Last year’s recipients. Photo courtesy the Mercer Island School District Facebook page.

Last year’s recipients. Photo courtesy the Mercer Island School District Facebook page.

Pandemic shakes up long-running scholarship tradition; school, PTA innovate

Recipients of the MI Community Scholarship typically get their own ceremony. Not this year.

The Mercer Island Community Scholarship Program has benefitted students at Mercer Island High School (MIHS) since 1976.

Each year, scholarship recipients, typically accompanied by their families, are recognized at their own designated award ceremony. But due to COVID-19 (coronavirus) concerns, 2020 will be the year to shake up this long-standing tradition.

According to Parent Teacher Association (PTA) member Jodi McCarthy, recognized students will instead be acknowledged during the school’s “drive-thru” graduation ceremony planned for June 9. They will receive a certificate for the award along with their diploma.

“Obviously, it’s not quite the same when you’re standing by yourself and your parents are looking on from the car,” McCarthy said. “They are going to be acknowledged, but it’s just different, right?”

But she noted a silver lining — that in contrast to the traditional ceremony, which has for so long been enjoyed by a select group, recognition will now be more widespread since it is happening at graduation.

“In some ways, I think that this will be a bigger acknowledgment for them than the award ceremony … if you got one of those awards, you knew about it, but everybody else was kind of in the dark about it,” McCarthy said.

How the program works

Through the program, a scholarship of up to $500 is administered by the PTA council to one to three recipients in several departments across the school — from math to English, from drama to yearbook. Teachers make their picks based on initiative, attitude and talent, according to the Mercer Island PTA council’s website. Unlike many scholarships, there is less of an emphasis on grades and more on a student’s drive.

“It’s about the recognition from the school and those departments and those teachers that they have done outstanding work and they’ve shown a true passion for that subject,” pediatrician and MIHS PTA co-president Elizabeth Evans said.

To ensure that as many students as possible are recognized, a recipient cannot be selected in multiple categories, preventing someone from “sweeping.” About 30 students are usually chosen.

The scholarship is funded by the Mercer Island PTA council-sanctioned sale of $5 “Grad Grams” — essentially graduation greeting cards available for purchase on the PTA council’s website — and community donations.

The Grad Grams are not restricted to high school seniors. They can also be sent to students graduating from elementary and middle school, who will then receive the note in the mail.

Usually, an effort is made to reach out to businesses, coaches, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and other community groups to ask for their support, Evans said.

“For example, for myself, I send a Graduate Gram to my patients that I have gotten to know,” Evans said. “It’s a really beautiful thing in terms of this collaboration between the community and the PTA and the schools to honor the seniors.”

According to PTA member Katie Frink, who coordinates the Grad Gram system, the process “requires a lot of coordination and attention to detail.”

Order forms ask for the name of the student and where they’re graduating from, and include a “Compliments of” section to indicate who sent the missive. Then, volunteers aggregate a list and check for spelling and accuracy before going about printing and mailing.

Frink said that so far, sales this year have been more equally divided across schools and age groups.

This year, the deadline to buy a Grad Gram is June 13 (it started after spring break in April). Although the pandemic initially caused PTA members to worry about a potential drop in sales — it was unknown how personal circumstances might have an effect — Frink said in an email that results have been positive thus far, with more sales having been made at this point this year than in 2019.

Adjustments had to be made to the process, though. Typically, between six and 10 community volunteers gather in the same room to prepare the Grad Grams. But amid the pandemic, Frink had to deliver tool kits to volunteers’ doorsteps.

“We each did the process solo in our homes,” she said in an email.

McCarthy noted that while many community members buy Grad Grams, they don’t necessarily realize that they benefit the scholarship program.

“I even know people who have graduated and they still didn’t know what the program was for,” McCarthy said.

The Grams and the scholarship program have always been valuable honors, Evans said. But she noted that this year, they have an added importance, since those honored will not get to enjoy the same graduation traditions as students from previous years.

“Everybody’s looking to really honor the seniors and show some love and support because we know what a challenge it’s been this year,” Evans said. “What I really enjoy is that Mercer Island is a special community where we truly value education and we value our students. And I think that what’s so lovely is you get all these different groups coming together, even if you don’t have a senior yourself, to be able to show some appreciation, that you support them and that you’re proud of them and their journey.”

For more information about the Mercer Island Community Scholarship Program and Grad Grams, go to the MI PTA Council page at To order a Grad Gram, visit

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