Alyssa Fairchild, the Santa Cruz High School student body president, at the 2020 Santa Cruz High graduation celebration.
Alyssa Fairchild, the Santa Cruz High student body president, at the 2020 SCHS commencement celebration — held socially distanced in the Boardwalk parking lot.
(Courtesy Nick Morris)
Pandemic Life

‘Each one has a story’: Sixth-generation Santa Cruzan documents 2020’s unique class of high school grads

What started with Nick Morris taking “a couple snapshots” of an unreal COVID happening has morphed into an exhibit at the Santa Cruz Art League encompassing portraits, oral histories and artwork featuring the students who lived it.

What was it like to be a young person graduating high school in Santa Cruz in 2020 and emerging into a world completely changed by pandemic? A new local art exhibit aims to capture just that.

The mastermind behind the Hats Off Santa Cruz Grads exhibit — which opens June 17 at the Santa Cruz Art League and runs through July 24 — is Nick Morris, a photographer/filmmaker, Santa Cruz High School alum and sixth-generation Santa Cruzan.

Trey Williams, 2020 Santa Cruz High grad.
(Courtesy Nick Morris)

When Morris heard that the 2020 commencement celebration for Santa Cruz High would be held in a socially distanced format at the Boardwalk parking lot, he was struck by how unique it was, and how different from the experience of every other graduating class.

His first thought was, “I need pictures, just to prove to my future kids or future grandkids that this actually happened in Santa Cruz,” he said. “My intention at first was just to take a couple snapshots.”

But as more students arrived, he was so moved by the emotion of the moment that he ended up taking portraits of nearly everyone in the graduating class. After the ceremony, going through the pictures, he started thinking about what he had just witnessed.

Rashonda Rhodes, 2020 Santa Cruz High grad.
(Courtesy Nick Morris)

“Each one of these graduates has a story and they are just beginning their life during this pandemic, and as an adult, they will only know the post-pandemic world,” Morris said. “It’s this big inflection point in their life, and in world events as well.”

That was when Morris decided to reach out to the graduates again and try to document more of their stories. He ended up capturing over 30 oral histories from new grads he compiled for the exhibit, whose opening coincides with the first anniversary of last year’s COVID-delayed commencement.

“They’re talking about participating in the Black Lives Matter movement that was happening in the spring; they were talking about family members overseas and other countries and how COVID was affecting those areas; businesses that they were starting,” Morris said. “It’s a very diverse sample in terms of backgrounds, what they were doing at Santa Cruz High and very diverse in terms of what they’re doing after Santa Cruz High.”

Those oral histories, photographs and original artwork contributed by Santa Cruz High students will be on display at the Santa Cruz Art League; click here to reserve a slot to visit for a group of up to 12. The exhibition will also include a graduation stage (and gowns) where students will be able to take graduation photos if they missed the opportunity during the pandemic.