A day to celebrate: Brainerd Learning Center students receive diplomas after roller coaster year

Seniors at the Brainerd Learning Center celebrated their graduation Thursday, May 20, at Tornstrom Auditorium.

Graduating senior Macey Whitlock receives her diploma from school staff member Michael Morford Thursday, May 20, 2021, at the Brainerd Learning Center Graduation Ceremony in Tornstrom Auditorium. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Twenty-nine seniors clad in bright blue caps and gowns crossed the stage and received their diplomas from the Brainerd Learning Center Thursday, May 20.

The ceremony at Tornstrom Auditorium celebrated a total of 55 graduates who took some or all of their classes through the Area Education Center, a program designed to fit a variety of educational needs for high school students.

“It feels like a weight lifted off my shoulders,” graduate Macey Whitlock said after the ceremony.

The past four years gave Whitlock confidence, Brainerd Learning Center Principal Jessica Haapajoki said when introducing the graduate.

“Her advice to younger students is, ‘Be patient. If you work hard, success will find you. And just keep looking forward. Don’t focus on the past,’” Haapajoki said of Whitlock.


As graduates were introduced, their teachers relayed the students’ most memorable parts of high school, the jobs they worked, the successes they achieved and the advice they had for underclassmen.

“One of my favorite parts about my job is to award diplomas,” Haapajoki said. “If it’s graduation day like today, or on the day you earned your diploma, it’s your special day. You did it. You did it in the midst of overcoming many challenges in your life, not just a pandemic. When school wasn’t your favorite thing to do or your favorite place to be, you kept on going.”

The Class of 2021 from the Brainerd Learning Center gather before their graduation ceremony Thursday, May 20, 2021, at Tornstrom Auditorium. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The past year was full of phrases that eventually became cliches — “unprecedented times,” “the new normal,” “we’re in this together.”

But students and staff at AEC did undoubtedly come together to weather the storm and make it to graduation.

“It was really hard, but my teachers made it easier,” graduate Madison Boeder said of the year, after saying it felt amazing to finally graduate.


Boeder, who plans to attend Central Lakes College and eventually earn a degree in early childhood education, said her advice to younger students is simple: “Get your work done early. It’s much easier that way.”

Not much about the past school year was easy, but Haapajoki reminded the students to remember how far they’ve come.

“The most important thing you learned is how to persevere. No matter how hard things got, you kept going. You can do hard things. You showed us how you can,” she said. “... I know what I remember about the class of 2021. … I will look at you with pride and remember all the things that you have done and not the things you haven’t done or didn’t get to do. When you thought you couldn’t do it, or when others thought you couldn’t do it, look. You did it.”

After all the names were read and childhood photos of the students were shown on a large screen for the audience to enjoy, graduates celebrated by tossing their caps and rushing off to take photos with their loved ones.

AEC students are also invited to participate in the Brainerd High School graduation ceremony set for Friday, May 21, at Adamson Field.


THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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