CHARLOTTE – When the Class of 2021 entered high school, they could not have imagined a senior year like this one. Even last spring in the thick of full-time remote learning, this group of then-juniors could not have foreseen how COVID-19 would color the entirety of their senior year.
COVID-19 challenged this group of seniors to learn in a completely different way with little preparation. “Remote learning was difficult for me because it was hard adjusting to having to turn in all of my work online because I wasn’t ever used to doing that,” says Cuthbertson High School graduate Olivia DePaolo. “Not being in a classroom environment and not having that extra push from teachers was hard. I had to motivate myself to sit down and do my school work and ignore distractions that were around me.”
COVID challenged this group of seniors not only academically but also socially. Performing in a last play or concert, taking the field for one last home game, dancing with their friends at prom, walking across the stage in front of friends and family at graduation: these seniors were lucky if they were able to participate in those traditions in a modified, socially distant form. More than simply limiting time with friends, COVID-19 robbed this group of graduates of milestones they’d been looking forward to for years.
“The challenging part about Corona senior year was the lack of socialization and the thought of never getting a ‘last first day of school’ or never getting to cheer my last-first or last-last basketball game because of COVID,” says Queens Grant High School graduate Quinn Smith. “Quarantine opened up a lot of opportunities to try new things and the time to get closer to loved ones; however, it also took away very important things like Junior Prom, Senior year homecoming, and the final Senior games with teammates I have played with since middle school.”
For many seniors, day to day, this year lacked the pomp and circumstance that made it feel special. “Jumping between a lot of confusion with school and how to deal with the pandemic and overall not really feeling like it’s my senior year, more like junior year just kept going” says Cuthbertson High School Senior Aidan Carter when asked about his biggest struggles this year. Moreover, some seniors lost more than prom or graduation. “We lost a family member to COVID,” continues Aidan, “and constant outbreaks at school made the attendance seemingly random, with one day 20 people in my class, and the next day 7.”
Yet amid the chaos and loss, there were bright spots. The 2020-2021 school year may have looked different than any other, but this year’s seniors cherish the time the pandemic gave them to spend with friends and family, time they may not have had or appreciated as much in a “normal” year.
“My favorite memories of my senior year are during the summer of quarantine,” says Quinn. “My friends and I hung out every day and basically quarantined together doing things like hiking, mountain biking, picnics – things that I normally would not have time to do because of work or sports, but since everything was shut down, that opened up a lot of free time to do adventurous activities.”
“I was also able to spend a lot of time with my family doing things with my mom like bingeing Good Doctor on Hulu every day or building a koi pond with my dad,” continues Quinn. “Memories that are going to last forever would not have happened if I was stuck in a classroom 8 hours a day or studying for school the next day.”
“I loved spending more time with family and friends during quarantine,” adds Queens Grant High School Senior Tres Guskiewicz. “I got to go hiking with friends. I got to spend a lot of days at the beach. I enjoyed the spur of the moment boba tea runs.”
College Applications, too, were a different animal from previous years. Many of these students were isolated at home last spring, a time at which they normally would have begun visiting college campuses. Some were unable to take the SAT or ACT; others weren’t able to participate in activities by which they’d come to define their high school career. Admissions were incredibly competitive, especially at state schools.
“Another big struggle for me during senior year was applying to college,” says Tres. “I applied to 9 colleges, and it took a lot of time, and I struggled to make a decision. Add that on top of this application year being one of the most competitive application years because the ACT and SAT scores were allowed to be waived. Making myself stand out to other applicants was paramount.”
Despite all these struggles, life moves on, and so will these seniors, embarking on new adventures next year. In spite of a trying year and a stressful application season, many are excited to still be pursuing their dreams of college. “My plans are going to college,” says Olivia, who is enrolled at ECU. “I would say COVID didn’t really affect my decision. I think I had the same process as anyone in the past had.”
“I loved seeing all of my college decisions come in,” offers Tres, who doesn’t think COVID has changed his path much. “I got into 8 out of the 9 schools I applied to, which include Catawba College, Western Carolina University, Appalachian State, Campbell University, NC State, George Washington University, American University, and UNC Chapel Hill.” He’ll be attending unc Chapel Hill in the fall.
For others, COVID has been a bigger stumbling block. “Originally I was on track to a potential music scholarship,” says Aidan. “Before COVID hit us, I was in a percussion ensemble for the band, and we were leaving for Indianapolis for a national convention. The trip was massive, and we’d been practicing for months. We were playing opening night, and tons of composers and musicians from all over the country were coming to the event, with a gala afterward and almost a week of musical exposure. It was going to be amazing.”
Just an hour and a half before Aidan was set to depart, the trip was canceled. The following week, Cuthbertson moved to remote learning. For performance artists like Aidan, nothing has been the same since. “I plan on getting myself back on track, and making some money over the summer to pursue some kind of trade school or college,” says Aidan of his future, “but a lot has changed and I’m still not sure what to do.”
Much of the advice this year’s graduates would give to the upcoming senior class is practical. “Time-management, communication, asking questions, and voicing concerns is key to function, not just in school but to everything in general,” says Tres. “Do not forget that you are a unique person, and you have needs, preferences, and specificities that may differ from other people. Do not forget the Golden rule: do unto others what you want done to yourself. It will save you so much energy and you will feel better from giving kindness.”
“Every test, every quiz, every challenge, and every action really does affect your entire life,” says Quinn. “If you get a C in a class your freshman year because you didn’t take school seriously, that does come back to haunt you when you are trying to apply to your dream university. Hard work and dedication is really the key to success; it trumps those that are born smart but dont apply themselves in every situation.”
“My biggest takeaway from high school was to hold myself accountable,” says Olivia. “During times like this, I have had to hold myself accountable for turning my work in and staying focused within hard times. Another thing I have taken away is making friends. Go outside of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to make new friends and meet new people. My advice to next year’s seniors would be continue to be yourself and never change. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s so easy to try to fit in. I stayed true to myself, and I made lifelong friends because of it.”
“Don’t rush to find out what you want to do, but don’t do nothing,” offers Aidan. “You won’t learn what you like if you just don’t do anything. Try things, experiment, and learn as much about yourself as you can.”
Yet, there’s a thread of this particular year’s experience in their advice as well, a nostalgia and wisdom they may not have shared if not for the losses and struggles born of COVID-19. “Cherish others because you do not know how long you will be with them,” says Tres. “Do not feel afraid to voice concerns or problems, and make time for friends and family because there is more to life than good grades. Enjoy senior year. I know I have, but it has flown by so fast. Lastly, don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone; you don’t know what opportunities you will miss.”