Just freshmen when the pandemic forced schools to find alternate ways of instructing students, the highly decorated Bethlehem High School Class of ’23 received their diplomas at Sunday’s commencement exercises at the J. Dan Talbott Amphitheatre.
“It’s a real honor to be a part of such a decorated class and of all the awards we have all gathered,” co-valedictorian Drew Dawson said. “I’m very appreciative of all my classmates of everything they’ve done and everything they’re going to do in the future.”
Dawson shared valedictorian honors with Lillian Walton, and both of their addresses called on the class to reflect on their time in high school, the work they did to get there, and to thank the school faculty for the challenges they posed to the student body in making them more well-rounded young adults. Dawson and Walton each were honor graduates, among 20 in the 79-person class, while Walton was one of 25 National Honor Society members. Kylie Haggard and Matthew Rice were class salutatorians. The 79 graduates have received nearly $3 million in scholarship funds to help pay for their next educational steps.
Despite facing an up-and-down four years marked by online learning and gathering in small cohorts once returning to school, the pandemic didn’t deter the class from high achievement, and the high expectations placed upon them by teachers and parents.
“Going into isolation after covid, and not seeing any people at school, you lose those friendships,” said Dawson, who plans to attend Elizabethtown Community and Technical College to major in business administration before attending seminary and joining the priesthood. “Coming back sophomore and junior year, there’s new friendships you had to make. … But I feel like after we got back into school, I’m very appreciative of the staff to get us back in school as soon as we could and start building those relationships with teachers and staff and classmates as well.”
Principal Sara Thurmond said the class as incoming freshmen couldn’t have bargained on getting the unique educational experience they had.
“When we think back to the beginning, when covid first happened, it’s like a fog now,” she said. “We just tried to survive and stay in school. … It was strange, because they were in groups of 14, and they couldn’t intermingle throughout the school, but they were still getting their main content, and that was our main goal, to give them some normalcy in a world that wasn’t really normal at the time.”
Despite that, this class racked up the awards and scholarships, something Thurmond was proud of.
“It’s amazing really — they have almost $3 million in scholarships,” she said. “And the Governor Scholar Program students … the amount of those we’re able to bring out of these small classes is amazing. … We have tons of accomplishments that they’ve come up with. I think it’s a testament to our teachers” and their high expectations.
Also receiving a diploma was Artimus, the first dog ever to “graduate” from Bethlehem. Artimus was a regular in classes at the school while acting as service dog for graduate Arabella Bowen.
Bethlehem is the first in what is a busy graduation week. On Friday, Thomas Nelson (5:30 p.m.) and Nelson County (7:30 p.m.) will host its commencement ceremonies at their respective gymnasiums, while Bardstown’s graduation is 11 a.m. Saturday on Garnis Martin Field, weather permitting.