Photos: Utah high school seniors celebrate graduation after a tough year

Along with the typical excitement, the decorated mortarboards and the gowns in every school color, there was a shared thread at high school graduation ceremonies across Utah this year that made the celebrations a little more somber.

It has been a tough year for seniors in this 2021 graduating class due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And they talked about the trials of taking classes online and not seeing their friends as often. Some said they missed proms. Others said they missed family members who got sick.

They talked openly about the hardships of an unusual final year of high school that for the classes ahead of them was filled with fun — not face masks.

“At first glance, my senior year looked like one big fail,” said Amelia Holbrook-Brown, who spoke at West High School’s ceremony in Salt Lake City. “I felt so much shame for what I didn’t accomplish.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Viewmont graduates gather at the Dee Event Center in Ogden, for the Viewmont High School Graduation Ceremony, on Friday, May 28, 2021.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Viewmont graduates gather at the Dee Event Center in Ogden, for the Viewmont High School Graduation Ceremony, on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Rick Egan/)

The difficulty of it all, she added, was crushing. “I fell behind in school. I gained weight,” Holbrook-Brown said. “I cried.”

It wasn’t the year she expected. She didn’t go to football games and senior award nights like she planned. But, she noted, she learned other lessons that she wouldn’t have otherwise.

“Because of it, I learned I can’t find happiness in physical appearance or academic achievement,” Holbrook-Brown said. “Beyond that, I’ve learned that unhappiness does not equal failure, and I can be sad and still find meaning.”

The Salt Lake Tribune sent photographers to five graduations across the Wasatch Front to capture scenes from ceremonies where seniors reflected on how the pandemic shaped a pivotal point in their education and in their lives.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Westlake High School graduates Kaleinani Fitzgerald, left, and her cousin Tia Kekuaokalani are celebrated by family following commencement ceremonies at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Thursday, May 27, 2021.(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Westlake graduates take in a compilation of videos on the large screen at Rio Tinto Stadium taken throughout their year of living with though the coronavirus pandemic as they celebrate commencement ceremonies on Thursday, May 27, 2021.(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Westlake High School junior Andrew Ramirez suits up as the school’s mascot, Thor, the god of thunder, complete with cap and gown for commencement ceremonies at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Thursday, May 27, 2021.(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Friends and family pack the shady side of Rio Tinto Stadium for commencement ceremonies for Westlake High School on Thursday, May 27, 2021.(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Westlake graduate looks up to the stands packed with friends and family during commencement ceremonies at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Thursday, may 27, 2021.(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Viewmont graduates take a selfie before heading into the tunnel at the Dee Event Center in Ogden, for the Viewmont High School Graduation Ceremony, on Friday, May 28, 2021.(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune)(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Isaak Si'ilua, is covered with lei's full of candy and money, after his Clearfield High School graduation at the Dee Event Center in Ogden, on Friday, May 28, 2021.(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Viewmont graduates get lined up before heading into the tunnel at the Dee Event Center in Ogden, for the Viewmont Graduation Ceremony, on Friday, May 28, 2021.(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kaysia Allen pops some graffiti, after her Clearfield High School graduation at the Dee Event Center in Ogden, on Friday, May 28, 2021.(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Isaak Si'ilua, is covered with lei's full of candy and money, after his Clearfield High School graduation at the Dee Event Center in Ogden, on Friday, May 28, 2021.(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Family members give leis to Isaak Si'ilua, after his Clearfield High School graduation at the Dee Event Center in Ogden, on Friday, May 28, 2021.(Briana Scroggins | Special to The Tribune)  The Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts graduates line up before walking to their seats during graduation at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Graduates await the start of Herriman High School’s graduation ceremony held Thursday, June 3, 2021.(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Graduates applaud and throw their caps into the air at the end of Herriman High School’s graduation ceremony held Thursday, June 3, 2021.(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Graduates wave to family and friends while they process onto the field during Herriman High School’s graduation ceremony held Thursday, June 3, 2021.(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Graduates celebrate during the fireworks show at the end of Herriman High School’s graduation ceremony held Thursday, June 3, 2021.(Briana Scroggins | Special to The Tribune) Mary Ellen McGinnis, left to right, waits backstage with her guitar while Avienne James and Maura Monson set up their microphones during the graduation rehearsal for The Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.(Briana Scroggins | Special to The Tribune)  Graduates from the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts circle up for a kickline as “Come On Eileen” plays at the end of their graduation at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.
It is a tradition at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts to play “Come On Eileen” at the end of each dance and closing night of performances.

“Yes, there have been some negatives and hardships,” said one graduate speaking at Viewmont High. “This past year has been hard.”

At Clearfield High, students shared a moment of silence for those lost to the pandemic. Their principal, Christopher Keime, also encouraged them to soak in the moments that they were able to be together in person for the ceremony. “We know better than to take them for granted now,” he added.

West High senior Jennifer Echeveste said during her speech that she was grateful that her father could be there to see her walk across the stage to get her diploma. He’d been in and out of a hospital this year during his battle with the virus.

“His absence,” she said, “has made me feel empty in a way that I’ve never experienced.”

Her speech was about “la lucha,” the Spanish word for fight or struggle. That’s what this year has been, Echeveste said.

At East High, Emma Leone Davies described it as “chaos all around us.”

“We have gone through so many things that other high school classes have never navigated,” she said.

Her speech came in the form of a letter to her dad, who died from pancreatic cancer, she said, when she was a sophomore. She talked about the things she wished he could have seen and those, like the pandemic, that he would have never imagined.

It’s shaped her to be more resilient, she said. “And I love what I’m growing into.”

In the end, that was the message from seniors. It was a hard year, one that dashed their hopes and left them without many of the rites of passage of high school. It was different and they are different.

But among the tears, there were still stacks of flower leis, confetti and smiles.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Viewmont graduates in the Dee Event Center in Ogden, for the Viewmont High School Graduation Ceremony, on Friday, May 28, 2021.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Viewmont graduates in the Dee Event Center in Ogden, for the Viewmont High School Graduation Ceremony, on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Rick Egan/)