Saint Mary's School News

Blue ribbon commencement day for the Class of 2021

The sights and sounds of Pomp and Circumstance filled the Grove Sunday morning, May 23, 2021, as 78 seniors graduated from Saint Mary’s School. It was a glorious Saint Mary’s commencement day in the Grove, as the graduates turned their tassels and Saint Mary’s rings. It was a perfect conclusion to celebrate an extraordinary and successful pandemic year of in-person learning and activities.

In keeping with Saint Mary’s tradition, Student Government Association President Paige Fisher ’21 and Senior Class President Caroline Koonce ’21 marched at the head of the line of seniors. The new marshals led the two lines of graduates and the platform party from Smedes Hall through the Grove.

As the graduates made their way to the center sidewalk for the official procession, underclasswomen presented each graduate with an iris to carry and place in the Class of 1987 urn just before stepping on stage to receive her diploma.

The blue iris has long been an iconic symbol of Saint Mary’s rich commencement tradition. Graduates have carried the irises in our commencement procession for many decades. Irises bloom each spring all around campus, most notably, in the Class of 1904 sundial garden in front of East Rock. The blue iris is a symbol of faith, hope, and wisdom, which makes it a perfect representation of all that a Saint Mary’s commencement embodies – the faith a student has nurtured in her four years in Chapel and in our community; the hopes and dreams of a graduate on commencement day; and the wisdom gained through a Saint Mary’s education. Through the years, the iris tradition has evolved and grown into a most beloved part of a Saint Mary’s commencement. The High School Class of 1987 gave the brass urn still used today, as the marshals collect the irises from graduates as they step up to the stage to receive their diplomas. In 2007, the tradition began of underclasswomen giving an iris to a graduating senior just prior to the commencement procession through the Grove. Today, Saint Mary’s iris tradition is stronger than ever, a beautiful symbol of a Saint Mary’s School commencement day.

Valedictorian Qiyun (Shirley) Xue ’21 of Shanghai, China, delivered the valedictory address live via Zoom from China. Five graduates who have attended school virtually this year from China participated live in the ceremony from their homes in China via Zoom.

Caroline Batchelor Koonce ’21 of Raleigh, delivered the senior commencement address, having been elected by her classmates as the senior commencement speaker.

Author, inspirational speaker, and cancer survivor Jamie Valvano delivered a powerful commencement address.

Following the speeches, the awards portion of the ceremony was presented, introduced by Board of Trustees Chair Dee Williamson Marley ’77HS. Awards were presented by Ms. Marley, Head of School Brendan O’Shea, and Assistant/Interim Head of School Carol Killebrew.

The Chorale and Voice Ensemble offered special music, Homeland, by Z. Randall Stroupe, tune by Gustav Holst.

Brendan O’Shea offered parting remarks to the graduates.

Following the final singing of the year of the School Hymn, Chief Marshal Jane Usher ’22 stood at the top of the steps of Smedes Hall, directly beneath the lantern adorned with Saint Mary’s blue ribbons, to drop the handkerchief and declare the 179th session at Saint Mary’s to be officially closed. After the traditional handkerchief drop, the marshals walked into Smedes and closed the doors on another Saint Mary’s commencement and the graduates joyfully tossed their caps high into the canopy of stately oaks.

Baccalaureate preceded the commencement exercises in the historic Saint Mary’s Chapel with Chaplain Maggie Stoddard presiding.

By all accounts, Saint Mary’s commencement embodies personal touches of academic excellence, personal achievement, friendship, tradition, grace, honor, dignity, and courage that are hallmarks of the Saint Mary’s experience.

Once again, Saint Mary’s graduating class boasts 100 percent college acceptance to a broad range of outstanding colleges and universities around the nation and abroad. The range of colleges and universities Saint Mary's Class of 2021 have selected are as varied as the graduates themselves and reflects their wide-ranging interests. Students will be attending colleges and universities across the nation and beyond.

Members of the Saint Mary's School Class of 2021 are poised to step out of Saint Mary's gates and into an exciting future. Prepared at Saint Mary’s “for college and life,” these graduates have challenged themselves in and out of the classroom, expanded their boundaries, made real-world connections, and grown as young women of intelligence, integrity, and purpose – ready to serve and shape their world.

The baccalaureate and commencement exercises were livestreamed and can be viewed at any time here on Saint Mary’s School You Tube Channel.

Click here for our commencement photo gallery, and here for the photos in a downloadable format.


Caroline Batchelor Koonce ’21 of Raleigh, was the recipient of the 2021 Cooper Medal, in recognition of achieving the highest G.P.A. for the year. The Cooper Award was established in 1944 by Sterling Gray Gilliam in memory of her brother, Hill Parham Cooper.

Jianan (Chloe) Shen ’21 was the recipient of the 2021 Niles Medal for finishing with the highest G.P.A. over her years at Saint Mary’s. The Niles Medal was instituted in 1905 by Dr. Charles Martin Niles.

Celia Love Oechsle ’21 of Raleigh, received the Catherine Ruth Proctor Award, presented by the Saint Mary’s chapter of the National Honor Society in recognition of the student making the greatest scholastic advancement over the past four years. The Proctor Award was established in 1974 in memory of Catherine Ruth Proctor ’75HS.

Ella Rae Quinn Groover of Cary, North Carolina, was the recipient of the 2021 Georgia Lee Kinsey Award, presented by Saint Mary’s Chapter of the National Honor Society to the graduate who has accomplished the greatest scholastic advancement over the past two years. The award was established in 1982 by Saint Mary’s College Chi Beta Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa in memory of Georgia Lee Kinsey ’81.

Ti-Shawn Wellington ’21 of New Rochelle, New York, was chosen to receive the King Medal, awarded each year to the graduate, who, in the opinion of the faculty, has most consistently practiced good citizenship at Saint Mary’s and inconspicuously served as an example to others. The King Medal was established in 1964 by Mr. and Mrs. Madding King of Florence, Alabama.

Sylvia Tucker Yates ’21 of Raleigh was voted by her classmates to receive the Margaret and Ann Highsmith Medal, awarded to a graduate who exemplifies the Christian idea of helpfulness to others motivated by her genuine love for all members of the school community. The Highsmith Medal was established in 1969 by Mr. and Mrs. Seavy Highsmith of Fayetteville, North Carolina, in honor of their daughters, Ann Cameron Highsmith ’70HS and Margaret Highsmith Dickson ’67HS.

Saylah Jai’elle Rogers of Raleigh is the 2021 Marian Drane Graham Award winner, as chosen by a committee of alumnae, students, and faculty. This award was established in 1968 as a memorial to Marian Drane Graham, Class of 1919, Mrs. Frank Porter Graham. The award is made each year to a graduate who, in Dr. Graham’s words, exemplifies Marian’s “reverence and humility of spirit, scholarship without pride of excellence, zest for life, faith and fortitude, and all-around development in the course of her radiant and nobly useful life.”

by Mary Virginia Swain '77C

Director of Public Relations and Publications