EVERETT — Trinity Lutheran College said goodbye to the class of 2016 on Saturday.
It was the last class to graduate from the small school, which has now closed its doors.
A day-long series of events took on the tone of both a celebration and a wake as the school marked its 72 years of history.
The commencement ceremony in the Everett Civic Auditorium was packed, with family, friends, school staff and alumni. They vastly outnumbered the 75 graduates sitting in front.
“It’s really pretty miraculous,” said Jim Lindus, the school’s executive director. “The community stayed together, the students stayed with us.”
The school announced in January it was shutting down, unable to fulfill its financial obligations. Lindus, a pastor on Whidbey Island, was tapped to lead and wind down the school after Executive Director John Reed resigned.
The school had 166 students enrolled for the spring semester, including some juniors who accelerated their programs or set up internships so they could graduate this spring, Lindus said.
In delivering the commencement address, Bruce Grigsby, professor emeritus of biblical studies, called out 15 students by name who represented the best of what the school had to offer.
“For me to have you in my class is the heart of this experiment, Trinity Lutheran College,” Grigsby said.
“The reason you are here is to fulfill what you were designed for: to think,” he said.
He drew an analogy of a toaster — an object created for one purpose — to exhort the students to continue learning.
“My hope is that you go on toasting, you go on thinking,” Grigsby said.
Over the course of the year, the school set up credit transfer agreements for its remaining students with other schools, including St. Martin’s University, Pacific Lutheran University, Seattle Pacific University, Northwest University and California Lutheran University.
Only a few students haven’t found a place yet, Lindus said.
The faculty stayed on to complete the year, although some staff members left when they found other work. “We’ve encouraged that,” Lindus said.
In February, a group of students launched a fundraiser, trying to keep the school open. Later, when it became clear they would not get anywhere near their $1.5 million target, they changed the focus to helping support the school in its final months.
“It was exactly what you’d expect from a bunch of young, idealistic students,” Lindus said.
Bello Dondja, a senior who led the fundraiser, said students managed to raise only about $5,000, which was donated to the school.
“They were going to try and use it wherever it may be needed ‘til the year is through,” Dondja said.
Dondja said he was experiencing a mix of emotions in the final days of the school.
“I’m joyful that I’ve been able to spend four years here and walk,” he said. “At the same time, this place won’t be here any longer.”
Dondja said he’s planning to attend graduate school in the fall, studying international business in the United Kingdom, where he’s been accepted at three schools.
In leading the group in prayer, the Rev. Erik Samuelson, the campus pastor, called on everyone to try to gather close to “lay hands” on the graduates or someone else nearby.
“The reality of our life is we’re connected to one another,” Samuelson said.
At a reception in the school’s commons, students hugged friends, family members, faculty and each other, posing for pictures.
“I’m OK, but now I have to prepare for the next step of the journey,” said Ifiokobong Okon Ekpo, who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in business. He plans to attend graduate school at Hult International School of Business in London in the fall.
“It’s like a dream. It feels real good, but bittersweet,” said Makaela Hayward, who double-majored in psychology and children, youth and family studies. She plans to study for a master’s degree in mental health counseling at Oklahoma State University in the fall.
“This is a big day, for sure,” said Amy Lynne Stamatiou, another family studies graduate. “It’s incredibly sad, but it went out on a positive note.”
Stamatiou, who is 36, was one of several students of “non-traditional” age who found a home at the school.
Pamela Karas, 72, was another. She learned about the school from her church in Mukilteo, and was able to transfer credits from her earlier education and finally earn her degree in biblical studies this year.
“It’s just surreal right now,” Karas said. She plans to next study for a master’s in divinity, she hopes at the Luther Seminary in Minnesota via distance learning.
“It would be hard to commute,” Karas said.
After the school’s closure, the Trinity Education Foundation will take over the ownership of any assets, paying out scholarships and other business-related obligations of the school. It will maintain accreditation through May 2017 to accommodate any students still wrapping up projects or internships outside the classroom, Lindus said.
Saturday ended with a closing celebration and worship service, which for one last time brought together students and many alumni who remember the school’s previous incarnation as the Lutheran Bible Institute in Seattle and Issaquah.
Jean Wahlstrom a former professor and academic dean, spoke of how many of the Lutheran schools evolved over the course of the 20th century.
“Most movements have a lifespan off about 60 years, three generations,” Wahlstrom said. “Afterward, they either die out, get absorbed into another body or morph into something else entirely.”
The school “made it to 72, thanks be to God,” Wahlstrom said.