A virtual graduation project to inspire Arizona’s future leaders

The project is a collection of 33 speeches offering wisdom, wit and wishes to this year’s graduating classes.

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Rhonda Bannard. Photo courtesy of Inspired Connections, Inc.

Rhonda Bannard of Phoenix recalls her graduation from Sunnyslope High School with wistfulness and gratitude: “It was an amazing celebration — a way to connect during a meaningful time with family and friends. I found comfort and purpose in bringing together all the people who meant so much during my life,” she said.

Bannard has cherished that memory for many years and she has found satisfaction in bringing people together ever since. So when she realized that this year’s graduating classes were going to be short-changed because of the COVID-19 lockdown, she started wondering what she could do. She wanted to support the thousands of graduating students in Arizona who would miss out on the full experience of receiving a diploma onstage and celebrating with friends and families.

“Seeing all these kids who were going to miss that key milestone, that special feeling, with their circle of friends and family to celebrate them, saddened me and I felt we needed to do something,” said Bannard, founder and chief connector of Inspired Connections, Inc.

In early March, that something began taking on the form of an initiative entitled “Virtual Graduation Project: Speeches to Inspire Arizona’s Future Leaders.”

Bannard, through her broad social network, began inviting Arizonans of all professions, passions, and philosophies to make video-recorded speeches. With the help of her son, a University of Arizona film major, and a longtime colleague, Louann Phillips, they coordinated a wide range of perspectives and advice for the classes of 2020, including messages for eighth grade, high school and college and university graduates.

The resulting project is a collection of 33 speeches offering wisdom, wit and wishes to this year’s graduating classes. The goal was to have everyday Arizonans offer up their stories and insights on life. Those who participated represent the diversity of the state’s community — elected officials, journalists, business leaders, community activists, historians, researchers and religious authorities. The lineup is rounded out by those most impacted by this year’s graduation shutdown — parents, students, teachers, principals and superintendents of districts and for the state.

Besides individuals, three other groups contributed as a team effort: Arizona Youth Climate Coalition, nine teachers from Sunnyslope High School, and the team at Junior Achievement of Arizona.

The speeches and highlights can be viewed at gatheronpurpose.net/virtual-graduation-speeches, a spinoff initiative of Bannard’s Inspired Connections company.

The “Virtual Graduation Project” brings together a variety of up close and personal stories to inspire the state’s thousands of graduates. “The speeches offer some real great insights that people can grab onto. Sharing stories and lessons learned from lived experiences are always fascinating to listen to and allow any viewer to walk away with some great wisdom,” Bannard said.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman’s speech set the stage for the project. “What a year this has been,” she said, in an understatement. “I hope you’ll find yourselves celebrated in new and creative ways in the coming months…As you look forward to the future, I hope you’ll continue to hold close in your mind all that you have achieved. Let it serve as a reminder of what you can continue to pursue, to dream and to make happen. The world needs your talents and your leadership now more than ever, and we are so incredibly proud of you for making it to this moment.”

The disruption of the COVID-19 school shutdown was addressed in many interviews.

“Sometimes we’re not prepared for what’s going to happen next…When life throws you that curve ball, that doesn’t mean you stop swinging. You get back up and you dust off and you get ready for that next pitch,” said Barry Chasse, president of the Chasse Building Team and father of two daughters. “Don’t let this little virus thing dampen your accomplishments.”

Students gave assurance that although the pandemic brought disappointment, it also imparted valuable life lessons.

“I think I speak on behalf of all us when I say that no one expected our graduation to be like this,” said Tiffany Clanin, a graduating senior of Verrado High School in Buckeye. “With that being said, I think that this unexpected ending to our high school career may have some positives after all…If there is anything that we should have learned from this pandemic, it should be that our time is so limited and things can change in a matter of one short day. So make your days count.”

Among others interviewed were:

  • Karina Bland, Reporter, The Arizona Republic
  • Rabbi Mari Chernow, Temple Chai in Phoenix
  • Kate Gallego, Mayor, City of Phoenix
  • Carlos Garcia, Councilmember, City of Phoenix District 8
  • Jenn Kaye, Communications Expert, Master Facilitator
  • Rick McCartney, CEO, InMedia Company
  • Brenda Thomson, Executive Director, Arizona Humanities
  • Allison Otu, Executive Director, Corporate & Community Relations at The University of Arizona Health Sciences
  • Corey Woods, Mayor-Elect, City of Tempe

The speeches are being distributed via traditional media, social media, community organizations, educational institutions and the Arizona Department of Education to share with schools that might want to pass them on to their own communities.

Bannard invites everyone to celebrate the graduates around them — perhaps by finding a speech you’d like to share.

“These small, important milestones that we have in our lives are really the memories that live on and give meaning to who we are and the building blocks that shaped us,” she said. “I think the Arizona class of 2020 will look back at this time with some frustration; however, I hope the inspiration of these messages and the world around them will motivate them to create and co-create the future. Together there’s a better path forward.”

Watch highlights from the Virtual Graduation Project