The GPS Class of 2021 Celebrates Commencement

Family, friends, classmates, and faculty gather to share in the accomplishments of our graduating seniors.
As is tradition, the leaders of the rising senior class met before the start of the 2020-21 school year to determine their theme of the year. Following a year unlike any other—fear and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, virtual learning, missed experiences—the senior class leaders recognized the monumental role they would play in the return to on-campus learning last fall. As leaders of the school and recognizing that each member of the senior class would have the power to influence her sisters and the world around her, the theme of the year was chosen: Be the Torch.

Commencement Day, celebrated on a sunny Saturday morning, marked the conclusion of their time together. But these students will continue to lead—to be the torch—as they go their separate ways, each making a name for herself wherever she goes. Unbreakable bonds have been formed as girls shared victories in the classroom and on the courts and fields, bonded during late night study sessions, laughed and danced together in the hallways and cafeteria, and experienced the ups and downs of adolescence. 

As the year came to a close, the Class of 2021 cemented their strong bonds as they celebrated in the way only GPS students know how: May Day (this year’s was historic—it occurred on the lower fields, and featured five maypoles), their last Chapel Talk, College Decision Day, Cum Laude, Senior Dinner, Class Day, and senior prom with McCallie. But today they were ready for this next step in their young lives. The last time they, as a class of high school seniors, will be together, because very soon they will attend 54 colleges and universities in 20 states plus the District of Columbia. But today they are one—The GPS Class of 2021.

Their Commencement ceremony began with a procession onto the Smith Courtyard to the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstances,” and Dr. R. Kirk Walker Jr., Interim Head of School, welcomed those in attendance saying, “You honor our seniors and the faculty with your presence.”

He then introduced Chapel Cunningham, who offered the opening prayer, before beginning his charge to the Class of 2021.

“Ladies, you are by any objective measure a remarkable class. Your accomplishments both in academics and extracurriculars are impressive,” he said. “But what truly sets you apart is not measurable in test scores, or number of wins, or records set, or college acceptances, or scholarships. Instead, it is expressed in your character and your spirit.”

He continued with words from senior class teachers, who shared how wonderful it had been to watch these students grow into young women who truly embody the mission of GPS, how creative and inspiring they are, how they take risks and push themselves, and how they engage with the world in a way that promotes true connection and understanding.
He welcomed them to the ever-growing sisterhood of GPS alumnae, which spans 49 states and 19 countries across the world. 

“Going forth from this ceremony, what you have accomplished here will soon be eclipsed by what you accomplish out there,” he said. “What you won or lost, what you did or didn’t do, what you said or didn’t say will diminish in importance going forward. What will matter will be whether you work to make a meaningful difference in the world. What will matter will be whether you remain intellectually curious, confident in who you are, and respectful of others, and whether you are a builder of positive relationships. What will matter will be whether you carry the values of honor and gratitude close to your heart.” He concluded, “What will finally matter and significantly characterize your class in the future will not be what you have already done or not done, but what you do at this point with what you have been given.”

Dr. Walker then introduced Head of Upper School Jenise Gordon to welcome the student speakers to the stage. She said, “Girls Preparatory School has a long tradition of not inviting outside commencement speakers because we believe so deeply in the inspirational words and thoughts of our own graduates.” She then introduced co-valedictorians Lily DuPlooy and Maggie Parsley.

“To open, Maggie and I would like to express how proud we are of each and every one of our peers in the GPS graduating class of 2021,” said Lily. “You have all achieved so much at this institution, and both our class and the GPS community as a whole would never be the same without your individual contributions.”

Maggie continued, “Today is a celebration of all of us, and all that we have accomplished, both on our own and together. It is only fitting that we tell this story—a story of love, persistence, and of overcoming in the words of our incredible classmates.”

From the Chapel Talks of numerous classmates, Lily and Maggie shared snippets ranging from good advice to poignant stories and funny asides to showcase, in Maggie’s words, “both the diversity of our experiences and the common threads that unite us.”

To conclude, they shared one last piece of advice from a classmate: “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you should speak your mind, scream your heart, and, above all, when someone stands beside you and does the same, listen. Words mean nothing, but there is such power in them. People love them, and people fear them. Stand your ground. Do not be afraid.”

Senior May Olson, whose Chapel Talk was voted by her classmates to be presented, spoke next. “I still remember the first time I saw GPS,” she began. Her story continued, noting that when she moved to Chattanooga before her freshman year, she had never heard of GPS and had no plans to attend when her father asked. Of course, a mere seven days later, she would find herself on campus for the first day of school. 

She said that while she used to think the reasons she ended up at GPS were obvious—her father got a new job and other schools weren’t accepting students so late in the summer—she realized recently there was something bigger at play. “The truth is, I didn’t want Chattanooga to happen,” she shared. “I was unhappy with myself, and I was shy and reserved. But I can remember a moment from earlier this year when I was sitting on the porch with friends, singing and laughing. We were doing what we did every weekend, but this time I remember looking around and thinking, I love these people so much.” She said this realization made her so thankful that Chattanooga had happened, that GPS had happened. These last four years, she said, taught her how to find beautiful things and how to appreciate them.

To conclude her heartfelt talk, May said, “I and all the girls standing up on the Front Lawn with me will be starting new chapters in our lives this fall. And new is very scary, but also beautiful, and that’s why we need change.”

After the student speeches, Dr. Walker introduced Dr. Rebecca E. Stimson ’73, Chair of the Board of Trustees, who shared, “Today, each of you joins the long, proud tradition as a GPS alumna. Collectively, you are an amazing class.” 

She then shared that the 77 seniors who comprise the Class of 2021 submitted 496 college applications and that 72 percent of the college applications the girls submitted were accepted. Six students will play their sports at the collegiate level, and 61 percent were offered merit, talent, and athletic scholarships totaling $12 million. 

“Collectively, you are an amazing class. But what I want you to hear today is that individually you are also amazing. You are now and forever a GPS alumna.”

Following speeches, Jenise Gordon, Head of Upper School, presented the class, reading each girl’s name and the college she plans to attend, while Drs. Walker and Stimson handed out diplomas and personally congratulated each girl. Then senior Anna Beth Coffman offered the closing prayer.  

Here’s to the Class of 2021! We could not be more proud of you!

To see a complete list of “Where Oh Where” go our Grand Old Seniors, click here.

Photos from our 115th Commencement celebration are available on our SmugMug account for you to enjoy, download for free, or order prints for a small fee. To watch the recording of the livestream, visit our YouTube channel.