Tornado sirens halt CLC graduation

All the students' names were called just before the tornado sirens sounded at Central Lakes College Thursday, May 12, 2022.

Rows of animated students sit in caps and gowns.
Central Lakes College graduates wave to family and friends Thursday, May 12, 2022, during the career and technical program ceremony at the Brainerd campus. For a photo gallery and video, go to
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — A typical graduation ends with a ceremonious turning of the tassel and perhaps a toss of the cap.

But for some 2022 Central Lakes College graduates, the ceremony ended with a brisk walk to the storm shelter.

Tornado sirens sounded just after the last graduate crossed the stage to get his diploma Thursday, May 12, during CLC’s Brainerd campus career and technical ceremony.

The chaotic end to the ceremony came not long after CLC President Hara Charlier spoke about the twists and turns in the path of life, how no journey is as straight and smooth as the Paul Bunyan State Trail.

“It’s a very predictable, beautiful trail, but the paths in life don’t typically look like that,” Charlier said. “They look more like these crazy paths through the woods where when you look ahead you, all you see is a cluster of trees. You’re not really sure what’s going on.”


The irony of those remarks — only about an hour before those attending sought cover from an impending storm — was not lost on graduate Wednesday Bennett.

“I just thought, well this was one more thing to make it memorable,” Bennett said. “And nobody saw this coming, so there’s just been a lot of turns and twists along the road.”

When the sirens sounded, Charlier asked those in the crowded gym to remain calm, at first saying the room was a safe place for storms. A minute or two later, she backtracked, telling everyone to calmly exit the gymnasium to the school’s various shelters.

Graduates and their families lined inner hallways and gathered in restrooms and locker rooms to wait out the blaring sirens.

Dental assisting student Alexa Szafranski was reminded of her high school graduation last year in Foley, when the ceremony was put on hold after someone fainted and had to be taken away in an ambulance.

“I just thought, ‘Of course,’ with all the stuff we went through,” Szafranski said of the unconventional end to her college graduation.

Ellis Sutton was basking in the pride of finishing her dental assisting program while holed up in a hallway as the sirens sounded, noting the humor of going into hiding right after graduating.

Tate Fitch, who graduated with an associate degree in computer network administration, found the funny side of the situation as well.


“It seemed like something that would happen in my life,” he said later that night. “It’s like, everything is always goofy, so this just seemed par for the course but memorable. It’s something I now probably will never forget.”

Bennett won’t forget it either, and not just because of the tornado sirens.

“I’ve been out of school for over 25 years, and I thought it was special just to begin with,” she said after the activity of the night.

After putting college on hold to raise her kids and focus on her family, Bennett earned a Microsoft Office professional certificate and hopes to work in an office setting with the new skills she has learned.

“It was crazy and chaotic, but it has been a lot of fun,” she said.

Bennett signed up for classes only three weeks before they started, jumping right into the unknown but finding helpful instructors and fellow students — like Fitch — along the way.

Daughter Grace was a help, too. Also a CLC student, Grace Bennett is a semester behind her mom, working toward the same certificate. The two shared classes, homework tips and all-night study sessions.

“This is a really huge moment for her, just for her to be able to graduate at all from college for the first time,” Grace Bennett said of her mom’s graduation. “And I saw her through the journey. We both screamed and yelled at each other and cried.”


But all those emotions and sleepless nights culminated to the ultimate end — graduation. And even though it wasn’t exactly the ceremony the graduates envisioned, it was one for the books and a fitting end to the unpredictable journey Charlier spoke of in her speech earlier in the night.

“Class of 2022, you have faced many, many challenges,” Charlier said. “From changing ways of learning to precautions and restrictions to worrying about the health and safety and family and friends to taking care of children at home to suffering tremendous loss and struggling with mental health. So your journey — with every twist, every turn — is an opportunity that you need to celebrate. … The fact that you’re here tonight not only tells us that you’re brave. It tells us that you are tremendously resilient.”

CLC class of 2022

More than 500 students walked during the five CLC ceremonies this year, honoring those with nursing degrees, technical certifications and associate degrees in arts and science.

Of those students, 143 were high school seniors, graduating simultaneously from their high schools and from CLC through the post-secondary enrollment options program.

Students Breena Burgstaler, Beck Barber and Tate Richter served as the commencement speakers.

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

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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