Hundreds of Bartholomew County seniors received their high school diplomas Friday night and Saturday, setting off a weekend of graduation well wishes to the Class of 2016.

The commencement ceremonies are always a celebration of achievement but also are tinged with a touch of sadness — saying farewell to one phase of life and entering another.

We looked for some behind-the-scenes moments of how area graduates experienced their graduations, and what they see in the future.

Acquiring 21st Century skills

For several Columbus Signature Academy — New Tech graduates, participating in the unique project-based learning curriculum was not just a four-year experience.

For Brittany Grammar and Victoria Butcher, two students who graduated from CSA — New Tech Friday night, their involvement in the CSA curriculum began as elementary and middle school students.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. launched the CSA program, which focuses on teaching students through hands-on and technology-based lessons, in 2008. That year as a fifth-grade student, Grammar chose to try out the alternative learning style and never looked back.

She was joined two years later by Butcher, who described herself as a shy seventh grader facing the prospect of trying to meet new people in a new school. Butcher said her mother suggested she enroll at Central Middle School, which uses the CSA curriculum, because the school offered more opportunities to work directly with other students and make new friends.

Looking back on their years in the CSA system, Grammar and Butcher said their decisions to try the unique curriculum proved to be one of the best decisions of their lives.

As her mother predicted, Butcher’s involvement in the hands-on learning program helped her to make new friends and feel at home in her new town of Columbus.

For her part, Grammar said she soaked up every moment of the nontraditional classroom program, reveling in the opportunity to get her hands dirty and try different learning alternatives.

And as they face the next phases of their lives, both graduates said they know they are well-prepared to face whatever the future holds because of their years in the Columbus Signature Academy program.

“It’s not just sitting and reading,” Grammar said. “We have 21st century skills.”

‘Hope’ you know how to mow

Since the top-ranking senior of Hauser High School’s Class of 2016 has a father with a widespread reputation for humor, many at Friday’s commencement expected Abbey Ashbrook to include at least one joke in her valedictory address.

In a speech that examined many different uses of the word “hope,” the daughter of Paul Ashbrook, whose father has successfully used humor to market the annual Hope Ride, obliged. Hope is what parents have that their kids will move out of the house by the time they are 30, Abbey Ashbrook said.

But for the rest of her address, the valedictorian kept it serious in an effort to inspire. Her message that “a strong work ethic will take you further in life than any brain power or talent” certainly inspired Paul Ashbrook.

“Great!” the valedictorian’s father said. “I’m going to let Abbey celebrate with a push mower.”

Ringing that bell

While many insist commencement is for graduates, long-time staff and teachers at many high schools — including Columbus North — say it’s really for the parents.

For many in the Class of 2016, their big moment actually took place a week earlier — on May 23, according to front-office staff members at the high school.

At the end of that day, teachers allow sophomores and juniors to step out of their classrooms to cheer and applaud the graduates as they walked along the hallways, marched out of the building and carried on the Senior Day tradition of ringing a bell in the school’s plaza.

Taking a gap year

For many high school graduates, the spring commencement ceremony marks the beginning of a three-month transition into the next phase of their lives, whether that’s college, work or the military.

But for Columbus East graduate Sara Carmen, her transition into life after high school will last a little longer — at least 12 months, to be exact.

Carmen is opting to take a gap year between high school and college, spending her time volunteering with her local church and possibly doing some traveling.

While gap years are a more common occurrence overseas, the trend is just now beginning to catch on for American high school graduates. For Carmen, choosing to take a gap year will allow her to reflect on what she wants to do with her future.

“It’ll help me figure out my priorities,” she said.

Right now, Carmen said she thinks she wants to study medical assisting, although she’s still unclear where that career path might take her.

But with her gap year ahead of her, the East graduate said she’s not rushing herself but instead wants to give herself time to reflect on her life and think about where she sees herself in the future.