PECI hosts first culmination ceremony since 2019

PECI's Emily Stasiw accepts the Governor General's Medal for highest academic proficiency from Principal Andrew Ross at PECI's first in person graduation since 2019 on Wednesday night. (Sarah Williams/Gazette Staff)



After a COVID-induced, multi-year pause, the accomplishments of the graduates of Prince Edward Collegiate Institute were celebrated in person Wednesday at Huff Estates Arena.

And the gathering for the annual culmination ceremony marked a secondary school career unlike any other experienced by fellow PECI alums.

In his remarks to the graduates, PECI Principal Andrew Ross recalled his custom of beginning school staff meetings by reading a fortune to PECI teachers.  

“It all started when I had leftover fortune cookies – don’t ask me why I had left over fortune cookies.  In any case, I had them, and after two years of pandemic, I was starting to run out advice that didn’t make use of words like unprecedented, pivot, and PPE,” Ross explained.

The Principal then read the following fortune: “Not everyone will understand your journey.  That’s cool.  It’s not theirs to make sense of, it’s yours.”

Ross said this fortune reflected some important lessons from the past three years. 

First off, learning happens everywhere.

“(It’s) in all we do – in the successes, the challenges, and the surprises of life.  Opportunities for learning abound, and they are deeply connected to every experience of your personal journey.

Secondly, Ross hoped the accomplishments met from being persistent and tenacious in the age of COVID were not soon lost on the graduates.

PECI grad and award winner Kiydan Zachariah and principal Andrew Ross. (Sarah Williams/Gazette Staff)

“By graduating, you have all proven yourselves prepared for the road to shift beneath your feet.  You kept your pace during a very uncertain time, and had the courage to risk being knocked off course,” Ross said.  “When things did go sideways, you were able to regroup and carry forward.  Remember from your experience that you can always harness resilience in pursuit of your dreams, even when it means treading on new ground or changing direction.  Although your journey will contain some surprises, it is you who determines the destination.

Finally, the principal hoped the graduates of 2022 had come to recognize challenge and adversity are stalwart companions when following your dreams.

“ Never forget that it was your perseverance that allowed you to reach this remarkable milestone in your life,” he said.

A milestone marked thank help from a caring community, passionate educators and a family support system 

“I would ask you to consider the people around you now.  You’re surrounded by our community, friends, educators, and most importantly, the people who you call family.  As you tread the path ahead, rest assured your journey will not be taken alone, and as you celebrate the achievement of completing Grade 12, remember to express your gratitude and appreciation to all those who have joined you on your journey to this point,” Ross said. “Class of 2022, as you move forward, on a new adventure and with increasingly more independence, always remember your fortune: “Not everyone will understand your journey.  That’s cool.  It’s not theirs to make sense of, it’s yours.”

A caring community once again supported top PECI grads as the school handed out upwards of 100 bursaries, scholarships and awards.

Isabel Burfoot-Clarke accepts the Alan Whiteley Memorial award from Whiteley’s widow Carolynn. (Sarah Williams/Gazette Staff)

Emily Stasiw was the Governor General’s Medal award winner as the top overall student by way of academic standing while Kiydan Zachariah, Natalie Todd, Parker Philip, Alexis Mulville, Lauren Smith, Shirin Mohssen-Beyk, Rhys Peck, Brennan Vincent, Jack Demille, Hannah Boisvert, Isabel Burfoot-Clarke, Khaya Calaiezzi, Lee Cassibo, Shaylah Clarke, Britton Creasy, Ethan Dewey, Mercedes Crowe, Ethan Eskins, Anne Globe, Kurtis McKinley, Zane Szabo, Macartney Mulridge, Christian Payne, Emma Roth, Hailey Shelley, Emily Taylor, Ava Struthers, Ben Wiese, Lando Williams and Makenna Wood were among those grads who made multiple trips to the dais to accept awards.

For it’s valedictorian, PECI chose Bloomfield resident Austin Lavender and the affable student who is due to study biology at Carleton this fall was introduced by PECI educator Jenny Lyons. 

“Austin is a friend to everyone. He can be counted on to listen, offer advice, poke fun, or celebrate with you. He enjoys sports both in the community and at school, relaxing with a good show, and working hard at his part time job – trying to stay out of recycling bins -I’m glad your arm has healed nicely,” Lyons quipped. “Being in his presence gives people a sense of calm and optimism. He appreciates people for being themselves, and you get the same with him – no pretences, no acts, just an all around wonderful person. Austin is kind and encouraging, calm and thoughtful. He’s a quiet thinker and a true leader. Thank you for being you Austin.”

In his remarks, Lavender touched on several themes that could be expected at a and secondary school valedictory address-thanking educational and support staff for their tireless efforts and noting teachers weren’t trying to fail students but simply trying to prepare them for the future. 

“Walking into PECI as a kid in grade nine I was terrified. Everyone was so tall and scary – I thought that if I didn’t keep my head down I’d be thrown into a locker. That thought I had in grade nine was far from the truth, because as school went on I met some really nice people – like Aiden and Ben – and I learned that teachers aren’t just trying to fail you but are actually real people too who are just trying to help you and prepare you for the future,” Lavender said.

Natalie Todd accepts an award from a PECI staff member. (Sarah Williams/Gazette Staff)

However, the typical secondary school existence experienced by the graduating class of 2022 was anything but typical.

“I’m not going to stand here and act like our school years were nothing short of unusual. Right from the start we knew that it wasn’t going to be normal. We were the first grade nines who only had to do two exams to start our high school career. Thank god for snow days or else I would not have been prepared for my business exam. For us, grade ten started out normally, but then everything changed at March Break. We had a really long March Break,” Lavender said with a laugh. “It was fun at the beginning, but then it was like “what do we do now?” We couldn’t see anyone or do anything for months. It was a hard time for many people and as teenagers we had nothing to do, nowhere to go and all the time in the world.”

Grade 11 was another year interrupted by the lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. A regular start to the school year was followed by interruptions and a sudden thrust to online learning. 

“It wasn’t as bad as the first time by any means because we were able to do school online which was a game changer because we had a schedule we had to follow. I don’t know about the rest of you but I thought it made the experience of lockdowns a bit better,” he noted.

2021-22 and the final year as a PECI senior was “as normal as possible” with in person learning, school performances, clubs and sports

“It’s true, we have missed out on many typical experiences – assemblies, trips, and school wide events that most other PECI graduates have had, but it only proves how much adversity we have overcome. I’m proud of us!” The valedictorian said.  “Needless to say our secondary school experience was unprecedented and those times were uneasy and immensely hard but we got through a pandemic and then graduated. I think that alone is reason for celebration.”

PECI Valedictorian Austin Lavender (Sarah Williams/Gazette Staff)

As a person who will soon be living in a new city, Lavender hopes it will be as inviting and inclusive as the community grads are living in right now. 

“I think we all need to stop and think about the amazing things that the people in this community have done for us and the amazing moments that we have shared together. For me those moments would be Ms.Leavitt’s gender reveal party (It’s a boy by the way), Carving pumpkins in Ms.Lyon’s Functions class and scoring my first points in high school basketball with Mr.Garden. For you, it might be hanging out at the ROC at lunch or after school, ramming into the fence in the back parking lot, doing improv in the drama room with Mr.Sheahan, or the mentorship of all the local employers. All of those moments have helped make our high school years tolerable – and memorable,” he said.

As a Valedictorian, Lavender was expected to touch on the future and what lays ahead for the class of 2022, a task he felt uneasy with, given his own circumstances. 

“I know that some of you have everything planned out and that’s awesome. I congratulate you because I could never think that far ahead. The problem about making plans is that nothing ever goes to plan. There’s always gonna be a curveball when you’re least expecting it. The same goes for the people just like me who have no idea what the heck they are gonna do with their lives. We might find something that we really want to do and pursue it and at some point that same curveball comes and things change. In those moments when that curveball comes you will never be ready and that’s ok,” said Lavender.

But resilience in overcoming those random curveballs was something the graduating class had demonstrated for over the past two years.

“The one thing that you need to have in moments like those is resilience and I know that you have resilience. I know you have it because we have all had that test or assignment that we have absolutely bombed and you just felt awful about. For me, that was English class – that means you Ms.Vader. But although we failed that essay in grade 9 English, we used that opportunity to grow and learn from that experience and didn’t let ourselves get down. That is resilience. You might not have had that moment in school like lots of us have, but maybe at home, at your job or with friends. My point is that English class is hard, sorry wrong message. The point is we’re gonna struggle, that is life, but the only way to overcome the struggles is for you to learn, adapt and better yourself and everything will eventually go your way. You are proving that right now – by being a proud PECI graduate. You did it! So, don’t stop, keep moving and great things will come to you.”