On March 23, the UWC Dilijan College van drove the last group of students to the airport on their way home to their families. With the global spread of coronavirus, the college made the difficult decision to ask all students for whom it is possible to leave the campus and Armenia and return home. This was quite a logistical feat. The college had to urgently repatriate about 200 students to several dozen destinations. Currently, we have 36 students left on campus (out of a total of 226) who are unable to return home because of their home country situation or travel restrictions. And while our community is being spread among 80 countries, the college is switching to an online model of teaching and learning the IB curriculum.
These are quite extraordinary times for everyone, and UWC Dilijan is no exception. And in extraordinary times, extraordinary things tend to happen. This is exactly how we see the graduation ceremony that we managed to organize on March 15, a day before the complete lockdown of the campus and several hours before the first bus of students left for the airport.
Everyone recognizes the importance of graduation day in a student’s life. Many can imagine what it takes to organize it. In the case of UWC Dilijan, graduation has always been one of the most special days of the year, the day that brought together the UWCD community, as well as parents and important guests from all over the world. A whole team over several months of preparation was responsible for the event’s organization and its corresponding rehearsals. In early March, we realized that the graduation was not going to happen; the coronavirus was changing everyone’s plans.
Since the college leadership agreed on March 14 that the first-year students would have to return home, we also decided that we couldn’t send them away without giving them a chance to celebrate the graduation of their second-years. We had 20 hours, almost a day of us being together as a community, of our life “before coronavirus.” We decided that it was enough time for us to organize this year’s graduation ceremony – our extraordinary, unplanned, early-spring, one-of-a-kind graduation.
And so we did! A sleepless night it was – students and teachers, mentors and “toon” parents (house parents) together writing the script, assigning roles, preparing the performances and speeches, even deciding what to wear (everyone thought they had plenty of time for shopping!) and borrowing each others’ clothes. You often hear that improvisations are the best. Based on our recent experience, they are. What a day it was! There were virtual guests, decorations improvised by our art teachers and students, true emotions, warmest wishes, smiles and tears. After laughing, crying and laughing again for several hours, our staff and teachers agreed that this graduation was absolutely exceptional. All of it, from the beginning to the end, was organized for our students for them to have memories stronger than those of coronavirus.
Parents, siblings, partners and friends—everyone watched the celebration online. And we were overwhelmed with warm wishes and gratitude messages via social media and email. “Unpredictable emotions, crying!” “Thanks for letting us all watch from far.” “Well done arranging such an amazing event on such short notice!” “Thank you so much for live streaming this so we could be there in spirit with our graduating son.” These were the messages that kept coming from all over the world during the ceremony.
Here is what this year’s graduates had to say about this day:
Lynn, Lebanon: “As we walked on the stage to get our diplomas, there were tears in our eyes. Life teaches us every day that nothing is eternal, but this graduation reinforced my belief that the beauty of my relationship with others in UWC will never fade. Their departure is just a simple comma in the poem of our story.”
Cindy, Venezuela: “Graduation for me was a quite bittersweet event. It was an afternoon filled with laughter and joy, as well as with tears and some sporadic sobbing. However, looking back at it, it warms my heart to know that I got to spend the closure to a special chapter of my life along with all of my friends, who also became my family. I am really thankful to my school for arranging our graduation in such a short time span and managing to keep the magic of it. Even in these times of uncertainty.”
Bram, the Netherlands: “Despite the fact that we had to suddenly leave our new friends, family and home in Dilijan, graduation was something that I immensely appreciated and loved. It shows the hardworking nature of the people on campus, having been organized in 20 hours and still being such an emotional and beautiful goodbye. Much like UWC itself, it was very bittersweet.”
Priyanka, Nepal: “I was not ready to say goodbye. None of us was, and yet there we were, organizing an event with less than 24 hours’ notice, making memories that would have normally taken weeks of planning in a single day’s timeframe. We have a song that gets passed down generation to generation at UWCD; it’s called ‘I Lived’ by OneRepublic. That day, amidst all the tears, unprocessed feelings and longing to make this wholesome community last a bit longer, less than 24 hours before Armenia declared the state of national emergency, our diverse family of 226 really felt like we lived, through all the thick and thin both within our school and the world around us.”
Now, as the last group of students make their way home, as we all sit in our rooms struggling with online working, teaching and learning, as we read the headlines of the world news, I am both happy and sad to go back to the memories of those moments. And this happiness and sadness mean a lot to me, especially now. It means that we are strong, stronger than we think, that the UWCD family really exists, and you become part of it without even noticing it, that the epidemic will pass and the memories will stay. And I’m sure that everyone who was there with us on that day feels the same way.