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Perspective | Seniors reflect on a lost year

In 2017, I wrote an article entitled, “Spend prom on the Great Wall, check.” The focus of the story was four high school seniors who participated in the Beijing Science Creation Competition and missed their respective school’s prom. The students had no regrets about traveling to China and participating in the event.

They toured the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace in Beijing. They reveled in imagining what their proms’ may have been like by acting out dance sequences on the Great Wall. Missing the senior dance was their choice and the experiences that these students had will live on the rest of their lives.

Prom season is fast approaching and 2020’s high school seniors will undoubtedly never forget their last year in high school due to something not in their control – COVID-19.

Seniors enjoy the Great Wall of China. Courtesy of Matt Meyer

My daughter turned 18 on April 1 and secretly wished that the COVID-19 disruption of her senior year was just a big April Fools’ Day prank. Unfortunately, this is another crisis that the young people in this country must endure. School shootings, climate change, racism, and now COVID-19 are the challenges that will either demoralize this generation or make them stronger and potentially mold the next great generation of leaders of our country.

I believe that my daughter’s peers will endure and overcome these challenges. My belief is further strengthened by how a few members of the class of 2020 responded to some questions about the pandemic.

In their own words, the lost senior year…

What were your expectations for your senior year and what were you looking forward to before the coronavirus made its appearance?

High school senior one: I had just found a group of people this year that I really fit in with, and I was looking forward to hopefully spending more time with them in our senior year of high school.

High school senior two: I think everyone comes in with big expectations for their senior year. You work hard during your freshman, sophomore, and junior years to “earn” the senior experience, and to “earn” slacking off in class. I looked forward to bending the rules a bit and getting to enjoy that little extra freedom that comes with being the oldest in the school.

You look forward to finally getting to enjoy high school once all the grinding for good grades and college application and acceptance is over. Your teachers start to see you as more than just their student, and you start to have a life outside of textbooks and homework. You gain a little perspective on what you’ve spent your whole childhood working for.

High school senior three: I was expecting to graduate with good grades that I worked hard to make this last semester, and I was expecting to go to prom. I want to do all the fun things that seniors typically do their final year of high school.

What is your biggest disappointment so far during the social distancing and postponed events and activities?

High school senior one: The most disappointing thing so far is losing that sense of closure that most seniors get at the end of their high school career. We won’t have the opportunity to say goodbye to the teachers and friends that we’ve shared high school experiences and have grown up with over the last few years. In normal years, seniors get to enjoy their last off-campus lunch, their last club meeting, and cramming for their last challenging test. Having those experiences taken from you so suddenly has been really hard. 

High school senior three: My disappointment is not having events that are exclusive to seniors like the senior picnic and prom. I want to see my last high school sports game, last everything, like everything basically.

How are you staying connected to friends? Has this caused you to become more distant or closer to your friends? In what ways has this changed your friendships?

High school senior one: With my close friends, I’ve been texting and sometimes calling. One positive of this situation is that my best friends and I have grown closer and developed appreciation of our friendships. Our friendships are something that we will not take for granted. But, adhering to the stay-at-home order has made it harder to keep in touch with some of my other friends, especially the classmates whom I was unable to get cell phone numbers or contact information. 

High school senior two: I’ve always been close with my many friends, whether that be in person or through the phone. This has caused me to realize which friends I actually want to spend time. I participate in Facetime with some friends until the early morning hours every day, and then, there are some friends that I only see in passing on social media. Being physically distanced from society is not the same as being socially distanced. Fortunately, we are not socially distanced because of virtual means. However, physically distancing has shown me which friends I can’t truly live without.

High school senior four: I stay connected with friends through social media. Unfortunately, this has actually made me more distant from my friends. We do not talk as much now.

A high school senior explores Yates Mill Park as part of her learning. Courtesy of Matt Meyer

Has this experience changed your plans for after graduation? Different career pathways choices or new thoughts about what you want to do with your life?

High school senior one: Not really, if anything it’s inspired me to be more determined to learn as much as I can about my specific career choice. My plan is to work in film production, so I’ve had more time to practice my art work as well as other aspects of film making such as make up effects and costume sewing.

High school senior two: Seeing how each college has responded to this crisis has definitely allowed me the unique opportunity to act as a judge of their character. My first choice for college has not handled this situation well at all, and reading stories from outraged current students has made getting put on the wait list by the college much more tolerable.

My dream has always been to go to college in a big city, but seeing how bad things can get in a city during a disaster like this has made me hesitate a little. It’s also given me a lot of perspective on how fast situations can fluctuate. My mother is a nurse and my stepfather is a biomedical engineer who runs his own company, and both of their pay has seen a decrease because of the situation. I’ve always taken for granted that my parents could pay for my college, but seeing how quickly their finances can change has made me reconsider my choice for college because of how expensive it would be to go to certain colleges and how much help I would need from them.

High school senior three: Being away from school has made me think about college more. I have changed my college decision because of all the extra time I have had to think about my choices. High school usually would distract me from thinking about my future college choice but I now have decided to go somewhere else. 

When I was a senior in high school, I was skipping classes and planning a road trip to Vegas with my buddies. Conversely, the high schoolers of today are assessing the government’s pandemic response, re-evaluating their education and career pathways, and adapting to a new world shaped by an invisible contagion.

In reading the responses to the questions, youthfulness comes out, but incredibly, so does the awareness of politics, society’s challenges, and concern for their future. For these seniors, they will have experienced one of the most world-altering events of the last century, rivaling such historic events as the use of atomic bombs during World War II and the Moon landing in ‘69.

These high school students may have lost their senior year, but because of this pandemic, they are discovering their strength and resilience that will forge society in years to come. 

Matthew Meyer

Dr. Matthew Meyer is the associate vice president of educational innovations for the N.C. Community College System.