ASMSA holds commencement ceremony for Class of 2021; three local graduates

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts held commencement for its Class of 2021 on Saturday, May 22, at Bank OZK Arena at the Hot Springs Convention Center.

The ceremony honored 96 graduates from 39 Arkansas counties. Heather R. Nelson, cofounder and president of Seal Solar, served as the keynote speaker for the event. The ceremony also featured several student speakers.

Nelson co-founded Seal Solar, an energy solutions firm, in 2012. Prior to that, she served as a corporate lender for some of the nation’s largest banks for nearly two decades, according to her biography on for the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Arkansas Class XIV webpage. Under her leadership, Seal Solar has completed more than 250, or approximately one in five, solar projects in the state.

Among the advice she shared with the graduates was to be prepared to fail and not let it become their biggest fear in life. She said when she was 40 that she had a devastating year of personal and professional loss. Over time, she embraced all of her failures, making peace with them and herself.

“I will share today that what I learned is that failure isn’t as scary as we make it out to be, as we let others make it out to be,” Nelson said. “In fact, any success I have today can be tied back in some way to the failures of that year.

“There is something to be said for someone who knows what rock bottom feels like; they become fearless — they know what failure is, and they know they can rebound from it. So, they take more risks, they love bigger, they try more — mainly they embrace the fact that growth is a lifelong endeavor. You can do that too. Just remember there is beauty in the slow rise up.”

She also told the graduates that it is OK if they have not found “your people” yet. She encouraged them to be proactive in seeking them out, including mentors. “I had no idea how valuable they would both end up being to my life,” Nelson said.

Nelson briefly touched on other topics including courage and curiosity, critical thinking, balance and transparency. She said that she believes in “seasons” rather than balance in a person’s life. There will be times that your life will be focused on work and times that it will turn to family and friends. She described those times as seasons rather than balance because our lives ebb and flow based on your priorities, she said.

Jacob Holmes, a member of the Class of 2021 from Rector who served as president of the Student Government Association, spoke about the adjustments he and his classmates were forced to make over the past two years, especially as the world battled the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although we could not have known the future, we knew that our determination to adapt would be one of our most valuable assets to succeeding at the rigorous academic and social standards that come with living at ASMSA,” Holmes said.

The Class of 2021 had begun to settle in both academically and socially in their first year on campus when the pandemic forced the closure of the school in the spring of 2020, for what at first was thought might be two weeks but ultimately became the rest of the semester.

Enduring their absence from the campus at which they had chosen to come to live and learn, they returned for their senior years, fully expecting to possibly have to return home should they or some of their classmates contract the virus.

“However, I believe that this year we all persevered and worked harder than any of the previous years because we wanted to make ASMSA work for all of us,” Holmes said.

That included faculty members who learned to operate within a virtual learning environment, residential staff finding new ways to host student programs and keep students safe, administrators quickly developing plans so that ASMSA could continue to run smoothly, parents adjusting to new visitation requirements, staff integrating new protocols to run and sanitize ASMSA, and students quickly adjust to the new procedures for living and studying on or off campus, he said.

All of that combined led ASMSA reaching the conclusion of the school year with zero positive cases of COVID-19 on campus among the student body.

“We succeeded! We got to conclude this year with a graduation ceremony with all of our families, friends and teachers after learning at the premier academic institution of Arkansas that is ASMSA!” Holmes said.

Catherine Kwon, a senior from Little Rock, pointed out that May 22, 2021, marked their 658th day as classmates since their move-in day in August 2019. She encouraged her classmates not to examine their time at ASMSA in Chronos time — or chronologically — but rather in Kairos time — moments of meaning and opportunity, in this case from the time “when we each decided to click the ‘submit’ button and join the ASMSA community.”

“Ever since then, our time has taken on greater depth and significance; form the buzz of Fortnight to the energy at midnight breakfast and the primal scream, our ASMSA experience is dotted with countless unforgettable moments. I truly believe that our school, our community is a place where time gains so much joy and value that mere numbers simply can’t do it justice,” she said.

She said in the short two years that they have acquired an unbelievable amount of knowledge and experience, such as how to determine water quality, write musical compositions, throw pottery on a wheel, speak Japanese, analyze Greek literature and many other experiences.

“It may have been a coincidence that we all just happened to be in Arkansas, to discover ASMSA, and happened to meet each other, but the change and growth we are able to bring out of one another are so unique, and that has made these two years so deep and meaningful. … Just remember: do what you feel has a value and significance that outweighs any numerical definition of your time,” Kwon said.

Aishani Singh Vengala, a senior from Hot Springs, said that while she may not know each of her classmates personally, they would never be complete strangers to each other. Their common experiences have helped them form a common bond that they will forever share.

“After two years of living with and away from you all, I’ve learned that these experiences are always going to be something we share,” she said. “I’ve seen friendships and relationships bloom, witnessed failures and successes. The pandemic especially was tough for each of us here, but we have grown individually and as a class and survived every unexpected hurdle.”

She encouraged her classmates to take the lessons they learned at ASMSA and apply it to their future.

“Never stop wanting to learn more, grow more, and do more, because ASMSA has taught us to be lifelong learners. Life will be full of challenges and surprises, but in these two years, we’ve learned how to embrace uncertainty and make the most of it,” she said.

ASMSA’s Class of 2021 included the following local students, listed by county:

Izard: Peyton Manry of Melbourne

Lawrence: Alyssa Richey of Powhatan

Sharp: Nova Ammerman of Cherokee Village

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