On a warm summer’s night, a class of 33 Bethlehem Academy graduates formally closed a formative chapter of their lives with a graduation ceremony like no other.

As Rice County suffers one of the worst measured coronavirus outbreaks of any city in the nation, the ceremony was held the same way that Faribault High School and other are schools have held theirs — via a unique “drive-thru” format.

As opposed to the traditional commencement program with live, in-person speakers, this year’s program was pre-recorded and live streamed over social media, with a live audio feed blasted over loudspeakers in the school parking lot. While some families opted to watch the program at home, many took the opportunity to congregate at BA for the loudspeaker livestream, though they were confined to the safety of their own vehicles.

The livestream was a first for the Academy, providing access to the graduation ceremony for family and friends of graduates anywhere in the world. Now on the Academy’s social media pages, it can be viewed at any time, offering additional flexibility.

Unfortunately, the setup on graduation night experienced technical difficulties. Roughly halfway into the 75 minute program, the loudspeaker audio was abruptly cut and didn’t return, leaving families to follow the livestream on their phones.

While the commencement program ended at 8:15 pm as scheduled, the diploma ceremony was ultimately delayed until after 8:30, to give time for families who had watched the livestream from home to file into the parking lot.

Before receiving their diplomas, students received congratulations from the Academy’s Principal and President, Dr. Chuck Briscoe. It was an emotional moment for the Bethlehem community and for Briscoe, who is retiring after more than four decades in education.

In his address Briscoe praised the Class of 2020’s graduates for persevering amid unprecedented circumstances. Briscoe recalled taking what he thought would be a brief leave of absence in early March, only to find out the absence would last the rest of the year. Briscoe spoke in front of a banner that looked perfectly normal, just the kind of class group photo that certainly would have been a staple of graduations past. Closer inspection, however, revealed that the shot had actually been produced in a highly unusual manner.

Kris Sauer, BA’s director of admissions, said that the photo was in fact a project of the academy’s multimedia class. Under its direction, individual photos of each student in caps and gowns were superimposed on a background to give the appearance of a group photo.

Wearing gloves and a mask, Briscoe personally delivered a diploma to 33 of the 36 students of 2020’s graduating class, with a vehicle containing each graduate pulling out of its designated parking spot in alphabetical order.

South Korean exchange students Mingyeong Jeong and Jeongbin Park received diplomas in absentia, as they had already returned to their home country. A Cambodian exchange student was also not present at the ceremony but did not receive a degree through BA.

Of the 36 students, 23 plan to attend a four-year liberal arts college. Five more indicated plans to attend a community or technical college, while the plans of the other eight varied with some undecided, others planning on entering the military or going abroad.

After the ceremony was complete, Assistant Principal John Wollersheim offered a final round of thanks before the vehicles departed for a celebratory tour around town. Led by Fire Chief Dustin Dienst, the procession capped a one of a kind celebration in a wholly unique manner.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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