The year is 2020. How many times I reflected on the voices of our most important stakeholders within our school system: our students. In the latter portion of August 2019, most seniors were preparing for the most exciting year of their school careers, noting “we” are the BIG DAWGS, the leaders in our schools, senior students who are approaching the high school finish line. These seniors, so close to adulthood, preparing for a promising road ahead with one big question to which many of them would be looking ahead to find the answer –“What’s next for me?”
Excited about what the future will bring, many seniors were engaged in this reflection while also making post-secondary plans, participating in signing days as scholarship athletes or academics, visiting prospective future schools, meeting with military recruiters, working in their jobs to help support themselves as they dig in to prepare for the future of an exciting career or make college plans. While some students were grappling with the what ifs, many were still thinking about this senior year, the fun times ahead with the thought of graduation several months away. Never in their wildest dreams did high school seniors believe that in March, weeks before those really exciting events and experiences become real, really real, all students would be ordered to hunker down at home, leaving school, friends, activities, athletics, and-most importantly--education as they had known it, behind.
Now that these students are engaged in their next life journey proceeding an unlikely, unusually crazy school year, I think it’s time to share a few of their thoughts, stories told through the lens of 2020 high school seniors, now graduates.
Back in the midst of COVID 19 when students were sent home to participate in learning, my curiosity got the best of me, and I couldn’t help but reach out to a few to examine their views and get their feedback. I wanted not only to know the perspective of a high school senior who experienced the challenges brought on by COVID 19, but also to learn the heart of the 2020 graduate. What would they have to share about which I would want to write? QUITE A LOT is what I discovered. Most importantly, how could I frame their thoughts in such a way that would get to the heart of their emotions and provide insight into their unprecedented journey from high school senior to high school graduate, all while in isolation.
Thus, I had the privilege of speaking with some pretty amazing 2020 seniors now graduates who shared with me their unique perspectives and how the closing of their senior year brought some distinct challenges but also some hidden rewards from which they have learned and grown in a way that has added to their repertoire of life experiences, ultimately making them grittier and more appreciative of who they are and what they can truly accomplish! 💛
Unsurprising, navigating the concluding months of the 2020 school year in isolation, away from friends, teachers, and all who support the educational journey was demanding, as a new kind of persistence and motivation was necessary. Learning from some of those who were seemingly most affected would be the starting point.
Southwestern High School graduate, Bailee Nixon shared that the experience of going home in March and never returning to Southwestern High School again just didn’t seem real. Of course, I asked about working remotely to complete homework and participate in learning using a virtual modality, and she responded that she, her peers, and her teachers did the best they could under the current circumstances, but it certainly wasn’t ideal. I must admit it was her vivid description of her walk to and from her high school classrooms that really struck my heart.
“I’ll miss the kids I pass in the hallway. My teachers, too. I mean, I might not ever see them again. These are the things you take for granted until they’re taken way.”
I think the reason I was so taken aback by this statement is its relative meaning. I mean who really thinks about walking the school’s hallways and feeling a sense of joy? Think about that: walking a high school hallway and realizing its value. Well Bailee did. In my conversation with her, she showed strength, knowing this unfortunate situation would make her stronger; compassion, realizing the current state of conditions wasn’t positive for all and she would always be happy to help others; and gratitude, thanking her teachers, principal, and school staff for making school a good place to be. She also mentioned graduation. Yes, they had one, although unique and different. It took place from vehicle to stage, one that was constructed right outside the school next to the parking lot. She was very grateful for the work done by so many to make her and her classmates’ graduation memorable. And was it ever memorable!
Bailee also shared her sadness about her softball season being cut short. Even I knew this could have been an amazing year for the Southwestern Softball Birds, as they were state-ranked and had made it to the super sectionals last year. The good news? Most players were returning this year.
“This was our year,” Bailee shared. I’m sure all the players felt this, and the coach, especially! Heck, I thought so too! We all did! There were many across our community super stoked about this year’s season! Parents and fans alike!
Unfortunately, the 2020 Piasa Birds softball season was over before it ever started, but fortunately, Bailee’s softball career would continue. She signed her intent to play at Drury University and has begun her new journey. No doubt, she will rock that pitcher’s mound and her academic/professional pursuit. She endured before, and this experience has made her stronger and given her perspective to know what really counts in life. In a nutshell: how you do life matters, so do it ALL with passion! Bailee models this in all she does. No doubt, she will ROCK this journey, too!
East Alton-Wood River High School graduate now Illinois State University student, Audrey Robinson admits that she really believed they’d be out a few weeks and then return to normal, meaning all students and staff would return to the high school and school would continue as before. When she learned that no student would most likely return to her high school, she felt “caught off guard, a sense of shock,” realizing there would be no closure.
As with all the seniors to whom I spoke, Audrey was no different in placing a positive spin on all she would be missing: pep assemblies, the ice cream social, the senior assembly, prom, graduation, and other events. Instead of focusing on the former, she chose to focus on the good stuff: people. Her goal was not to lose contact with everyone. Maintaining connections by ensuring she collected up to date emails, phone numbers, etc. was a goal.
We also talked a bit about having “Mom” as her high school principal for every one of her high school years. I asked if she ever felt awkward or uncomfortable with her mom at the helm. Her mom, Principal Leigh Robinson should be glowing, as Audrey see her mom as an amazing role model, sharing that her mom has worked especially hard through all of the Covid challenges to give all seniors as much as possible considering the circumstances.
“This is absolutely not how I imagined ending my senior year but this has made everyone stronger and given us all the realization of just how blessed we are.” Audrey was an academic scholar and standout athlete in high school, earning several accolades. Having excelled in high school, she is committed to doing the same at Illinois State University where she is enrolled and currently pursuing nursing, a field that requires compassion and patience and understanding, dispositional attributes necessary for every nurse. What I have witnessed through Aubry’s actions are an exemplary work ethic and kind, compassionate demeanor. Just think how many patients will benefit from having Aubry Robinson serving as their nurse!
I was fortunate in my current role to meet and become friends with an amazing leaders, Carole McCammon whose son, Andrew is a 2020 graduate of Dover High School, Dover New Hampshire. Having the privilege to communicate with him, he shared his greatest challenge for the end of the year: the realization that some of the curriculum he missed included necessary content for helping him to transition to his college major. Being prepared while pursuing professional goals is important for Andrew. Working remotely while teachers delivered content in a manner with which they weren’t the most familiar will most definitely result in missing curricula and learning gaps for most if not all students. The fact that he recognized this and worked diligently in his studies will pay dividends in the future.
Andrew confessed that with all the difficulties brought on by Covid, there is a silver lining. Spending time with family became more constant, resulting in learning more about himself. He also actively participated in enjoyable pastimes for which he didn’t really have the time or make the time before, like drawing, photography, and even hiking.
Many 2020 high school seniors have faced ups and downs, but Andrew believes the sacrifices made will only prepare those who experienced them for obstacles they will face in the future. While facing obstacles is an unavoidable reality, Andrew will meet them with courageous confidence as he pursues a bright future ahead at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Worcester, Maine.
Another exemplary Southwestern High School student with whom I had the opportunity to speak is Shelby Oertel who revealed her heart. She shared that a chapter in her life ended without all the bravado for which one often plans. What about a high school graduation, those meets as a highly likely Scholastic Bowl State Championship, the honors banquet, the high school musical, and prom. She never thought she would be concluding her senior year experience in such a humbling manner.
A high achiever who was heavily involved in school activities, Shelby admitted to finding herself going down a path of struggle. Once Covid hit, she made a pact with herself. She was committed to using this time to focus on an area of her life that’s most essential: her mental health, which allowed her to re-center and prepare for the exciting journey ahead.
I was blessed to interact with Shelby, as she asked if she could shadow me at some point during her senior year. Definitely humbled by such a request but also feeling a bit inadequate in my current role to provide what she needed, I procrastinated, waiting for the perfect time to have her join me in my work office, on a road trip, or something I thought would be worthwhile. And then Covid!
Shelby offers meaningful advice to her school-aged peers, but it’s especially beneficial for all, especially me. Make educated decisions. This is crucial because today’s generation will have additional insights, many that will expose a new way of thinking, creating a different world in which we must all learn to navigate. Those decisions should include the sharing of knowledge and skills with generations to come. Let our youth learn from us, but always remember, we can learn from them, too. Shelby offers another piece of advice for all: VOTE!
Having begun her journey of college life at the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign, Shelby is pursuing Learning and Education Studies with a concentration in Workplace Training and Development. No doubt, she will contribute greatly to our world.
I also had the pleasure of speaking with a 2020 graduate of Pattonville High School, Eden Sullivan. She shared her sadness for her school year coming to a close, as hanging out with people, those closest to her would be the unique struggle she didn’t see coming. Eden was at the top of her class, but her greatest academic strength came with collaboration. Engaging in study groups and participating in debates and conversations with her peers are from where her true intensity for excellence comes. She admitted that teachers would give her and the other students notes but “we would have to figure it out.” This is when procrastination would rear its ugly head because “I’m just no good at teaching myself.”
Eden loved sleeping in but admitted that it was hard on her mental health. With so much free time, she decided to add hours to her work schedule, surround herself with positive people, and run, a hobby that would prove beneficial to the mind and body.
While missing graduation, prom, and all those coming of age celebratory events that occur at the conclusion of the school year, Eden found herself focusing on the year ahead. She enrolled at and began attending Colorado State University. She has high hopes that her college experience will engage her mind and enhance her passion for school. Most important to this experience is to “learn something new” and “get exposed to sunlight often!” Also, “surround yourself with supportive people” and “engage in spiritual things,” which will allow her to see the good that exists in our world.”
Like each one of the other graduates, Eden is off to a great start, as she’s identified her strengths and is cognizant of her challenges and how to address them, which is an amazing skill often never realized. She has many talents and will be successful at whatever she chooses to pursue!
Although the 2019-2020 school year will not be soon forgotten, it’s that ONE year that has undeniably created a most inextricable force of young people, resilient and positive, who have been forced to learn differently, which will positively and powerfully impact the world in which we all live and love.
In addition to the 2020 graduates featured in this article, I’ve spoken with or observed from afar many others. I’m impressed with them and believe with all my heart the future is bright. The resilience of kids never ceases to amaze me. I learned a long time ago to never forget that those (kids) we think depend on us (adults) are the ones upon whom we will be totally dependent in the future. Thus, let them experience life, learn as much as possible, grow in unimaginable ways, and become the influential beings who will truly CHANGE OUR WORLD. ❤