Atlanta, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett valedictorians share pandemic tales

Graduates celebrate after receiving their diplomas. High school commencement ceremonies are taking place across metro Atlanta this month. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Graduates celebrate after receiving their diplomas. High school commencement ceremonies are taking place across metro Atlanta this month. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Now that high school seniors are graduating, the class of 2022 is ready for college.

These graduates across metro Atlanta offer advice and stories about going to school during a pandemic. Note: In some cases, responses were edited for clarity or length.

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Daniel Hermonstine, valedictorian at D.M. Therrell High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Daniel Hermonstine, valedictorian at D.M. Therrell High School. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy photo

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Daniel Hermonstine, valedictorian at D.M. Therrell High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Daniel Hermonstine

School system: Atlanta Public Schools

High school: D.M. Therrell High School

College: Georgetown University

Intended major: Public Policy/International Relations

Advice for ninth graders: Always be willing to go the extra mile. Never accept “no” until the reality sets in that something isn’t going to happen. Too often, as young scholars, opportunities are missed because of a lack of drive and a lack of confidence. I’d say to the class of 2025 to be bold and relentless in the opportunities they seek for themselves. I’d also tell them that regardless of what life throws at them over the next four years, they must always persevere. While this doesn’t mean that the grass will always be greener on the other side, they will be better individuals for it. The ability to persevere is one of the most essential traits in life and it must be developed from your freshman year.

One moment or story you will tell your grandchildren about your high school experience during the pandemic: Oh what a time it will be 40 years from now when I settle down to tell my grandkids about my “Six Screen” day. I’ll tell my grandbabies about their grandad’s work ethic and how he was always trying to be involved in everything. I have no doubt they’ll be proud, impressed, and disappointed. I expect the disappointment to settle in when they hear of how COVID’s “Six Screen Day” almost broke me. There is no reason for any human being to ever have to keep up with five screens at the same time. I’ll use this story to teach my grandkids about the importance of saying “no” and balancing one’s time. I’ll make sure they know that no amount of success is worth their happiness and mental health.

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Meron Ayecheh, valedictorian at Clarkston High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Meron Ayecheh, valedictorian at Clarkston High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Meron Ayecheh, valedictorian at Clarkston High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Meron Ayecheh

School system: DeKalb County Schools

High school: Clarkston High School

College: University of Georgia

Intended major: Biology/pre-med as my major and my pre-professional program would be pre-med.

Advice for ninth graders: A wise teacher once said to me, “Nothing lasts forever” right before she gave me a seven-page essay. In life, both the good and the bad will come to an end. We might not like the good to end but that’s just how life is. That goes without saying, your struggles and hardships will not last forever either! I assure you the outcomes will be worth your struggles.

One moment or story you will tell your grandchildren about your high school experience during the pandemic: The pandemic took away from my high school experience. However, it also taught me an important life lesson. Independence! It taught me to completely rely on myself and not on others! I’d say this beats anything else!

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Madison Cust, valedictorian at Arabia Mountain High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Madison Cust, valedictorian at Arabia Mountain High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Madison Cust, valedictorian at Arabia Mountain High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Madison Cust

School district: DeKalb County Schools

High school: Arabia Mountain High School

College: Kennesaw State University

Intended major: Nursing

Advice for succeeding: Success is about how you approach it and what you make it. My dad always used to tell me, “Work hard now, and play later or play now, and work hard later.” I continue to live by that one statement because I know that later in life, I want everything to be as easy and smooth as possible.

One moment or story you will tell your grandchildren about your high school experience during the pandemic: The pandemic drastically changed my high school experience and honestly, I did not expect to do as well as I did virtually. Things were tougher because I am a hands-on learner and teachers were flooded with emails, so it was always tough to get into contact with them. I had to adjust my learning style to succeed in all my courses, but I am grateful because I learned a lot more about myself and learning style throughout the pandemic.

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Alex Rice, valedictorian at Tucker High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Alex Rice, valedictorian at Tucker High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Alex Rice, valedictorian at Tucker High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Alex Rice

School system: DeKalb County Schools

High school: Tucker High School

College: Georgia Tech

Intended major: Computer science

Advice for succeeding: Don’t be afraid to take a break. Nobody can work 24/7.

One moment or story you will tell your grandchildren about your high school experience during the pandemic: I will tell my grandchildren how random virtual classes could be with webcams. People would do all sorts of things. My favorite was when a friend of mine took a tomato and started eating it like an apple because they were hungry at one point when everyone had their webcams on.

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Rahul Gudapati, valedictorian at Alpharetta High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Rahul Gudapati, valedictorian at Alpharetta High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Rahul Gudapati, valedictorian at Alpharetta High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Rahul Gudapati

School system: Fulton County Schools

High school: Alpharetta High School

College: Georgia Tech

Intended major: Business Administration, with a concentration in Strategy and Innovation

Advice for ninth graders: Explore as much as you can. You’ll never know what you love until you do it.

One moment or story you will tell your grandchildren about your high school experience during the pandemic: I’d tell my grandchildren about waking up and getting in the shower at 8:25 a.m. when class started at 8:20 a.m., and still being counted present.

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Kyrisma Ragland, valedictorian at Tri-Cities High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Kyrisma Ragland, valedictorian at Tri-Cities High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Kyrisma Ragland, valedictorian at Tri-Cities High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Kyrisma Ragland

School system: Fulton County Schools

High school: Tri-Cities High School

College: Georgia State University

Intended major: Marketing

Advice for succeeding: Recently I’ve been told that success can only happen when self-reflection happens. It’s very easy to fall into the box of success that inhabits having a ridiculous amount of money and material items. It’s important to view your life from a perspective that doesn’t pertain to anyone else.

Advice for ninth graders: There are thousands of videos across the internet detailing a list of rules a freshman should follow. Most of them insist that you avoid being annoying, stay out of the way and generally be likable. I say be annoying. Your freshman year is the last year it’s normalized for you to be annoying. Being annoying is not a crime. You’ll eventually adapt to the life of a high schooler anyway so don’t stress yourself about being the perfect one before you get there.

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Grant Baumann, valedictorian at Mountain View High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Grant Baumann, valedictorian at Mountain View High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Grant Baumann, valedictorian at Mountain View High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Grant Baumann

School system: Gwinnett County Public Schools

High School: Mountain View High School

College: University of Georgia

Intended major: Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering and Master’s in Business Administration

Advice for succeeding: Surround yourself with people who make you want to be better.

One moment or story you will tell your grandchildren about your high school experience during the pandemic: I can brag to my grandchildren that once a Zoom interviewer called me the next Elon Musk.

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Yahya Habib, valedictorian at Meadowcreek High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Yahya Habib, valedictorian at Meadowcreek High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Yahya Habib, valedictorian at Meadowcreek High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Yahya Habib

School system: Gwinnett County Public Schools

High school: Meadowcreek High School

College: Princeton University

Major: Political Science

What is the best advice you received about how to succeed? Spend every day getting 1% better at something.

What advice would you give to a ninth grader? Work hard but still make time to have fun.

One moment or story you will tell your grandchildren about your high school experience during the pandemic: I watched the “Harry Potter” and “Fast & Furious” series while in my digital classes.

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Nicholas Lezama, valedictorian at Gwinnett Online Campus. (Courtesy photo)

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Nicholas Lezama, valedictorian at Gwinnett Online Campus. (Courtesy photo)

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Nicholas Lezama, valedictorian at Gwinnett Online Campus. (Courtesy photo)

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Nicholas Lezama

School system: Gwinnett County Public Schools

High school: Gwinnett Online Campus

College: University of Georgia

Major: Journalism, Communications, or Psychology

Advice for succeeding: The best advice that I’ve received about success is that when you achieve something that you think is very difficult, there’s an intense feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes with it, so always try to give 100% of your effort in whatever you try to do.

One moment or story you will tell your grandchildren about your high school experience during the pandemic: Despite the overall conditions that were present during the pandemic, I was still able to maintain the high grades that I got, showing that this pandemic didn’t stop me on my way to earning this prestigious honor.

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Julia Park, valedictorian at North Gwinnett High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Julia Park, valedictorian at North Gwinnett High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Julia Park, valedictorian at North Gwinnett High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Julia Park

School system: Gwinnett County Public Schools

High school: North Gwinnett High School

College: Georgia Tech

Intended major: Computer Science

Advice for succeeding: Every master was once a beginner. Sure, some people are naturally talented, but talent only goes so far. Ambition and passion are what drive people to succeed. I am not naturally smart, but I worked hard to get here. Always focus on your goal and take small steps to get there.

One moment or story you will tell your grandchildren about your high school experience during the pandemic: Despite what many people say, I enjoyed learning from home. Being able to do work at my own pace helped with my time management and learning more about my own work ethic. A moment I enjoyed was that I would routinely have Zoom meetings with my friends, and it was a nice break from constantly being on Zoom for purely academic reasons.

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Elijah Rabinovich, valedictorian at Paul Duke STEM High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Elijah Rabinovich, valedictorian at Paul Duke STEM High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Elijah Rabinovich, valedictorian at Paul Duke STEM High School. (Courtesy photo)

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Elijah Rabinovich

School system: Gwinnett County Public Schools

High school: Paul Duke STEM High School

College: Georgia Tech

Intended major: Computer Science as a major but hopefully a bit of everything

Advice for ninth graders: Remember to relax, have fun, and explore. High school is a time for finding yourself and living life, but always keep in mind that grades are still important. While they may not be life or death, grades are the steppingstone towards living a fulfilling life as they enable you towards your goals and aspirations.

One moment or story you will tell your grandchildren about your high school experience during the pandemic: It’s important to look on the bright side of everything. Although the pandemic was an incredibly tough period of time and caused much heartache, it brought me closer to my friends and introduced me to new ones as well. Friends that I most likely never would have met otherwise.