a fun time for nearly all seniors … but at Pleasant Hill High School, they believe in taking their fun to new levels.

One of the school’s long-standing traditions is that, on the final day of school, seniors are permitted to drive to school in the vehicle of their choice. So on June 7, along with the usual array of riding lawn mowers, tractors, ATV’s, and big rigs, students met at the Dairy Queen and formed a parade along Hwy. 58 as they drove to school.

One big surprise was that senior Blake Richardson wasn’t among that group. That’s because he was arriving by helicopter in the middle of the Billies’ baseball field.

“I wanted to do something that nobody had ever done,” said Richardson, who said he has a friend in Cottage Grove who allows him to fly his plane – but his friend is the one who actually landed the helicopter.

Senior pranks are nothing new at PHHS, and thankfully they were reportedly rather tame this year. But school employees still remember the time when somebody released thou- sands of ladybugs inside the school. Then there was the time when somebody Super-glued a bunch of locks – a “prank” that nobody was laughing about.

“One year they hoisted an outhouse on top of the gym – twice,” said Stephen Fergusgon, who helped with the sound system during Friday’s graduation ceremony. “Maintenance pulled it down, then they put it up there again.”

These last four years haven’t been all fun and games for graduating seniors. Dealing with Covid, working remotely, not being able to see their friends. … It was the kind of heavy stress that most students never have to face.

Valedictorian Gavin Hoellrich put those struggles in perspective during his speech Friday.

“In 2019 our rollercoaster was at full speed, because we were officially high schoolers,” Hoellrich said. “As freshmen we enjoyed Friday night football, homecoming festivities and, of course, sneaking off campus with older siblings and friends at lunch. But just as we were headed into those first set of loops, our ride came to a sudden stop, leaving us strapped in, hanging upside down. During Covid, we were left hanging there for a year, waiting for our ride to be repaired.

“We all found our own ways to cope, but we did have some commonalities. The boys all experimented with longer hair- styles and their ability to grow facial fuzz, while the girls seemed to work on their fashion sense, and perfected the pajama-pant look. When our roller coaster finally got moving again, and we returned to school again in our junior year, we all looked like overgrown Chia pets walking around in flannel pants wearing masks.”

In concluding his speech, Hoellrich added: “Sitting here today symbolizes the end of our wild ride here in Pleasant Hill. Some of us are thrilled and are already looking forward to their next adventure. Some of us probably have that nauseous feeling that can hit after a bumpy ride. One thing is for sure, we’re all stronger and we’re more prepared to face all the ups and downs and the twists and turns that our futures must certainly hold.”

Hoellrich received a handful of various scholarships, and will be attending Oregon State University in the fall.
Ron Hartman, reporter

Creswell High

CRESWELL – The message of the 115th commencement of Creswell High School on Friday was a simple one: community. The senior class started off their high school careers strong, but six months in the Covid pandemic started. When they were finally able to return to the classroom, it made them appreciate the support systems they had.

“We would also like to address the unique challenges that came with continuing school through the COVID pandemic. We struggled to keep doing schoolwork over zoom, and battled the mental health challenges that came with not seeing anyone outside of our homes for long stretches of time,” said Ashlee Dana, Arianna Ojeda and Jordynn Risdal, who did a joined speech as co-valedictorians. “But we made it through and we can look back on all of these challenges…. This is a celebration of all of us and our accomplishments, but we would also like to cut our attention to those who have supported and pushed us across this stage.”

The 65 graduating seniors also heard from keynote speaker Janelle Sailer, who taught science to many of the graduates when they were at Creswell Middle School.

“Whether you know what you’re doing next or not, you have the opportunity to make an impact on your community. That community might be here in Creswell with the people you interact with every day, or it might be thousands of new people on a college campus, the new town you move to or your new coworkers,” Sailer said. “Whatever your path is, you get to start creating and influence a culture and a community just by being a part of it.”

Also honored were the five salutatorians: Kylee Chisholm, Jenna Rodriguez, Gianna Ross, Caroline Spriggs, and Kendyl Whitson. Creswell school board members were on hand to present the diplomas, while Dana, Ojeda and Risdal had the honor of announcing their classmates’ names. 
Pierre Weil, reporter

Academy of Arts and Academics

SPRINGFIELD — With the highest graduation rate three years running in Lane County, 29 seniors at the Academy of Arts & Academics moved their tassels to the left in unison, signifying a job well done and a bright future ahead. 

“There is nothing more optimistic in the world than graduation, that magic moment at the end when a whole room of people screams with joy to empower these students as they enter the world,” said Andrew Hock, Dean of Students, during the ceremony on June 6at the Wildish Theatre. 

Notably, many graduates could be seen wearing colored cords signifying that they had earned honors in their respective majors or had a GPA of 3.5 or above.

School counselor Wendy Zacharias recognized the six students graduating with an honors diploma, including: Misia Foster Hunt, Darian Gorman, Desmond Mayes, Nik Mills, Jupiter Titus, and Khalil Zobairi.

While A3 does not designate a valedictorian, Caleb Garrette-Miller and Gorman were elected by their peers as the senior speakers for the ceremony. Each shared stories from their time at A3 and expressed their gratitude to the many teachers who had helped them along the way.  

“Our teachers care so much about forming relationships with the students and they are so dedicated to getting them all the way through to graduation,”  said Ame Beard, principal.

Amidst cheers from family, friends, and peers, each senior walked across the stage, shook hands with leaders from the Springfield School District, including Jonathan Light, Dave Collins, and Mindy Leroux. 

Hock highlighted the unique atmosphere of A3’s graduation, citing the small student population and project-based learning. 

“Every kid on this stage has a story about every other kid on this stage and that makes it feel more special and intimate and almost magical,” Hock said.
Lillian Stafford, reporter

Al Kennedy High

COTTAGE GROVE – At Al Kennedy, the classroom has no walls.

That’s been the ongoing motto of the Saginaw school, which features an emphasis on hands-on learning over book learning.

“We go on a million field trips,” principal Halie Ketcher said after Saturday morning’s graduation ceremony. “So a lot of the learning happens outside, in the field, or camping, or hiking, or doing water restoration projects.

“When Al Kennedy started the school, that was his motto, and we just kept it alive.” 

The 35 graduates from the Class of 2023, in many cases, had more than their share of challenges, so seeing them receive their diplomas or GED’s was especially satisfying to their teachers, family members and friends. 

Terrance James Cruden certainly has his challenges, as a high-functioning autistic student. He decided that nothing was going to hold him back during his senior year. His name kept getting called as scholarships were being handed out. 

“I was hoping for at least four, but realistically I only expected to get two,” said Cruden, known as TJ to his friends and classmates. “But I never expected to get six. It also includes the Oregon Promise Grant, which pays for all of my classes at LCC, so I really got seven scholarships in total. I never expected to get that much. I was very happy about that.” 

Cruden wants to get involved with the Unmanned Aviation Drone Program at Lane Community College.

 “I’ve been interested in that, and I thought it would be a great window into aviation in general, because I plan to be a commercial pilot someday,” Cruden said. 

“I’ve been in private school for special needs, but this year I decided to lift myself up and do something. I came here and talked with Mrs. Ketcher and the staff, and I was going to go for my GED. 

“Then I saw my former transcript, and I realized I had enough (credits) to possibly get my diploma. So I said I’ll go for that. And ever since then, I haven’t stopped. I just keep going. Since I can now go to LCC, why stop there? I’m not really done yet. And now I have all these scholarships, I have to use them up.”
Ron Hartman, reporter

Thurston High

SPRINGFIELD – On a warm, sunny Saturday the Thurston High School seniors took the next step in their lives. The 268 graduates took their seats in a unique fashion, with partners being split up, walking in from opposite sides of the track, and meeting in front of the stage with personalized handshakes or greetings, including two seniors with handheld confetti cannons.

Brooklyn Ramirez, Associated Student Body President, and Ariana Lagarda Pacheco, ASB Vice Ppresident, addressed their classmates, emparting the wisdom of Ferris Bueller on their fellow graduates.

“Always remember our class quote,” Ramirez said. “In the wise words of Ferris Bueller, ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.’”

Thurston’s commencement address was given by two Thurston High teachers: english teacher Robin Erickson and social studies teacher Tyler Nice. Erickson and Nice had much advice for the graduates, shared their thanks for how the graduating class set an example for younger students, and even showed the crowd what they’d learned from the seniors by diving into a conversation full of slang, capped off by the pair “hitting the griddy,” a common dance move among Gen Z.

“You all worked hard to make Thurston a place where people could be excited to be themselves as a student, as an athlete, as a musician, as a dancer, as a cheerleader or a dancer, as an environmentalist, as an actor, as a coder, as a leader, as a scholar, as an ally,” Erickson and Nice said. “Or simply just someone who was unapologetically proud of who they are, and thus a role model to the rest of campus.”

Principal Kimberlee Pelster also honored the whopping 16 valedictorians, who all finished their high school careers with straight-A’s: Peyton Andrus, Eila Dersham, Paige Gault, Lian Hagel, Stella Hall, Sadie Levrets, Aracele Llarena, Colleen Lovdokken, Maddox Molony, Bo Nguyen, Rylee Nilsen, Shaely Petersen, Brooklyn Ramirez, Breanna Raven, Jachin Scott, Reese Wy. Thurston also had four salutatorians: Desiree Antoun, Arianna Reed, Emma Rich-Huffman, ​Gabrielle Gilbert.
Pierre Weil, reporter

Springfield High

SPRINGFIELD – The 260 Springfield High School graduates, along with friends and families, came together on Friday night for the ceremony. Principal José da Silva, making his speech in English and Spanish, thanked the students for their resiliency the last four years.

“You did it. You completed your high school journey both virtually and in person because of the pandemic,” he said. “You have overcome challenges unlike those experienced by any other class in this school’s history.”

Springfield also had a rather unique graduate give a speech, one who’s been at Springfield High School for 40 years. Terrisa Cook has been a health and education teacher at Springfield for the last 36 years, in addition to graduating from Springfield High herself. As da Silva put it, Cook’s been a Miller for life. Cook is retiring this year, and was chosen to be the guest speaker at the commencement ceremony.

“Today’s the day when your past, present and future all meet. Your parents, families, teachers, and friends,” Cook said. “Before you leave SHS today, stop and cherish those people, the families that sacrificed for you, the teachers and staff who made a difference, the friends who have stood by you. Then for the rest of your life, reach out to help others, to help them along as others have done for you.”

Principal da Silva then honored the three valedictorians of SHS, all of whom will be attending the University of Oregon: Logan Bradley, who plans to major in Business Administration; Hannah Holman, who plans to major in Biology; and Desmond Scott, who plans to major in folklore and minor in neuroscience.

Kassandra McLennan was one of two students chosen to give a speech, and had a fitting message for her fellow graduates moving forward.

“If I could describe the class of 2023 in one word, I would call us tryhards,” McLennan said. “Not in an insulting way, but in the way that we are stubborn. We always push forward and we fight for what we want.”

Pierre Weil, reporter

Catch the Graduation Magazine next week for all the photos and fun from graduation weekend.



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