What is high school graduation without a ceremony?
This is the question students around the world are left pondering in the wake of school closures because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Thankfully, Vietnam’s response has been stellar, and some international school students here still had the opportunity to walk on stage to receive their diplomas and throw their caps in the air. The alterations made to the event and their final year, in general, exemplify the adaptability of some of the brightest minds of their generation.
At the beginning of his valedictorian speech, Hau Duong Quang Vinh described Renaissance International School Saigon as his “home,” filled with his “second family.” Such a statement seems to resonate across the student body and faculty, and underscores why it was so important for them to gather for one final celebration. It also explains how the students were able to cope with the unprecedented situations posed by social distancing.
A Familiar Graduation, With Some Alterations
For Renaissance students, the graduation ceremony is a big deal. In typical years, the entire Year 13 class travels to Ho Tram for four days to prepare for graduation. And on the special day, family members and school mates all gather in the auditorium for speeches and photos before the outgoing students march through the campus to inspire younger grades. The night culminates in a lavish meal at an upscale hotel downtown.
Understandably, some changes were required this year. For the sake of social distancing, only parents and class 12 could attend the ceremony, the march through the school was unfortunately canceled, and the meal was moved to the school’s gymnasium. But rather than be sad about what was lost, the students were elated they had a chance to gather again and reflect on their time together.
“The most important part was that we were all together. And it was the first year that all the students decided to go out together as a nearly-full class to celebrate after the formal gathering,” says graduate Juliette Doling.
Another important aspect of the evening includes acknowledging students who have succeeded beyond mere academics. So in addition to awards given for high performance in each classroom subject, students are identified as who best reflects one of the core Round Square Ideals. Juliette, for example, received the Environmentalism award for her work in helping protect rhinos around the world. Such awards reveal the school’s emphasis on producing well-rounded humans with a diverse set of passions and means to contribute to the world.
Preparing for an Uncertain Future
“We don’t know the world that we are preparing students for,” says James Bicker-Caarten, Head of English, Extended Essay coordinator and IB Tutor. Renaissance has long understood this truth, and offered it as an explanation for why they stress “not knowledge, but skill-based learning.” The pandemic’s effect on the final semester and post-graduation plans made the value of such a perspective exceedingly clear.
The spring has been filled with emails from university admissions offices offering nothing but uncertainty, searches for local internships, and considerations of taking a gap year. But before their autumn was thrown into doubt, students had to contend with the cancellation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma examinations. The internationally-recognized program made the necessary decision to cancel all final tests worldwide. They would instead rely on projective scores and look more closely at lead-up coursework and the established assessment expertise, rigor and quality control already built into the programs.
Thankfully, the Renaissance students had already finished the Creativity Activity and Service (CAS) projects and Extended Essays (EE) that constitute the rest of the degree. Because of the program’s aim of creating adaptive, question-seeking, critical-thinking, motivated learners, neither staff nor students seem particularly concerned.
And as Sarah Alexander, KS5 Leader and IB Coordinator, notes, the IB program reinforces Renaissance’s core ideals, which include being a global citizen cognizant of world issues. The Covid-19 crisis, therefore, served as a prime learning opportunity, with students using it for math projects that evaluated data models and methods for the virus’ spread. It also gave art students a new perspective, as they created projects certainly influenced by the social distancing conditions they were produced in.
In addition to its impact on what students were studying, the unprecedented semester changed how students study. The robust online portals and platforms that had been implemented long before the virus emerged ensured that despite not being physically present, learning could continue as normal. Some students who were shy in class even became more outgoing and involved.
A major reason that students were able to adapt so smoothly was the tutoring system that Renaissance has in place. Year 12 students select a teacher to serve as their IB mentor. Typically, the role involves guiding them on their projects and examinations, but during social distancing, they became important sources of emotional support. Alexander notes that “we didn’t only talk about school work on my calls.” The staff was also checking in to see how the students were coping during the unprecedented times. Such a relationship exemplifies the family closeness that Vinh referenced at graduation.
As people around the world come to terms with “new normals,” the recent graduates at Renaissance seem to be adapting with incredible ease. Part of this can be attributed to the qualities engendered by the IB program and the school’s Round Square values. And certainly part of it has to do with the closeness of the small student body and the relationships formed with the committed faculty. Undoubtedly, the effects of both will continue to impact them as they embark on their bright futures.