indicatorCommunity initiatives and programs during COVID-19

Reimagining 2020 graduation: Empowering Alberta’s students

By ATB Financial 10 July 2020 5 min read

Photo credit: Photos With Finesse and e=mc² events

The thrill of receiving a post-secondary diploma or degree, or graduating from high school, is a milestone that becomes etched in our memories forever. A beaming smile, a sense of pride, a walk across a stage, a hug, a high five... and plenty of pictures. For many, it’s a moment to be shared with a large community of friends, family and loved ones.

This year, the experience of graduation looks quite different. From drive-thru graduations and virtual celebrations to getting fitted for your first suit, we had the opportunity to connect with a few students as well as Gregor’s Grads, a community organization that provides suits to Alberta graduates every year, to look deeper into grad 2020.

Graduates celebrate milestone with drive-thru ceremony

To help Alberta grads celebrate their accomplishments, ATB was proud to support Calgary’s Drive-Thru Grad 2020. Drive-Thru Grad allowed students to participate in a “deconstructed commencement ceremony” from the safety of their vehicles, while safely celebrating with family and friends. For the students, the moment helped make up for the disappointment of not being able to participate in a traditional graduation ceremony.

By partnering with the Centre for Newcomers, we were also able to identify and sponsor students who might not otherwise have the means to attend this kind of ceremony. Here’s what two students had to say about this opportunity.

“It honestly meant the most to me and my family. There was an empty feeling I had through this whole time because I knew I couldn’t walk the stage due to COVID-19, but once we heard about this event through a family friend we were ecstatic and signed up right away,” says high school student J.S. “I think the most exciting part for me was being with friends and family and celebrating us graduating.”

A post-secondary student says that this is something they never imagined being able to attend this year. They never thought they would walk across the stage to celebrate this major milestone, but they did, and are thankful for that opportunity.

When asked what they’ll miss most about school, J.S. said being in that learning environment with their classmates. Another student told us they’re excited to start their career and get into the workplace.

The meaning behind the graduation suit

Another big part of the graduation experience stems from finding the perfect suit or dress. But for some grads, financial constraints, a lack of confidence or fear of judgment holds them back.

Enter Emonton sports talk radio host Jason Gregor from TSN 1260, founder of Gregor’s Grads. Working with Mr. Derks in Edmonton, every year upwards of 130 students get a chance to select a suit, shirt, tie and shoes to wear for graduation that they get to keep for free. For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever worn a suit.

For Gregor, the experience for students becomes so much more meaningful than just “getting a suit”. It becomes a transformative moment where grads can start to see how their lives might unfold, whether it be career aspirations, a first job interview or heading off to college or university.

“They arrive for their fitting and they’re shy and nervous,” says Gregor, “Then they come out of the fitting room and you can see their pride. They’re instantly standing a little taller and feeling more confident. I never thought a suit could be life-changing, but I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.”

Despite COVID-19, Gregor’s Grads was still able to suit up some students in advance for their virtual or drive-thru graduation ceremonies with the help of sponsors like ATB.

“Getting a suit from Gregor’s Grads was a massive blessing. These suits would cost a small fortune—if it wasn’t for Jason Gregor and the many generous donations, I wouldn’t look as mature and professional as I do now. I look forward to putting my new suit to use in furthering my career goals. I am forever thankful to Jason Gregor and the people who make Gregor’s Grads possible,” says graduating student C.R.

An important element for Gregor’s Grads is ensuring they can create a supportive and friendly experience for all grads, no matter their financial background, race or sexual orientation.

“I wanted my grad to be special and filled with joy, but I didn’t have the support or funds. I never owned a suit before, because I was scared of being judged by the fitters and others. When I arrived, everyone was incredibly welcoming, caring, understanding, and non-judgmental. You made the atmosphere fun and lively with good food and music and showed very professional qualities. I was listened to the entire time and was helped through the entire process of finding the perfect suit. I was beyond excited to wear my own brand-new suit for the first time in front of my loved ones and it's all thanks to you,” says participant S.R.

The power of being heard and being seen has become vitally important during the pandemic, particularly for our youth who might be feeling moments of disappointment.

“This suit is more than just a suit. It is a huge step into adulthood. I am happy to say that this suit will be a part of many milestones for me, grad is just the beginning,” says another Gregor’s Grads participant.

The future is bright

Something we’ve learned by working with communities across the province is that a time of adversity is also a time where we can see the best in people to support others and lift each other’s spirits. In the timeless words of Fred Rogers, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Experiences like the Drive Thru Graduation and the efforts of Jason Gregor show how we can help each other during these trying times, giving our graduates a chance to feel the pride and confidence they deserve as they embark on their next steps.

To all of the Alberta graduates–Congratulations! Tell us how you’re celebrating this year using #ATBGoodnessGrows on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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