What’s next, and what do metro Atlanta valedictorians wish they had known?

These top students emerge confident after COVID disrupted the start of their high school days. Here are their answers to questions from the AJC at graduation time
What do valedictorians across the metro Atlanta area say about their high school experience and their futures. We asked. Among the valedictorians who answered (top row, from left) Andrew Malooley (Collins Hill High, Gwinnett), Jessica Gorski (Whitewater High, Fayette), Jesus Ortiz (Osborne High, Cobb); and (bottom row, from left) Leah Johnson (Columbia High, DeKalb), Neil Shah (Dunwoody High, DeKalb), Payal Patel (Dacula High, Gwinnett). (Courtesy photos)

Credit: courtesy photo

Credit: courtesy photo

What do valedictorians across the metro Atlanta area say about their high school experience and their futures. We asked. Among the valedictorians who answered (top row, from left) Andrew Malooley (Collins Hill High, Gwinnett), Jessica Gorski (Whitewater High, Fayette), Jesus Ortiz (Osborne High, Cobb); and (bottom row, from left) Leah Johnson (Columbia High, DeKalb), Neil Shah (Dunwoody High, DeKalb), Payal Patel (Dacula High, Gwinnett). (Courtesy photos)

With the first whiff of summer in the air, thousands of metro Atlanta high school students graduated in May and will soon begin the next phase in their lives. They’re on to college, starting in the workforce or joining the armed forces — their lives from this point on will be as varied as they are. Those at the top of their graduating classes, at least, feel ready to face whatever the future holds.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked valedictorians around the metro area to answer questions about their time in school and their plans for the future. More than 80 responded. Their answers were hopeful, excited, pensive and assured.

These students started high school as the COVID-19 pandemic was still upending many aspects of everyday life. They faced unprecedented academic and emotional challenges during their time in school. Worldwide, test scores in math and reading declined by 10%-15%, which some experts attribute in large part to the pandemic. And rates of anxiety and depression in children have long been on the rise.

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Credit: Photo provided

Terry Crawford, valedictorian at Druid Hills High School in DeKalb County, knows the impact of the pandemic better than most. His family relocated to the U.S. from Beijing because of the pandemic just before he started high school. It taught him to cherish every day — and made him feel calm about starting a new chapter of his life after high school.

“After being forced to move due to a global disease, there isn’t a lot that worries me anymore,” he said. “I know that God will watch out for me and care for me no matter where I go.”

Other students feel the same way.

“I feel like life after high school will probably have its challenges, but it’s nothing I can’t handle,” said Andrew Malooley, valedictorian at Collins Hill High School in Gwinnett County.

Exahel Castaneda, the valedictorian at Cross Keys High School in DeKalb County, is equally confident. “I’m not worried about the future, as I have everything planned out,” he said. “Even if something goes wrong, I’ll improve upon my errors and conquer all obstacles.”

Looking to their futures, others worry about the things they’ve seen in their lifetimes that feel out of their control.

Neil Shah at Dunwoody High School in DeKalb County worries most about an increasingly divisive political landscape: “I’ve noticed an increasing degree of partisanship among politicians and the general public. Today, there are a plethora of people and movements that attempt to suppress certain students, teachers, races and genders in the name of ‘equity.’ I fear that this polarization is eroding the United States’ place as a world leader in education and progress.”

At Cobb County’s Campbell High School, Brandon Buchalter echoed some of those fears. “It is worrying that, in my opinion, the current level of international attention and efforts on the climate crisis is not enough to combat its growth and that this could cause irreversible harm in the future,” he said. “I am also worried about the general lack of acknowledgment surrounding rising antisemitism and other forms of hate as this could have negative effects on me and others I know.”

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Credit: Photo provided

From Lakeside High School in DeKalb County, Shreya Ghosh Chatterjee reflected on the restriction of reproductive rights. “I am worried that one day, a man sitting in Congress will have more control over my body than I will. Unfortunately, that possibility seems closer to reality every day.”

And multiple students worried about what the rapid advancement of AI technology will mean for them. “I don’t want to spend four years in college only for my degree to become obsolete because of AI by the time that I graduate,” said Johnny Ta, valedictorian at Grayson High School in Gwinnett County.

Almost all of the valedictorians who responded to the AJC’s questions are planning to go to college — overwhelmingly, they’re heading to Georgia Tech in Midtown Atlanta. Others chose state schools like the University of Georgia or Kennesaw State University; a handful are heading to Ivy League schools. One is planning to join the U.S. Navy.

Those who are going away from home are worried about leaving behind the people they know. Even those staying closer to home have concerns.

Credit: E. Brown

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Credit: E. Brown

“I am scared I will be alone in the crowd,” said Jesus Ortiz, the valedictorian at Osborne High School in Cobb County, who will be going to Georgia Tech.

Others have more practical concerns familiar to many Atlanta motorists: “I am worried about having to drive the Grady Curve to get to Georgia Tech,” said Emily Balsam, valedictorian of Fayette County High School. “The only time I tried to drive it, there were tears and I’m pretty sure I saw my life flash before my eyes.”

Though most of the valedictorians agree that their time in high school prepared them for college — and they have the study tips to prove it — they’re still bracing for what it will mean to go into the world as adults.

They want to secure jobs that will allow them to live comfortably, but worry that a college degree isn’t enough to make that happen. One raised concerns about student loan debt. They’re trying to select the most lucrative fields with good job markets. It’s a new way of thinking for many students. They’re used to doing homework and passing tests. Now, they know their responsibilities will change. More than one student mentioned learning how to file taxes.

“Adulthood is very different,” said Leah Johnson, valedictorian at Columbia High School in DeKalb County. “No one needs permission to use the restroom during lunch, yet I’d have to learn how to file my own taxes and learn how to create a monthly budget. In life, I will have to learn things that no amount of studying can teach me — but pure experience can.”

With the last four years fresh on their minds, the things that stood out to them rarely had to do with their coursework. They remembered winning races in track or tennis matches, trips with friends, pep rallies and band performances. These experiences informed the advice they would give to younger students.

“I would tell freshmen to take advantage of every opportunity at their disposal,” said Jessica Gorski, valedictorian at Whitewater High School in Fayette County. “After their time in high school, their biggest regrets will be not signing up for a certain club or taking a chance on a new hobby. Everything is worth doing and trying during this time of our lives.”

Payal Patel, at Dacula High School in Gwinnett County, encouraged them to let their passions drive their high school experience — and not to underestimate themselves.

“From the moment you walk into your high school on the first day,” she said, “it matters.”

Staff writers Martha Dalton, Josh Reyes and Leon Stafford contributed to this article.