WYE MILLS — If there’s one thing that every graduate of Chesapeake College had in common this spring, it’s their ingenuity.

“In the darkness of this past year there has been light,” said Clifford Coppersmith, president of Chesapeake College. “Many of you were part of the effort to take care of your families, educating children at home, providing care for the stricken and managing the day-to-day challenges that came with these difficult times.”

That ingenuity shone brightly within all of the 2021 graduates who navigated completing their degrees among the obstacles of the pandemic. The sunny, warm day provided the perfect setting for outdoor graduation ceremonies, a welcome change and celebration after a mostly virtual semester.

A total of 306 students graduated from Chesapeake College on Wednesday, May 26. Of those graduates, 117 attended the two socially distanced ceremonies, along with a few 2020 graduates finally reveling in the chance to graduate in person with friends and family present.

“You can never do things alone,” Coppersmith said. “We can do anything with the help and support of those we like, love and respect. ... No person is an island and it does take a village.”

For Jade Pearl of Denton, keeping those loved ones close was her main reason for pushing through this unprecedented year, as they brought her the hope and support she needed to get through.

A first-generation college student, Pearl received this year’s John T. Harrison Award, Chesapeake’s highest honor for a graduate. The award is given to the student that demonstrates excellence in academics, leadership and community contributions. She credited her family, significant other and Chesapeake professors for helping her succeed and chase her dreams.

“Nothing can ever surpass the feeling of chasing your dreams, and one day, doing what you love to do with people who share your vision, and with the people you love,” Pearl said in her remarks to her fellow graduates. “No matter where we go from here, I hope you will always look and remember who you are and keep following your heart.

“Graduating is something to be proud of,” she continued. “And so is discovering our passions.”

While at Chesapeake, Pearl balanced a full course load, tutoring, honor society membership and a job as a frontline retail worker. Despite a busy schedule, she found her passions in technology and art, and now plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Salisbury University.

Brothers Brenan and Jaden Cassell of Easton both found their passion in the same program at Chesapeake: early childhood education with a focus in special education. Coming into the school, the brothers — two years apart — had no idea that they would be studying the same subject, much less sharing a graduation ceremony. Brenan graduated virtually in 2020, and Jaden graduated this year.

Despite being in the same program, Brenan and Jaden both worked to overcome different challenges within their educational journeys.

“For me personally, I think it was just figuring out my direction,” Brenan said. “It’s the hardest time of your life.”

“I definitely think that transition from high school to college that first year was a little bit difficult,” Jaden said. “The pandemic obviously didn’t make things any easier.”

Both are continuing their studies in elementary education at Salisbury University this fall; Brenan is entering his sophomore year, and Jaden will be a freshman.

For Iris Rieck, 81, of Preston, finishing what she started 30 years ago after marriage and children was not only a passion, but a source of comfort.

“After my husband died, my daughter said, ‘What’s stopping you from finishing?’” Rieck said. “So I think it helped with the grief, it really did.”

Even with being much older than most of the students at Chesapeake, Rieck found that everyone accepted her. The teachers and professors at the school helped Rieck every step of the way to receiving her associate degree in liberal arts and sciences, even when she wondered if she was really up to it or not, she said.

To those much younger than her, Rieck has one piece of advice — “go to college out of high school,” she said, laughing.

“It’s been awesome, that’s all I can say,” she said. “I’m so thankful I did it.”

Natalie Jones is a reporter at The Star Democrat in Easton. You can reach her at njones@chespub.com and follow her on Twitter @_nataliemjones.

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