Central Lakes College graduates entered the next phase of their lives after commencement ceremonies last week.

"It is our favorite day of the year — absolutely our favorite because everything that we do here at Central Lakes College is designed to help you be successful," CLC President Hara Charlier told the class of 2021 during their ceremonies May 12-14.

Most graduates attended in person, while friends, family and loved ones watched the recorded ceremonies virtually.

Not only were the graduates celebrating the end of their educational journey at CLC, but so were the instructors and staff members celebrating what they learned from the students, Charlier said. The class of 2021, she said, taught them three things.

The first is resilience.

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“Every one of you has prioritized your education with really busy lives in the face of challenges that most of us could have never seen or imagined. Many of you have dealt with profound life changes — loss, concerns about mental or physical health, concerns about your family or just concerns about life,” Charlier said. “... Yet, you did not give up. And the truth is, nobody would have blamed you if you had, but you didn’t stop. Or you paused and you came back. It is truly inspiring.”

That resilience showed itself in overcoming the challenges of Zoom classes and being faced with empty toilet paper shelves at the grocery store, Brainerd Student Senate President Ben Schlegel told students during his speech.

Central Lakes College graduate Ben Schlegel speaks to his classmates about the importance of remembering the abnormal year that led to their graduation. Screenshot by Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Central Lakes College graduate Ben Schlegel speaks to his classmates about the importance of remembering the abnormal year that led to their graduation. Screenshot by Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

But those abnormalities, he said, may also be what this year’s graduates remember and — with time — come to miss.

“We will miss seeing our peers’ foreheads,” he said. “Perhaps what we will miss most is going on the journey, the quest … to find that darn unmute button after, of course, we have been talking to ourselves for a solid 30 seconds and everyone reminds us very nicely that they can’t hear us.”

Or maybe they won’t miss those things, he said, but they will always remember those imperfect days. And chasing perfection, according to Charlier, is the second lesson the class of 2021 taught their instructors.

“We know that we live in a very imperfect world. We didn’t need that reminder, but we got it. And we all know that none of us is perfect,” Charlier said. “Yes, some of you — some of us — hold yourselves to very high standards, extraordinarily high standards. … But this year, more than ever, because of your courage, you helped us to celebrate your imperfection and then watch your success.”

The last lesson was simple — kindness.

“Simply being kind really matters a whole lot more than a simple word seems like it should,” Charlier said. “And it matters, particularly in today’s world. The class of 2021 has been through a lot. You’ll all have your own stories, yet you have been extraordinarily kind and compassionate to your fellow students.”

Wade Hofius, Staples Student Senate president, shared examples of the student kindness he saw on campus this past year, with Staples Student Senate allocating funds to the food pantry and students helping out with events like pop-up food pantries and blood drives.

Wade Hofius, a Staples campus CLC graduate, speaks to his fellow graduates about the bonds they formed while in school together. Screenshot by Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Wade Hofius, a Staples campus CLC graduate, speaks to his fellow graduates about the bonds they formed while in school together. Screenshot by Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

“We combined together to make sure we made it through, and I think that’s truly spectacular,” Hofius said.

He encouraged his classmates to remember how they came together to support one another and make sure to strike up a conversation when they see one another out and about.

“We went to the same college. We are family in a way,” Hofius said. “And my fellow graduates, I encourage you to keep striving to be great and never give up on your dreams, as they led you here today.”

For Desirae Rhodes, those dreams that led her to CLC were years in the making. The CLC honors student, who returned to college after a 15-year hiatus, shared the undeniable effect her college instructors had on her.

She started by recalling her third-grade teacher, who she remembers getting a twinkle in her eye every time she finished helping a student. It was that teacher who made Rhodes decide she wanted to be a teacher herself.

“Then life happened,” she said. “I barely graduated high school. I blew off my first semester of college and made poor choices and had children way before I was ready. But you know, I don’t regret a single part of this journey because every minute of my life has made me the person that stands before you today 15 years later.”

Central Lakes College graduate Desirae Rhodes speaks to the 2021 graduates about her experience coming back to college after a 15-year hiatus. Screenshot by Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Central Lakes College graduate Desirae Rhodes speaks to the 2021 graduates about her experience coming back to college after a 15-year hiatus. Screenshot by Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Coming back to college so much later wasn’t easy, but the instructors made it fruitful.

“Our instructors taught us things like history and philosophy, about the Earth and society. They taught us about rationality, mindfulness and the importance of critical thinking,” Rhodes said. “But it is in the relationships they forged with us that they truly and fundamentally transformed us. They taught us how to be resilient, exhibit humility and showed us what real compassion was. They demonstrated to us what it means to be human. Whether we are a teacher or a mentor or just a friend, the lessons learned from one another will be just as important to our success as the education we just obtained.”

Each of the other speakers left the graduates with some food for thought as they go on with their lives. From Charlier, it was to remember their worth.

“Whatever you decide that next chapter looks like, remember, you are far more resilient than you can imagine,” she said. “Don’t chase perfection. Just be you. You are far, far more than enough. And that the way you treat people has the power to change their lives.”

From Schlegel, it was to remember this special chapter in their lives.

“Crack open the old books of your life and read this chapter, but don’t get stuck there,” Schlegel said. “The story is still going. A new chapter is before us. And never forget to remember your roots, my friend. Remember that you are alive. Remember to love your neighbor. Remember to remember.”

And from Hofius, it was to remember they can do anything they set their minds to.

“The human mind is a very, very powerful thing,” he said. “If you believe you can do something, you are correct. But if you believe you can’t do something, you are absolutely correct again. So because of this, how you think will determine how you live. So keep on believing in yourself because when you do, nothing — and I mean nothing — is impossible.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.