This Year’s High School Seniors Reflect on the Adversity They Faced and How They Persevered

This Year’s High School Seniors Reflect on the Adversity They Faced and How They Persevered

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The class of 2022 made it almost halfway through high school before the pandemic. Sent home in March of their sophomore year, these students experienced educational challenges, pivots and experiments, and endured every uncertainty of the COVID-19 era.

They learned in person, remotely, in hybrid models and then in person again. They pushed through their junior year, often considered the hardest year of high school because of standardized tests, heavy course loads and college preparation, with less support and guidance than other graduating classes.

Now the time has come to celebrate these students, who have either recently graduated or will do so in the coming weeks. EdSurge caught up with a number of 2022 graduates to hear about how they’re thinking about their time in high school as it draws to a close.

This year’s seniors missed out on many of the in-person opportunities high schoolers typically have access to, Geoff Heckman, a school counselor at Platte County High School in Platte City, Missouri, says. They missed meeting with college and military recruiters, touring college campuses and completing internships. Despite these losses, Heckman notes that they also gained insights other students did not, like the importance of routine, time management and proactively building and maintaining relationships. Heckman says these kinds of skills are usually picked up in college.

Many students cited the flexibility of remote learning as the sole benefit of the pandemic. Some took advantage of the increase in down time to volunteer in their communities, to form nonprofits or even to graduate early. Evan Osgood, a 2022 graduate from Loveland High school in Cincinnati, Ohio, managed to do all three. He founded a nonprofit that produced and distributed masks early in the pandemic and then pivoted to donation drives, and while he missed playing soccer and tennis with friends, he took advantage of the opportunity to give back to his community and get a leg up on high school coursework, taking extra classes in order to graduate early. Osgood would not have started his nonprofit or graduated early were it not for the pandemic, he says.

“It was really difficult, but it gave me that time to explore a different path,” Osgood reflects. “So a lot of it was me redirecting some of that time, and a lot of that anxiety and uncertainty that came with the pandemic—redirecting that into something more positive.”

Caroline Holtman from Wall, Texas, used her newfound free time to volunteer with her local branch of the 4-H club, a youth development organization with chapters all over the country. Through 4-H, Holtman delivered meals for a local soup kitchen, and she found it fulfilling.

“We hear about all these nonprofits in my area who are struggling for donations or need help,” Holtman describes. “It seems like everyone is so wrapped up in what they’re doing and it is easy to be wrapped up in that. But to me, I like slowing down and stopping my day to help others out.”

Despite all the turbulence, high school ended up being the formative and memorable chapter she always anticipated. “All of my classmates have talked about how great senior year has been, and how these were some of the best memories,” Holtman said.

Norah Laughter, a senior from Russellville, Kentucky, is a member of the Kentucky Student Voice Team, a student-led organization committed to youth development, participatory research and education policy. In 2020, she helped the organization conduct a survey of Kentucky middle and high school students about their pandemic experiences. The survey garnered one thousand responses and was used by the state legislature to allocate COVID-19 stimulus funds.

Like most graduates, the class of 2022 picked up important life skills and lessons in high school and like many of the graduates interviewed by EdSurge, Laughter focused on what she gained. “I learned a lot about the world during high school, and I don’t know if I would have known this much otherwise,” she explains.

Laughter says it wasn’t just remote learning that made her think differently. The wave of protests in response to the George Floyd murder, the conservative backlash to mask and vaccine mandates and the divisiveness of the 2020 presidential election, catalyzed discussions that gave her a deeper understanding of her community.

“I feel a little bit of guilt that I learned so much from something so horrible,” Laughter admits. “The fact that I had to learn things through an event like the pandemic, or the racial reckoning that shook the country—I have to grapple with the fact that I would not be as immersed in some of the conversations that I am now without it.”

Laughter says because of the pandemic, the class of 2022 is unique, adding that while young people are often considered naive or oblivious to the challenges of the world, she and her peers have a better understanding of the world than past high school graduates. “We got more than a taste, we got a mouthful. We know the world, just our own version… The version that we’ve had 18 years to learn about, many of which were really, really hectic.” She says all the turbulence of the past few years has transformed her peers into deeper thinkers and better communicators. “I’ve noticed most of the people that I’m graduating with now, they think deeply about things.”

Like many of this year’s graduates, Laughter learned invaluable lessons about taking care of herself. She says taking part in the survey helped her maintain her mental and emotional health during the pandemic, but it wasn’t always easy.

In an interview with EdSurge, Laughter explained that many people she knows are quick to say they took time for themselves, but that isn’t always the case. “Sometimes I didn’t. A lot of my friends didn’t. And a lot of people that I’m around didn’t, and we’re still dealing with the repercussions of that today,” she says. “But when I did take care of myself, it was because I was able to. And I was very fortunate for that.” Laughter considers herself lucky—she had a strong safety net in place: a supportive family, access to the technology she needed and financial stability.

Not every 2022 graduate had the opportunity to volunteer their time during the pandemic. Many, including Miguel Martinez, had to work. Martinez is a senior at Dr. Olga Mohan High School in Los Angeles, a school that serves about 500 mostly Latinx students, the majority of whom receive free or reduced price lunches. In 2020, he took on a job to support his family after his father was laid off.

“I started working and it was really hard to manage…going to work practically full time after school and still balancing my academics,” Martinez says. He adds: “My junior year I took AP calculus… that class was just really difficult…I feel like math or any STEM subject, you need to be learning with a good teacher who’s walking you through the steps. But all that was gone and it definitely took a lot of self-studying on my end.”

All that independent studying helped Miguel figure out how he learns best. “I learned a lot about myself,” Martinez says. “Academically especially, I learned what methods work for me, and I took that time to figure out what I like and plan ahead for the future.”

Another senior at Dr. Olga Mohan High School, Marielen Espino, agrees that the pandemic taught her a lot about herself and how she learns. She says the pandemic strengthened her relationships with her teachers and that the changed workflow led her to share more about her home life with them. “They were really understanding,” she adds. “I think being vulnerable with them and telling them what was going on at home and how that affected my work created a better connection with them.”

Despite feeling closer to her teachers, Espino felt the added pressure of isolation and virtual learning, but she didn’t let it keep her from her goals. “We managed the hardest year of high school by ourselves,” Espino says. “Going into high school, I always heard junior year is not only the most important, it’s the hardest. And we managed that all by ourselves.”

Espino is confident she and her peers can overcome whatever obstacles arise in the coming years. “It might not be any harder than what we already went through,” she says.

Many graduates in the class of 2022 had a fairly normal senior year, according to interviews. By this spring, they said most in-person events were back on and most covid mitigation policies had been rolled back.

“It felt relatively normal, except, you know, there were still certain COVID requirements,” Dhruv Rebba, a senior at Normal Community High School in Normal, Illinois, says. “In general it was pretty normal, but normal is still such a big change.”

Rebba says that even though school became more difficult, and FaceTime calls replaced hanging out with friends, he doesn’t think he missed out on much. “I might have missed out on certain in-person experiences, but it’s not something that I think about too much,” he says. “Because you know, it is what it is.”

Another senior agreed. Tashina Red Hawk, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, recently graduated from Todd County High School in South Dakota, which serves mostly Native American students. She says her class learned to adapt to COVID protocols and still foster a tight-knit community.

“At least we got to see each other in school, and we found ways around things” she says. “We had to be really innovative.” By this spring, she says most school events were back to normal. “Our prom was amazing,” she adds. Red Hawk describes how her tribal community and her ambition to become a veterinarian helped her persevere, and she tried to spur on her peers as much as she could.

“Academically, it was really challenging for my community. I have a couple of friends who got held back from graduating because of the pandemic,” Red Hawk says. “Our problem around here was that students were not joining the Zoom sessions, and kids weren’t doing their homework, so I was that friend saying, ‘Hey, are you gonna join class?’”

Red Hawk says she’s proud of everything her community accomplished during the pandemic, and she’s eager to see what comes next.

“It’s time to just hit the ground running again because we are strong, we’re resilient. We persevere through a lot,” She says. “The pandemic is probably one of the greatest storms that our high schoolers have had to face in a long time, and we did it. I had a graduating class this year of 100. I was very proud.” Most of her class graduated with honors, she reports. “My peers can do anything they put their minds to,” she says. “Because they survived this. So all the next steps in life are going to be a piece of cake.”

Geoff Heckman, the school counselor in Platte City agrees that the class of 2022 has demonstrated an incredible ability to persevere in the face of the pandemic. “We really saw their resiliency in this time,” he says. “Students have overcome a lot in the last couple of years and have really still been very successful, and have still stepped up and done the things that we’ve asked them to do.”

“What I want people to understand is that in the face of adversity, they stepped up, and we need to give them credit for that. We owe a lot to the students,” Heckman says. “And they are stronger than what we could ever imagine.”

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