An unprecedented ending

Bensalem hosts drive-in graduation at Parx, valedictorian and salutatorian reflect on high school years

Marking a milestone: Bensalem High School valedictorian Juliya Medyukh (left) and salutatorian Julia Ting discuss their years as Owls and historic drive-in graduation ceremony at Parx Casino. Source: Bensalem Township School District

The seniors of Bensalem High School didn’t consider themselves lucky a few weeks ago.

In fact, they were downright heartbroken as the COVID-19 pandemic ripped away precious final moments with their fellow graduating Owls. There would be no sports championships, yearbook signing, prom or, seemingly, graduation.

But the latter, an unforgettable milestone that symbolizes the transition into life’s next chapter, was not lost. As high schools across the country organized less-than-ideal virtual ceremonies, BHS’s class of 2020 had the pleasure of convening one last time on the evening of Friday, June 12, in the parking lot of Parx Casino, where a drive-in-movie-style commencement was held.

Following CDC guidelines, graduates and loved ones viewed the event on large screens located near the casino’s main entrance from the comfort of their cars, with audio provided via radio. Every student’s name was called, and they were invited in small groups to walk to the front and receive their diploma.

For the first time, a joint speech was given by valedictorian Juliya Medyukh and salutatorian Julia Ting, both of whom The Times spoke to several days before the historic event.

“We touch on a lot of good notes, particularly about unity and about how to move forward in distressing times, but also in unprecedented times,” Medyukh said about the speech.

While they never anticipated senior year to conclude with a drive-in ceremony, the girls were thankful for the opportunity.

“I’m super grateful because I know that we are one of the only schools in this local area that are still holding a graduation in person, this close to a traditional graduation. Everyone is able to be there at the exact same time,” said Ting. “I know this has taken so many different people, people from Parx Casino, the mayor, the school board. All these people have really looked out for us. I’m grateful that they did that. Even though it’s not the traditional graduation that we wanted, it’s definitely the second-best thing we can get.”

“It does help to bring a type of closure that we wouldn’t have had otherwise, where the other schools maybe aren’t as lucky to have,” shared Medyukh. “It makes me feel good to know that I will be able to see my friends in some capacity as we exit our high school senior stage and enter the ‘real-world’ college freshman stage.”

Medyukh, when reflecting on her years at BHS, said she did “a lot of random things.” Admittedly indecisive, she tried her hand at numerous extracurriculars, from marching band and robotics to debate and community service.

“If you name it, I’ve probably done it, and I probably have an opinion about it now,” she said with a laugh.

She intends to study political science at Temple, which granted her and Ting full tuition merit scholarships, and spend a few years working at nonprofits.

“Just to understand not only the nonprofit sector, but also the challenges they face because I think we give a lot of consideration to bigger corporations, whereas I believe that more attention should be put on the everyday type of person,” she said, adding that the end goal is law school.

Ting, on the other hand, knew what she enjoyed from a young age.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve known that I’ve had an intrinsic interest toward the science and medical world. I remember specifically being 7 years old and sitting on my couch and not watching SpongeBob SquarePants, but watching Mystery Diagnosis,” she said. “That was my Saturday morning cartoon.”

In order to grow her knowledge, Ting took a number of STEM-related courses at BHS, including AP Biology, and completed an internship at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

“This summer, I’m working with them to run a science camp for younger children who also have interests like me because not only do I want to further my own passion, but kids with the values I share, I want to help them grow, too,” Ting said.

This fall, Ting will major in biology with an end goal of medical school. As a trilingual speaker, she also has an affinity for languages, and hopes to minor in a humanities subject.

When asked to name their favorite part about attending BHS, Medyukh and Ting agreed that the diversity of the student body was second to none.

“It definitely has shaped us into who we are today. It’s really hard to find this level of diversity in any other district, and that’s what, in my mind, makes Bensalem so special to me,” said Ting. “I have friends who are all so different from one another, and they have taught me a lot and helped me broaden my perspective, and that’s a skill you need beyond high school in real life. You have to be able to understand other people’s lives and their stories, especially in light of what is occurring now.”

Bensalem Township School District Superintendent Sam Lee praised Medyukh, Ting and the class of 2020 for staying strong and adapting to the constantly changing circumstances during COVID-19.

“This is one of the greatest classes ever to graduate from our high school, and no one will attempt to argue that. You have all made an incredible impression,” Lee said. “You, 17 and 18 years old, have lived through a plethora of things, and look at you. You, along with 483 of your classmates, are going to advance out into the world the most prepared group of Owls ever to move forward. The world couldn’t be in better hands.”

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com