They began their final semesters preparing for what is typically the first major accomplishment of a young person’s life.
The excitement of this time changed for these metro Atlanta students as the coronavirus pandemic forced them to adjust. Proms were canceled. They had to pack up and leave campus. Graduation ceremonies were held remotely.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution followed several area high school and college students through their last months of the school year and talked to them about about what’s next in their lives.
Here are their stories:
Yara Manasrah, 18
Chapel Hill High, Douglas County
University of Georgia
“Treat others how you’d like to be treated.”
What are you doing now? I'm working on a lot of schoolwork right now, which is not particularly enjoyable, but I'm managing. I don't understand why students are being forced to stress out about school and exams (especially considering some students don't readily have access to the Internet) when there is a global pandemic occurring right now.
What scares you about the pandemic? I also wish that more individuals took the pandemic seriously instead of running around outside to meet other people. I've viewed a few of my peers sneaking out to see their friends/significant others on social media websites (TikTok is a big one), but a vast majority are actually staying home, which is good.
>> READ | COVID crisis forces Class of 2020 to become the Class of Perseverance
How has the school year been for you? I dual enrolled this past year and a half, so it's not ideal. I've taken a total of 13 courses in the past three semesters (I can start college this fall as a sophomore, which is nice), but I haven't seen any of my peers from high school since November. I was counting on my prom to reconnect with my friends and see each other one last time, but since I'm immunocompromised, I can't go even if they let it happen.
What do you feel you missed? I also really wanted to take a senior trip with my friends or even go on a cruise (I've never done that before, and I was saving up to do so), but that won't be happening either. I acknowledge that people definitely have it worse than I do right now, but I just wish that I hung out with my peers more.
What classes were tough to do during the pandemic?Music theory was filled with music performance students. It was really hard for a lot of them. We had Zoom calls at 8:15 in the morning which was not ideal. We just kept pushing. A lot of people didn’t move forward and they didn’t know how to succeed academically after we had moved to online classed. It was the hardest to transition academically.
When did the pandemic become real to you? I think my "aha" moment was when I was working the other day at Publix and saw an empty aisle. It was devoid of everything, which was really scary to me. I remember walking through the aisle in a state of shock and an overwhelming sense of confusion.
Has the pandemic and what's going on affected your faith? It has not really influenced my faith, but I am not a religious person to begin with, so I could be wrong. My parents are from the Middle East, so there's a lot of Islamic history and religious context that I might not be understanding yet. I hope that God has a plan for this, though.
I’m Muslim and this whole month is about Ramadan. We abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset – and yes, that means even water. It’s taught me a lot about being grateful for what I have and my health and for everything my family has and other families like us, especially in these times.
What's next for you? I just got into the University of Georgia, so I am really excited to start this fall. I wanted to go on a cruise with my friends this summer, but now I think I'm just going to relax and take a break from school. I don't know what a European tour is, but I really want to go to Italy or Germany to study abroad next summer, so there's that. I'd like to major in Communication Studies with a minor in German or Linguistics.
Henry Xuan, 18
Lambert High, Forsyth County
“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other” from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speech to Cornell College
How was school for you during the quarantine? I read an article the other about the detriment of Zoom calls for learning. We have an eight-hour day in high school and most of that can be compressed into about two hours of learning. Most of school is about the connections, the interactions, the relationships you have with your peers and your teachers. The biggest problem with Zoom calls is that they just aren't personal enough. I can mute my mic or turn off my video and (nobody) would know.
What are your post-graduation plans? A gap year wasn't originally in my plans, but because of this whole coronavirus situation, it has impacted a lot of plans. If Harvard announces fall will be online, I will apply for a gap year. I will travel to Taiwan to improve my Mandarin, understand the Taiwanese culture, and further develop my cultural skillset. I'm not alone in this thought-process; I've heard that so far, nearly 200 students from the Harvard 2024 class already opted for gap year.
When did the pandemic get real for you? There were a couple moments when [the coronavirus] really got real, but one experience that rises above all was when my Georgia Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) State Leadership Conference (SLC) was cancelled. Georgia FBLA is one of the oldest and largest student business organizations in the country and SLC is Georgia's premiere Conference held March 20th-22nd. The cancellation of SLC on March 12th was a difficult for me personally and all 25,000 of Georgia FBLA members.
What were some highlights of your year? On the personal level, I had the incredible honor of serving as the Georgia FBLA State President this past year. SLC officially marks the end of a State Officer's term and is a critical part of the State Officer experience, showing the growth of an officer from a year ago.
How has the pandemic affected your faith? Not knowing what's going to happen next is probably the hardest part and probably the biggest challenge to our faith. We're extremely fortunate to be sitting at home and not having to face the reality and dangers that so many people in the world are facing. I feel that this is a situation we can turn around. We're going to get better. My perspective and my definition of faith and gratitude has changed a lot since this pandemic has started. It made us realize that at our core and at our heart we want to connect with one another.
What has this experience taught you? I've learned how valuable relationships are. You don't realize how much you'll miss something until it's gone. I think proof of that is that people have been getting real creative, gathering in parking lots in cars – six feet apart.
Before quarantine started it was easy to be really, really busy and have excuses for not being present. “I’ll spend time with family later on.” I’ve got work, I’ve got schools, I’ve got projects. But with quarantine we have no excuses. Sometimes it’s nice to just slow down. That’s something that I’ll take with me when this is over. Our future impact in the world will be defined by how we handle the situations thrust upon us. If its anything that this decade has taught us, it’s that we should strive to follow our vision.
Danielle Milburn, 18
North Atlanta High
University of Florida
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain” – Vivien Greene, British author.
I think these days we’re all just learning how to dance in the rain.
How are you coping with the pandemic? This is the first year of my life that I haven't had anything to do over the summer. I was supposed to have a summer job and that got canceled. School-wise we usually always have summer reading or something. So the way that I've coped with it is keeping in mind that just because we have to be physically away from people doesn't mean we have to be socially away from people. I still see people to kind of make it seem all normal.
How were classes during the quarantine? In my English class, we were studying plays. So, instead of having an assignment of reading them, we'd come on the Zoom call and we'd all be assigned parts and we would act out the play. We would be able to laugh together and communicate with each other. It was the closest thing to being in a real classroom.
I had some teachers who didn’t use Zoom at all. Some would just give PowerPoint lectures. Two of my eight teachers did Zoom calls and the others would just assign reading and quizzes. For me, that wasn’t an adequate way to learn. I feel like once I left school, I really didn’t learn anything.
How are you handling social distancing? My mom works in HR so she's had a first-hand account of how many people are getting sick and we're taking it very serious – social distancing and Lysoling groceries and all those types of things. … The hardest part for me to understand is seeing friends who aren't quarantining or doing anything different. They're still having graduation parties and go out and have pool parties and act like nothing's going on. Faith-wise, it's been difficult for me to understand why none of them or their families have gotten sick. Is it worth it? Would I be the one who gets sick?
What are your post-graduation plans? I wanted to work a semester abroad in Africa and work in an animal sanctuary, but then decided to go ahead and start college at the University of Florida. But how do justify paying out of state tuition when you're not even in class. Why would I pay all that money to go out of state? I want to go to college, but I'm scared. Where would I go? I want to go to Africa, but what if I got sick? Or what if they shut down travel? And money is an issue right now with my parents' jobs. People are being laid off or their pay is cut. Not knowing what's going to happen in the next year makes it hard to know what to do.
Jake Preece, 17
Brookwood High, Gwinnett County
Georgia State University
“Keep calm and carry on.”
How did you handle classes during the quarantine? One of the great things about online learning is that instead regular classes where you're given a task almost every hour, usually before noon they'd give you all your assignments. So, you'd wake up, know what you had to do that day and got to go at your own pace, except for tests or quizzes. Which for most teachers, were about two or three o'clock in the afternoon so you were able to sleep in. Just be able to control how you were learning a lot better.
What have you done to pass the time? I have a wide variety of interests. I guess I like 'throwbacks' — like 70s rock, typewriters, record players, film cameras, flags and a variety of things that don't require electricity. I even has a pen pal to whom I writes old-fashioned snail-mail letters.
Were you able to keep up with extracurriculars? I am a member of the GSA Club, a student-run organization that unites LGBTQ+ and allied youth to build community and organize around issues impacting them in their schools and communities. I sometimes engage in discussions about how different cultures view gender identity and sexuality.
I have Russian pen pals, but we usually communicate by email to save time and money on postage. High school in Russia only goes to the 11th grade so my friends are already in college. They are students at the University of St. Petersburg. Even though the country isn’t so religious, they are and quite liberal. You can be imprisoned there for being gay.
With such a wide variety of interests, have you narrowed down a career? I'm really interested in history. I could see myself as a history teacher. Or maybe an archivist or a researcher. Right now my plan is to live on campus. I don't have any other set agenda.
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What's the lasting effect of the pandemic for you? "The [distance learning] was hard. I felt lonely most of the time. I only physically left the house to go to the grocery story or to the hardware store. Even when I met up with friends we'd keep six feet apart. But I used the time to grow — read more, build skills, do things that I didn't have time for otherwise. But I've gotten to know myself better and I've gained more confidence."
Hannah Savage, 18
Whitewater High School, Fayette County
Agnes Scott College
"I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining
And I believe in love, even when there's no one there
And I believe in God, even when he is silent
I believe through any trial
There is always a way”
— Inscription of Hope (Spivey Hall Children’s Choir)
How has quarantine affected your friendships? We did a Facetime where we got ready for prom and we just played music and it just made me feel like we were at prom. We just hung out for a few hours on the phone. It was just a way to get prom back a little bit.
My other friends still wanted to hang out and that was hard for me, but people in my family have asthma and breathing problems and I didn’t want to hand out with people who I didn’t know where else they’d been hanging out. So, I had to just Facetime them while they were all hanging out and that was kind of hard for me.
What about extracurricular activities? Every Monday night (The Spivey Hall Children's Choir) did a group Zoom call because we were probably never going to see each other again since we all live in different counties. The tour for this summer was canceled, but the Tour Choir tried to keep up with each other in the group chat – especially the seniors.
What are some lasting effects of the pandemic for you? I always planned on voting and [the pandemic] has made it more important how much we need to vote now and rally together. This is affecting everyone whether they're poor or rich, and this has made me want to do more in my community.
I talk about this with my friends all the time. It’s made my faith in the government rocky and I know if we all become selfless, it would balance out.
I realize that I rely on social interaction much more than I thought I did. I’m really and introvert and this time has made me feel so lonely. I thought this time would be fun. I thought with distance learning I’d finally get a break from all the madness and drama, but this has been worse than I ever thought it would be.
Juan Lopez, 18
Peachtree Ridge High, Gwinnett County
Gwinnett Tech College (or straight to auto technician career)
“If you don’t have big dreams or goals, you’ll end up working for someone who does.” — Unknown
How did the quarantine affect your education? I want to major in automotive tech and engine repair so I was able to still learn [during the pandemic] because I was able to go to the shop and stuff, but that was on my own side.
It wasn’t part of school. I really couldn’t do any hands-on at school. I found ways to figure it out.
What are some things you've learned about yourself during the pandemic? It depends on how you [handle the pandemic]. There's the paranoid way that the world is going to end. And it also goes down to what you believe in. If you're strong enough and you have a plan, then you'll be fine, even if we're under quarantine and in a pandemic. If you're lost and don't know what kind of path you want to take, then it gets a little tricky. You don't have hope and have no expectations.
How did you make use of your extra time? I've been making use of the time that I have in quarantine. For years I've been wanting to start a YouTube Channel, showing people simple fixes for their cars. I started it and I have 600 subscribers. It's made me keep working hard for what I want. All this has made me realize that when there are things you want to do, just go for it.
Sophia Woodrow, 18
Centennial High School, Fulton County
“What divides us pales in comparison to what unites us.” — Sen. Ted Kennedy
How did you fare with distance learning? I was part of the first (International Baccalaureate) classes at my school so the classes were pretty small. There were five people in all my classes. We did Zoom calls every day and it was the whole class with the teachers. Sometimes we'd work on the calls and other times we'd just talk. So, it was as close to being in class without actually being in class. It was a way to connect even though we couldn't physically be together.
What have you learned? A lot of us have seen both the best and worse sides of humanity. We've seen people refusing to social distance and not wearing masks, and saying that this is all made up. But at the same time, we've seen communities band together and people buy groceries for their elderly neighbors and lend a helping hand to people they might not have before. I think that's what gives me hope in this situation.
What do have planned for your future? I'm Black, White and half Jewish. I don't shy away from any part of my identity and I'm interested in so many things I can't decide what I want to do with the rest of my life. I like public speaking so in 7th grade I said I want to be a lawyer. I love fashion designer and would love to create clothes from sustainable sources on a grand scale. I'm really into astrophysics and would love to go into outer space. My freshman year I got really into local politics — who knows, I may one day be president.
When I think about a gap year, I think about what I would do. A lot of people are speculating that international travel isn’t going to happen until 2021, so that leaves the beginning of the school year.
I’ve been working a job for few years where I sell merchandise at concerts and sporting events and right now there are no concerts or sporting events happening for the next year either. Stanford has talked about a few ways of opening. They might just have freshmen on campus. Or since they’re on the quarter system, they may have each grade just come for a quarter, but they’re still deciding what they’ll do.
Have you referenced any dystopian movies or books to get coping clues? When the pandemic started, my class was reading "The Handmaid's Tale," which is pretty dystopian. There was a day when I was like, "Oh no, this is where we're heading. The world is falling apart." Then there were other days when I was writing my salutatorian speech and I made a joke about us all expecting "High School Musical" and getting "The Walking Dead" instead.
There are certainly days when I’m paranoid and think about [the pandemic] But there are other days when I calm myself down and remind myself that everything is going to be O.K.
In times like these, when everything is so uncertain, staying true to yourself is what’s going to get us through. We don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know when this is going to end. But if we remain true to who we are, then everything will be O.K.”
Ethan Asher, 18
Centennial High School, Fulton County
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” — Rabbi Hillel (Pirke Avot 1:14)
How have you held up under the quarantine? Something that our generation does better than anyone else is digital communication. While social distancing has had a huge impact on our lives, most of us have the tools to still communicate with one another. So whether its Zoom game nights or being on Tik Tok, we've found ways to be innovative.
I also did [International Baccalaureate]. The IB folks canceled exams so they locked in grades. So, there really wasn’t any incentive for me and a lot of other students to learn because there were no more grades. I’m also anti-busy work, so I was OK with that.
How has the pandemic affected your faith? I am finding it hard to keep having faith in institutions and the government when their role is supposed to be a safety net and protect the most vulnerable Americans and there are 90,000 [at the time of this interview] that didn't need to die [from coronavirus]. So, it's kind of hard to watch it happen. How am I supposed to have faith in the system that's supposed to protect us and failed?
What are your post-graduation plans? I have another job offer for next year. College is more than just your classes – you meet people and have new experiences and that's why applied for where I did. And even if it reopens next year, it won't be the same kind of experience or the same kind of community. I get that the world is kind of falling apart, but it's not what any of us signed up for. And it's not what we had in mind. So, we're just trying to balance out what will be best.
Isabella Salazar, 18
Decatur High School, City Schools of Decatur
University of Georgia
“You decide…” (your outlook, your path, your future…)
What was one of the toughest things about this semester? There was a lot of anticipation and excitement for the end of our high school years, but when schools closed we were just shocked by the suddenness of everything. For me, I hadn't prepped to say goodbye. I'm excited to move forward but the rug was kind of pulled from under me.
What did you learn about yourself during this semester? That I'm a little tougher than I thought. I didn't realize how much I've been persevering. Folks have been saying they are sorry for me (and the class of 2020) and I didn't get it because things haven't been too bad. I've faced some challenging things, but I feel like the teenagers in my generation they were really optimistic and it felt like we were all in it together
Any worries for fall? I just got an email today about health precautions that UGA is taking … about wearing masks and social distancing they'll be doing in classes. It's the struggle of everyone telling me to get involved and meet new people but that comes with greater risk so there's a little nervousness about that.
John Bowers III, 21
Morehouse College graduate
Future plans: Business analyst at JPMorgan Chase in his hometown, Dallas, Tex.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:6-7
What was it like not being able to complete the semester on campus?It's difficult because you don't get to say goodbye. You don't get to thank the people who helped you.
Bowers said his last assignment for his remote economics class was the most difficult academic challenge. It was the most scariest assignment of my life. It has a 60% fail rate and (passing the class is) a requirement for graduation.
As student government president, Bowers had to respond to major situations on campus, such as when a classmate was tased by Atlanta police during the city's curfew crackdown during the George Floyd protests. He wrote, in part: In the midst of a time that has caused us to be uncertain about our lives, unity is the only medicine that can heal our wounds. Wounds that have been caused by individuals who do not understand the pains they have caused to not only us but generations to come.
How do you feel about the future? I am optimistic and enthusiastic about my future. I believe the best is still yet to come, after this strenuous moment in time begins to settle down.
Jordyn De La Rosa, 21
Brenau University graduate
Future plans: Working at a boutique.
“Nobody - not a voice of authority, not your mama, not the foremost expert in your arena - gets to tell you how big your dreams can be. They can talk all they want... but you get to decide if you’re willing to listen” - Rachel Hollis
What was it like completing your college career taking classes remotely? I have learned how to adjust and transition well, but this was unlike anything I have ever experienced. With the world still being in a rather awkward phase of "going back to normal", I still haven't processed the feelings of not finishing my last semester of college "normally", obtaining a job to start my career, or even experiencing a regular graduation ceremony.
How did your professors manage the changes? My professors have been very forgiving as I have even dropped the ball on attending zoom sessions because I got caught up in working or completely missing an assignment completely because I started it but never kept it on my to-do list to finish. In my entire 4 years of college I have never dropped the ball on an assignment like that, but I was very grateful for a professor who was understanding and gave me an extension.
You began making masks for people to protect themselves from the virus. What was that like for you (She majored in fashion design)? It was a small, creative outlet.
How do you feel about how you did this semester? I can confidently say I am beyond proud of myself for coming out of this semester healthy, safe, and even made 6 A's out of the 7 classes I took this semester, but with that came many days of feeling ready to throw it all out the window. I couldn't be more thankful for professors and advisors who were gracious with myself and all of my other classmates during this time and continued to support us when days were hard and on days that were "better".
How are you preparing for your future? This is giving me time to rest and slow down (which I truly haven't done since entering high school), indulge in my creativity, and wait for whatever opportunity is right for me. I will of course be anxiously waiting for whatever the opportunity may be, but I have always believed that everything happens for a reason, therefore when my opportunity comes, I will be ready to put the best of myself in it 150%.