Addressing graduates, families, friends and faculty in attendance, and watching a live stream across the hall and across the continent, 43 students received degrees from Rainy River Community College Friday.

The commencement ceremony followed years of tradition, except in that it allowed no guests to attend in person, following COVID-19 pandemic guidelines

Challenges to education and all other aspects of life caused by the pandemic didn’t go unnoticed during the ceremony, with several speakers adding it likely has prepared the graduates for life’s journey well.

Brad Krasaway, RRCC director of operations, offered a welcome to the graduates, with an idea of what the day means.

“To graduate is an accomplishment and a significant milestone, but graduation is a celebration. And the opportunity to celebrate is part of the reward for times persevered through challenges. It serves as proof you didn’t give up and tells the world ‘I am a college graduate.’”

The impact of the pandemic, as well as social justice movements and political divisiveness all were present during the school year, he said.

Donita Ettestad, Healthcare Program director, presented the nursing graduates, noting in the fall, she was asked whether the fear of COVID-19 might decrease the number of nursing students.

“My answer: Nurses, even those in the making, don’t react that way. When people need help, they step up and offer for the greater good. It’s our calling,” she said.

In the end, she said the program has more graduates this year than in the past six.

And, she announced, this is the first class of practical nursing students to graduate all with honors or highest honors.

Jerry William, student speaker, commented on the year’s unique challenges and urged graduates to thank their parents, especially their mothers, for their support and dedication, offering a personal note to his mom.

“Thank you for every time you stayed hungry, but made sure I ate, all the double shifts taken when the picture was not perfect, all the time we studied with candlelight, all time we ran to school so I could be on time for class,” he said.

He asked graduates to stand up and repeat: “I am the future. We are the change we want to see. Work hard, be kind, amazing things will happen.”

Ella Bahr-Jefferis, student speaker, told the graduates the pandemic brought new opportunities and new challenges no graduates before them had.

“We will go into the world confident in our abilities,” she said. “We had an education in humanity brought about by a force of nature.”

Michael Raich, president of the Northeast Higher Education District, of which RRCC is a member, said that some graduates attending in person and others virtually was symbolic of the year. “Togetherness has been redefined living amid a pandemic,” he said, adding the graduates deserve extra kudos for adapting, persevering, learning and graduating.

Alan Rasmussen spoke on behalf of RRCC Foundation Board of Trustees, telling the graduates they were assisted in their efforts, many times, with financial help made possible by former students, alumni of RRCC, who also received scholarships and grants.

They are “paying it back” by contributing to the foundation and investing in the next graduates of RRCC, he said.

A recorded message from Jay Cowles, chair of the Minnesota State board of trustees, told graduates that no matter their need, or place they find themselves on their educational journey, the Minnesota State system will be there for them.