Aspen High graduation a fun, yet serious, affair that wants graduates to ‘just keep swimming’ |

Aspen High graduation a fun, yet serious, affair that wants graduates to ‘just keep swimming’

The musical performances at the Aspen High School graduation ceremony Saturday inside the Benedict Music Tent were incredibly memorable. And not just the traditional acts, but also that of valedictorian Cole Petersen when he gave his best impersonation of Dory from the animated film “Finding Nemo.”

His goofy personality and stellar rendition of “Just keep swimming” — a sensible choice for someone who himself was a strong swimmer for the Aspen Swim Club — came with a multitude of messages. There was the idea of being willing to embarrass one’s self, but another of using that to make the world a better place.

“Remember that everyone is going through more than you can see, and even something as simple as a smile can make a monumental difference,” Petersen said. “Find your inner Dory, and know that what counts is staying true to who you are while acting with kindness and compassion.”

Petersen, who will attend Harvard to study neurobiology, was one of nearly 130 students to graduate Saturday in what was the 130th commencement ceremony at AHS. From the Dory sing-along to pulling out a Dr. Seuss hat for a poetry session at the finish, Petersen’s speech had a slightly different tone than that of commencement speaker Neal Katyal.

One of the country’s highest profile lawyers, Katyal is a professor of law at Georgetown University and previously served as acting solicitor general of the United States. Just 49, he’s argued more cases in front of the Supreme Court than any minority attorney in U.S. history and is a frequent guest on news programs across the country.

An Aspen frequenter and skier, Katyal told the story of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese-American who willingly turned himself over to authorities during World War II as a form of protest against the U.S.’s use of curfews on the minority group. This led to a well-known case that went in front of the Supreme Court in 1943.

“I say this to you because I think you do, at any age, have the power to change history,” Katyal told the students in his speech. “Act on your beliefs. Don’t just sit on the sidelines. It’s really easy to do so here in this beautiful town, but there is an ugly world out there. An ugly world that needs you.”

Joshua Uhlfelder, who will attend Columbia University to study sustainable development, was the co-salutatorian alongside Sophia Springfield and brought his own political-themed talk to the table. He insisted on being more willing to listen to opposing ideas, something he said is rarely seen in today’s political climate.

“We need to keep this mindset of vulnerability and openness with us throughout our lives. We should want people to poke holes in our arguments,” he said. “We need to actually listen to each other. It can be difficult to hear someone with a different opinion than you without being defensive.”

Still, the overall tune of the ceremony was upbeat and fun. Between Uhlfelder’s love of Ellen Degeneres, who voiced Dory in the film, and Springfield’s discovery of famed television icon Mr. Rogers, the juxtaposition of life’s trivialities and the seriousness needed to achieve life’s goals is at the heart of the 2019 graduating class.

“While these aspirations to achieve certain things are by no means bad, I would like to remind all of us that our achievements alone will never really fulfill us,” said Springfield, who will attend the University of Colorado and study biochemistry. “This is what I have learned this year, is that achievements are great but that I cannot use them to replace accepting myself for who I am and trying to justify my worthiness through them. I have learned that I am already loved and I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. It is with this belief that I am now truly able to enjoy this day.”