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graduation caps tossed in the air


‘You Don't Know What Tomorrow Is Going To Look Like:’ Reflections From The Class Of 2021

The high school graduating class of 2021 got hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

This year’s seniors bore the brunt of two academic years short-changed by the pandemic. The second semester of junior year was interrupted when the country shut down in 2020, and senior year went mostly remote. Now graduating, the class of 2021 missed homecomings, sports seasons, theater performances, normal proms and thousands of tiny moments with teachers, friends and classmates.

We wanted to hear from them, so WBEZ asked seniors across the Chicago area to tell us what helped them survive the past year. The submissions we received tell beautiful stories about art and music, moms and dads, loyal friends and devoted teachers. Some seniors took on jobs to help keep their families afloat. Some lost loved ones to COVID-19. Some contracted the disease themselves.

Four extraordinary seniors tell their stories through narration and interviews with friends and family. They talk about how they and their classmates managed to make this year memorable, how they adjusted plans for the future and how their relationships changed during a year like no other.

Alicia Wright portrait 2

Alicia Wright stands outside her North Side school, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz High School, on May 18, 2021.

Manuel Martinez

Alicia Wright

Alicia attended the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz campus of Acero Schools in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. She’ll be attending Northern Illinois University, where she plans to study nursing.

What has been the hardest part of being a senior during the pandemic?

Motivation. I feel like it is way harder to focus. In your own house, you are comfortable. In school, if you are tired, you have no choice but to stay awake and walk around. But when you don’t have that, it is even harder to do. But every time I got unmotivated, I just think about graduating and going to college. I don’t want to be out here struggling. I want a career, not a job.

What’s one good thing that came out of the pandemic?

Being able to work. Going to school in person is draining. But being remote we get out earlier. It means that I have more time mentally to reset before I have to go into work. It is good to work this year because now I don’t have to go to college broke. Now I plan to go to college with about $10,000 in the bank. I don’t want to have to call my mom all the time when I want to hang out with my friends. With everyone being vaccinated, I am looking forward to going out and getting the real college experience. I will have money and I won’t have to miss out. [Alicia has a job at a fast-food restaurant after school that gets her home at midnight. Her mother waits for her so she can sit by Alicia’s side as does her homework.]

How has the pandemic changed your thinking about the future?

It has not changed much. It gave me extra motivation to do everything I need to do. I knew it was not going to stop me from achieving my plan and reaching my goal. The biggest thing is that in the future when my children ask me what it is like to go to prom or graduate, I won’t have anything to show them. I won’t have those memories.

How have you tried to make this year special?

My English teacher said she might have a party for us after graduation on her farm. Me and my friends are talking about going to dinner together or go-carting or to Six Flags. Somewhere we can hang out one last time to make the memories. Me and my friends will figure something out. We can have some fun.

But it is not the whole class and the whole class won’t be together again. We are not having a real graduation. We are having a drive around. I feel sad that it won’t be a graduation. I would like to hug the teachers who have been there since we got there. We grew up with them. They saw us go from immature little kids to where we are today.

LISTEN: Alicia talks with her mother about their struggle with homelessness, how they emerged and about how they both feel about Alicia heading off to college on a full-ride scholarship.

Imani Muse

Imani is a graduating senior at Kenwood Academy High School on Chicago’s South Side. She’ll be attending the University of Alabama, where she plans to major in finance and minor in real estate and athletic training.

Imani Muse portrait 2

Imani Muse poses in front of her South Side school, Kenwood Academy, on May 28, 2021.

Manuel Martinez

What has been the hardest part of being a senior during the pandemic?

Not getting that traditional senior year. I’ve been working so hard since I was in seventh grade, taking high school classes, and now junior and senior taking college classes. I still don’t have that time to reflect on my senior year and celebrate with my friends in the most traditional way possible.

What’s one good thing that came out of the pandemic?

It was spending a lot of time with my family and my friends. In the beginning, I didn’t get to spend too much time with my friends. But as we started getting towards the end, I got to see them more often. Everybody got vaccinated and being able to still have some of that interaction with them was great. It was something that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

How has the pandemic changed your thinking about the future?

It’s definitely changed how I think creatively about the future. We now need to get more creative about what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it, and not always do things in the traditional sense. I think this time was where we were able to get more innovative about what we can do and explore even though we may have limitations.

How have you tried to make this year special?

I have tried to make this year special by just going out of my way to try to go above and beyond even with the restrictions. A person that has really made it special even when I didn’t feel motivated was my mom. She’s definitely put so much effort into making sure my senior year was as great as it possibly could be. Without her, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it.

LISTEN: Imani shares stories from her classmates and her life about trying to make senior year memorable amid the pandemic. She highlights her mom, who went above and beyond to make the year special.

Nyah Ware portrait 2

Nyah Ware at Southland College Prep Charter High School in Richton Park on May 25, 2021.

Manuel Martinez

Nyah Ware

Nyah attended Southland College Preparatory Charter High School in Richton Park, where she is the valedictorian. She’ll be attending Stanford University, and she’s considering a major in bioengineering.

What has been the hardest part of being a senior during the pandemic?

The hardest part about being a senior during this pandemic, for me, has been staying motivated without my peers and teachers right in front of me. Usually, I’m someone who likes to feed off the energy of others, and it’s a little hard to do that through a screen.

What’s one good thing that came out of the pandemic?

There are a lot of relationships for me that were able to start off virtually that I’m really excited to maintain in person one day. There were a lot of people [I met] through virtual college visits and programs. Those programs wouldn’t have accepted as many people as they [would have if they were] in person. And more kids were able to go, and I was able to meet more people.

How has the pandemic changed your thinking about the future?

The pandemic has made me see the future not as something certain. I’ve always sort of had a picture in my mind of how senior year would go, how my college search would go. It’s definitely been a reminder that you don’t know what tomorrow is going to look like. I definitely still have plans of what I want to do in my future, but I think the pandemic has taught me that it’s okay to have plans, but still be prepared to give your all and do everything, regardless of what actually happens.

How have you tried to make this year special?

I think I’ve tried to make this year special by trying to take advantage of all of the extra time I have on my hands. I’ve taken up a million different hobbies. I started doing cross-stitching. I did a giant color-by-number painting. I’ve binge watched so many shows. I think I’ve tried to just make the year special by taking the time to do things that I really enjoy doing on the side, things that I usually wouldn’t be able to do because I’m so busy moving back and forth between places.

LISTEN: Nyah shares stories about how the pandemic changed relationships between friends and classmates, and about finding that one person you can lean on.

Doniya Boyd

Doniya Boyd is a senior at Jones College Prep, a Chicago public high school. She’ll be attending the University of Oregon to study political science.

Doniya Boyd portrait

Doniya Boyd stands outside Jones College Prep, in Chicago’s South Loop, on May 24, 2021.

Manuel Martinez

What has been the hardest part of being a high school senior during the pandemic?

Navigating the college application process. Working on FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) without the help of my college counselors was definitely challenging. Everybody was so busy and stressed out. I was able to look up on YouTube and Google information about the college process. Most importantly, I spent a lot of time reading the instructions on the official FAFSA website.

What’s one good thing that came out of the pandemic?

I met a lot of people during online forums. I met a lot of friends from different countries, including Germany and Serbia. I got to learn a lot more about their lives and the way they operate in the world. Not being in school also gave me a little bit more time to understand other social issues affecting people who didn’t look like me or didn’t believe the same things that I believe.

How has the pandemic changed your thinking about the future?

The pandemic definitely made a lot more hopeful for the future. I took a lot of things for granted. I took going to school and people at school for granted. But now looking into the future, I am so much more appreciative and so much more excited about college and grad school. I guess now I know what it’s like to have the world change in front of my eyes so quickly. I also learned how important it is to take life one step at a time, like stop, look around and understand what’s happening.

How have you tried to make this year special?

I think I learned to appreciate myself more. I rewarded myself more when I got work done or when I did good on something. I also helped organize a lot more virtual events for students, like watching movies and playing games. We all missed each other. These small virtual gatherings helped us stay connected.

LISTEN: Doniya talks about how seniors’ expectations for college changed “after witnessing the world shut down around us.”

The following seniors (listed in order of appearance) contributed to the story about what person or thing helped them make it through this year: Alicia Wright, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Chicago); Ryanne Howard, Southland College Prep Charter (Richton Park); Makayla Hinkle, Thornton Fractional South (Lansing); Antwon Howard, Kenwood Academy (Chicago); Michael Iwashima, Oak Park and River Forest High School; Rasa Braswell, The Chicago High School for the Arts (Chicago); Jasper Mitchell, Kenwood Academy (Chicago); Jodie Lloyd, The Chicago Academy for the Arts (Chicago); Doniya Boyd, Jones College Prep (Chicago); Nina Hernandez, Maine East (Park Ridge); Amina Malik, Glenbard West, (Glen Ellyn); Noah Buford, Kenwood Academy (Chicago).

Reporters Susie An, Adriana Cardona-Maguigad, Sarah Karp and editor Kate Grossman make up WBEZ’s education team. Follow us @WBEZeducation and join our Facebook group WBEZ Education.

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