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Isle of Wight Academy graduates 40 seniors

For Isle of Wight Academy’s 2021 valedictorian, Allison Dolan, the school’s May 28 outdoor commencement ceremony didn’t just mark the end of high school for 40 graduating seniors.

It was the culmination of several months of virtual classes that began their junior year, wearing face masks on campus and trying to maintain some semblance of a normal teenage social life during a pandemic that’s killed at least 590,000 Americans and 3.5 million people worldwide.

“I have news for you; we did it!” she announced to her classmates during her commencement speech. “Our high school experience has been like no other. Both our junior and senior years were strongly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic … I know that all of us want to put COVID behind us and I want that too but I do not want us to forget this time in our lives. The pandemic is who we are and it has shown us new ways of thinking and living….

“I think the biggest thing COVID taught me was to not take life for granted, because something could come in and screech everything to a halt. Before COVID, I felt as if I was simply going through the motions of life because that is what you are supposed to do. But now that I am here, now that we are here and we are graduating to this next stage of our life, I realize that life is a lot more than just going through the motions. It is about all the little things and living in the moment. It is about being able to have a high school prom or being able to go on a walk and enjoy the outdoors with a couple of friends. It is about graduating from one stage of life to the next.”

Senior class president Anali Castillo also referenced the pandemic in her remarks, but “this is not a speech for COVID,” she said. “I know each individual here has experienced a hardship brought on by the pandemic and we all know how much each of us has had to overcome. This year has been so much more than a pandemic. It has been the last year at Isle of Wight Academy for the class of 2021. Like many others sitting before me, I call IWA a second home. This school has seen me at my lowest and has encouraged me to strive to reach the highest ever since I started attending.

“Picture this: little first grader Anali, and yes, I was somehow shorter than I am now, but she is nervous for her first day at school. She has no idea what to expect. Her mind is running wild. Will the kids like her? Is she going to make any new friends? Is the teacher nice? Each question of hers was quickly answered the moment she walked into her classroom. She was immediately greeted by smiling kids hoping she would sit next to them. She was met with an uplifting, nice and energy-filled teacher. She was welcomed into the first grade class with open arms … As we go on to live our lives we will meet various new and diverse people and each new individual should be treated with the kind of welcome as I got on my first day, because look at where that acceptance led to. It led to the creation of family who can depend on each other. I will always be grateful for our little family out here in small-town Isle of Wight.”

Olivia Upton and Molly Johnson were named co-salutatorians.

“Our teachers from kindergarten to senior year, you have changed our lives for the better,” Upton said. “You were always the first to arrive and the last to leave. You didn’t just teach us, you cared about us as well. Thank you for all the doughnuts, lunch chats, laughs and memories you have given us. Though we may not have always liked you, we will always love you. Our parents, you are really who we do this for. You have worked and sacrificed so much for us and I don’t know if we can ever truly repay you.”

“It wasn’t until I stood up here today that it felt like the end, but in fact it still isn’t the end; it’s only the beginning. It’s the beginning of our new journey into the world and I can stand up here and tell you all the cliches like follow your dreams or reach for the stars, but I have a bigger message for you guys today,” Johnson said. “I’m going to talk about leadership, specifically servant leadership … I’ve seen my mom pay for a policeman’s meal behind us in the drive through as an anonymous thank you for his service. I’ve heard the stories of my dad’s mission trip to Haiti. As he struggled to fall asleep in intolerable heat, he realized the real reason he was there. It wasn’t just for show; it was to let the Haitians know that the world truly cared about them.

“I came to the same realization on a mission trip in 2019 … as my team worked to improve a young family’s mobile home, we were making a greater impact than we really knew. At the end of the week, the young mother made us homemade fudge and she said she regretted that she could not give us more as a token of her appreciation. She was so moved that perfect strangers, nonetheless teenagers, would take a week out of their summer to work through the rain, heat and mud just to make her family’s lives a little better.”

Then, paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi, whom she’d quoted earlier, she challenged her classmates to “find yourselves by losing yourselves in the service of others.”

Friday’s ceremony was the first traditional commencement Isle of Wight Academy had held since before the pandemic. Headmaster Mark Munford said an abridged ceremony was held last year due to COVID-19.

Following the remarks by IWA’s valedictorian, salutatorians and class president, former headmaster Benjamin Vaughan presented the school’s first-ever James Howard Stewart Memorial Scholarship to graduating senior Russ Wells. The scholarship is named for an IWA standout basketball and baseball player who graduated in 1975 and passed away in 2020.