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High school revisited: Students reflect on their year away from campus

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As high schoolers throughout Southern California prepare for a return to the classroom for this first time in a year, we asked students to share their experiences. Attending Zoom classes during the pandemic has been difficult for teens, but they are a resilient group. Will there be prom? Will they be able to walk through graduation? What will the start of college be like? Here are their stories in their own words:

Kaitlyn Nguyen, 18, senior, Village Academy High School, Pomona

Kaitlyn Nguyen, right, “air high-fives” principal Joseph Biagioni during a visit to campus to pick up a calculator at Village Academy High School in Pomona.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

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It is hard to wrap my head around the fact that my high school career is coming to an end; each day seems to pass by in the blink of an eye. This year was full of challenges and loss, but it also came with unforgettable memories and lessons.

As a senior, one of the most daunting challenges I had to face was the college application process. Oftentimes when looking at these applications it was easy for me to get intimidated by the process, but during this time I am glad that I had the support of my family, friends and local nonprofit organization, Bright Prospect (BP).

Despite the difficulties of figuring out virtual meetings, BP has been working hard to help meet the needs of students such as myself. While going through the college process I was fortunate enough to have a personal college coach, Juan Carlos Mora, who was introduced to me through the BP private college program.

Juan mentored me through the college process, while also helping me navigate my final year of high school. We often meet a few times a month, and during these times, although most of it was spent on filling out applications and discussing potential colleges, we also spent time just talking and building a connection, which is one of the most essential things we need during this time. Not only was I given a coach, who made the college application fun, I was also given a lifelong friend through this process and I could not be more thankful.

Early on in the process, I decided to apply as an early decision applicant to the University of Pennsylvania. Juan encouraged me to look into Penn, and through my research I came to the realization that this was the school for me. I came to this conclusion primarily because of Penn’s commitment to community service and community advocacy work, which has been something that I have been passionate about growing up. I am happy to say that I have been accepted into the University of Pennsylvania as a first-generation college student of Vietnamese descent.

Kaitlyn Nguyen, right, hikes with friends

Kaitlyn Nguyen, right, hikes with friends.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Terrell Weaver, 17, senior, Alain Leroy Locke College Preparatory Academy

Terrell Weaver, left, poses with his stepfather, sister and mother for a family photo.

Terrell Weaver, from left, poses with stepfather Michael Beime, sister Micah Beime and mother Fola’sade Beime for a family photo. Weaver will be attending Cal State Northridge in the fall.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

For my senior year, I did not expect it to be like this ….

I’ve watched my older brother and sister graduate, go to prom, and all the senior activities that seniors do for the last year of high school. I feel like it isn’t fair, for not just me but all the seniors in my class. We all have waited for this moment in our lives and now it’s been taken away from us due to COVID-19. We will never get a chance to experience something like this for ourselves again.

Locke Charter High School senior Terrell Weaver

Locke Charter High School senior Terrell Weaver.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The one positive thing that came out of the pandemic was that my family and I were able to stay safe and no one was exposed to COVID-19. Also through it all I was able to maintain good grades. I will be attending Cal State Northridge in the fall. I hope to be in the athletic business, doing what I love — being involved with sports.

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This year has taught me a lot about patience and balance. It took a lot to transfer to distance learning and still succeed.
My friends and family helped me get through this by spending time together in a safe manner. By supporting me, whether it’s sitting going over my homework or hanging out spending quality time.

Terrell Weaver, right, makes a TikTok video with his sister Micah Beime

Terrell Weaver, right, makes a TikTok video with his sister Micah Beime at their mother’s home in Los Angeles.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Terrell Weaver, right, with his sister Micah Beime.

Terrell Weaver, right, with his sister Micah Beime outside their home in Los Angeles.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Max Menache, 18, senior, Beverly Hills High School

Max Menache, left, works outs with his brother Dan and his friend Jackson Herseu.

Max Menache, left, works outs with his brother Dan, center, and friend Jackson Herseu at a home gym in West Hollywood.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

What if?

That was THE question consuming most of my thoughts during the pandemic. What if football season wasn’t canceled? What if I was still physically in school? What if this virus affects my goals and dreams forever? As a high school senior, I’d been looking forward to playing football with my teammates in what could’ve been my most important and impactful season. Sadly, my experience was the opposite. The pandemic overshadowed everything and there was nothing I could do to get back on the field. I felt powerless.

While I had enough highlights on film from my junior year to get recruited, many seniors I knew were not as lucky. They were desperate to play, to show their talents and secure a spot on a college team. With a delayed start date and an extremely short season, high school football resumed in California, resulting in a drop of college football openings. Still, I looked for opportunities to become a better athlete. I spent the whole pandemic year preparing for the next chapter of my life. I had some lifting equipment at home and family friends offered me their home gyms to continue training. Most of the tracks around my neighborhood were closed; I found parks with ample room to run.

Max Menache takes a break from working out

Max Menache takes a break from working out at a home gym in West Hollywood.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Although this past year was quite unpredictable, it seems we are starting to win the fight against the pandemic. I think the worst is behind us as we now have a better understanding of the virus. Life is slowly going back to normal. I’m headed to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., where I will play football and track. I can’t wait to hear the crowd cheering us on. I’m looking forward to attending classes and meeting my professors and classmates in person instead of spending my days staring at a screen. I’m really excited for what the future holds.

Trainer Malachi Davis takes a selfie with Max Menache, from left, his brother Dan and friend Jackson Herseu

Trainer Malachi Davis takes a selfie with Max Menache, from left, his brother Dan and friend Jackson Herseu before a workout session at a home gym in West Hollywood.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Emily Chen, 17, senior, San Gabriel High School

Emily Chen rehearses for the school play "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" on Zoom from home in Alhambra.

Emily Chen rehearses for the school play “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” on Zoom from home in Alhambra.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The surprise of this pandemic isolation year is finding out I am capable of being a homebody. By nature, I am very gregarious, love to perform, always very involved in everything at school, very social. My perfect day pre-COVID-19 would have been being in a crowd of friends. Now I take comfort in my room and don’t feel the urge to go out — and rarely do.

During the lockdown, two things helped me and were basically my only social interaction. The six of us in the Young Aspiring Writers With Power (YAWP) club had weekly check-ins to share our highs and lows. Then, because no sports were permitted, I started a twice-weekly Zoom workout for our cross-country and track team members. This spring, Zoom auditioned for the SGHS May musical production “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and got the part of Sally, Charlie’s little sister. The Zoom rehearsals have been great experience for all of us.

Emily Chen rehearses for a school play at home.

Emily Chen rehearses for a school play at home.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

I watched my older sister go to prom and graduation and couldn’t wait for my turn. I have a prom replacement plan with two friends to go to my sister’s backyard in our dresses, socially distanced, to make some sort of memory.

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I applied to 15 colleges and it was very hard to find the motivation in solitary confinement. I am deciding between UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. But I am persistent, maybe even stubborn, and do everything until I finish. I won’t give up.

Emily Chen in her room during the pandemic

For Emily Chen, the surprise of this year in pandemic isolation was finding out she was capable of being a homebody.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Julio Flores, 17, senior, Alain Leroy Locke College Preparatory Academy

Julio Flores, right, plays soccer with his brothers Angel and David after school at home

Julio Flores, right, plays soccer with his brothers Angel, left, and David after their classes on Zoom outside their home in Los Angeles.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Being a senior in the 2020-21 school year is hard for everyone. It’s difficult to not experience memorable activities like prom, homecoming, graduation and so much more.

Being at home in distance learning while taking care of younger siblings has been a difficult challenge because things go sideways, like having a power outage, Wi-Fi outages, technical difficulties with devices. I have to make split decisions to make sure me and my brothers are fully learning and not missing anything.

Julio Flores, center, plays video games with his brothers Angel, left, and David

Julio Flores, center, plays video games with his brothers Angel, left, and David after school.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Academics is just the tip of the iceberg. Being at home means chores and helping my siblings. It can get difficult looking toward the future — applying to college, scholarships, financial aid etc. … I decided to find a way to let it all out and take my mind off things. What better way to relieve stress than to work out. I invited my brothers to join me, bonding, being healthy and creating memories.

Late in the evening, waiting for my parents to come home, I help in any way I can. We bond as a family watching a movie, playing video games or simply talking about our day. I am enjoying the time I have with them before moving away to my dream school.

This year has definitely taught me to conquer and overcome anything and stay dedicated to my goals for the best.

Julio will attend UC Merced.

Julio Flores, right, with brothers Angel, left, and David, do schoolwork at home

Julio Flores, right, with brothers Angel, left, and David, do schoolwork at home in Los Angeles.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Maxime Garcia, 17, senior, Whitney High School, Cerritos

Maxime Garcia with her dog Mocha in her bedroom

Maxime Garcia with her dog Mocha at home in Cerritos.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

School has always been my second home. I live two minutes away, so I was happily there from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., participating in all the activities I could. Since seventh grade, I’ve got involved in everything and have always been able to overcome obstacles in my way, until the pandemic hit. All of a sudden, my life vanished; no more staying late to make decorations, no more weekend drama practices, and nothing to keep me active. For months, I was walking from my bed to the kitchen, with the occasional stop to pet my dog, and that was it.

I cried for weeks when it was confirmed we wouldn’t be going back. I had been waiting for five years to relax and enjoy all the perks of being a senior. I had no choice but to focus on college and move on. I was lucky to have a few close friends supporting me. We’ve talked almost every day and for first semester, I would do online school with one of my friends, since we had all of the same classes! When the holiday spike hit, we had to do online school on our own and my motivation took a huge decline, especially as a second-semester senior.

Maxime Garcia, right, takes costumes from her friend Jazlyn Cariaga for a virtual school play

Maxime Garcia, right, picks up borrowed costumes from her friend Jazlyn Cariaga for a virtual school play.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Compared to the beginning of the year, when there was lots of buzz and anticipation to return, I do not want to go back to school in person.

Maxime Garcia attends class via Zoom from her home in Cerritos

Maxime Garcia attends class via Zoom from her home in Cerritos.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

We want to focus on a safe, in-person graduation. I want to celebrate with my classmates one last time before we go our separate ways, and have it be as safe as possible for all of us.

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Maxime will attend Cal State Long Beach.

Maxime Garcia talks on the phone outside her house

Maxime Garcia talks to a friend on the phone from outside her home in Cerritos.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Ryan Fung, 17, San Gabriel High School

Ryan Fung attends class by Zoom sitting on a patio

Ryan Fung attends class via Zoom from the patio of his sister’s home in Santa Ana.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

I’ve learned that life can change in a moment. So my pandemic lesson is to take action right away on something I really want to do. You can’t get time back.

I am an outgoing person and I found I was losing motivation when I was alone at home all day. My parents work long hours, so I moved in with my older sister and now we hike and bake banana bread when she is not working and I’m not doing homework. I also started a Zoom game night with some friends and that’s been good for all of us.

Ryan Fung stirs food cooking in a pot on a stove

Ryan Fung prepares a meal at his sister’s home.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It is hard to miss out on the senior prom and the graduation ceremony. I am a first-generation college-bound immigrant kid, so applying for college is something I knew nothing about. It’s been super-challenging not to be able to walk into the counselor’s office to ask a question.

My coping skill is tenacity, not giving up. My teachers have helped motivate me. I like to finish strong. I am worried about classmates for whom school was their safe space.

Ryan will attend Brown University or Dartmouth College.

Ryan Fung sits at a computer

Ryan Fung participates in a meeting of his Zoom club.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Alya Mehrtash, 17, senior, Beverly Hills High School

Alya Mehrtash, from left, Maryann Han and Sara Schwartz hold up tennis rackets while practicing a dance on a tennis court

Alya Mehrtash, from left, Maryann Han and Sara Schwartz hold up tennis rackets while practicing a dance on a tennis court in perpetration for an upcoming soccer team bonding activity in Beverly Hills.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Since I was in middle school, I’ve always imagined my picture-perfect senior year, and as I witnessed many older friends of mine experience that throughout my first three years at BHHS, the anticipation for my own senior year only grew. Not being able to experience that ideal situation that I’ve always looked forward to has been devastating, to say the least. I’ve discussed this with some of my peers before, and many of us agree that, so far, it really has felt like we’re doing junior year all over again rather than experiencing senior year and all the unforgettable experiences that are supposed to come with it, like prom, for example.

Of course, there have been both pros and cons to online school: I can easily roll out of bed two minutes before class starts and still be early, I can snack whenever I want, the list goes on. But I’m someone who thrives off of human interaction. I love being around people, and COVID has obviously made that incredibly difficult. I miss my relatives, my friends, my teammates and my teachers more than I can really describe.

Alya Mehrtash, a senior at Beverly Hills High School

Alya Mehrtash says she has grown to appreciate things that she once overlooked during the pandemic year.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

As time has gone by, however, I’ve grown to accept that these are the cards that I’ve been dealt, and I’m really trying to make the most of it whenever I get the chance. This is not to say that this has been easy, but it’s something that has definitely helped me enjoy certain aspects of my abnormal senior year more.

This last year has really tested me and a lot of my friends. We’ve been posed with obstacles we would have never even imagined two years ago, but it’s also greatly contributed to my growth as a student, leader and individual. I’m still upset about the way my senior year has panned out thus far, but I’ve also grown to appreciate so many things I once overlooked, like the power of a seemingly simple hug, and that is something I will definitely carry with me in the future. I’m hopeful for the rest of the year, and I’m looking forward to closing out my high school experience with my friends in whatever COVID-safe ways we can.

Alya Mehrtash rides a scooter

Alya Mehrtash rides a scooter.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Raven Ferrer, 18, senior, Mark Keppel High School, Alhambra

Raven Ferrer does schoolwork on a laptop while dining at home in Monterey Park.

Raven Ferrer does schoolwork on a laptop while dining at home in Monterey Park.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

This is my second year in the Aspiring Medical Professionals Academy, which is a school within a school at Mark Keppel High. The academy lead, Ms. [Lakia] Mozell, tells us the AMP experience gives us a great foot in the door for the Cal State nursing program. I’m interested in becoming a PA [physician’s assistant] or a physician or maybe being in healthcare administration.

In mid-April, I am opting to return to the AUSD [Alhambra Unified School District] in-person afternoon enrichment classes to work with Ms. Mozell for the upcoming pharmacy tech exam.

Raven Ferrer attends a Zoom meeting at home in Monterey Park.

Raven Ferrer attends a Zoom meeting at home in Monterey Park.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The hardest part of this COVID year has been being constantly online — I feel like I am on call the entire day and it is draining. It’s challenging, but now online learning feels normal. Since elementary school I’ve always been an overachiever

I learned I am more resilient than I thought and realized I can’t sink into self-pity — I learned to pick myself up quickly. And I found a change of scene helped. So I’d “vacation” at my grandmother’s.

Raven will attend UC San Diego.

Raven Ferrer takes a nap after a full day of Zoom classes and meetings at home

Raven Ferrer takes a nap after a full day of Zoom classes and meetings at home in Monterey Park.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Kendall Tam, 18, senior, Mark Keppel High School, Alhambra

Kendall Tam works at a computer at her home in Monterey Park.

Kendall Tam does homework for an economics class in her bedroom at her home in Monterey Park as her mom, Mylan, walks by.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

What I learned during the pandemic lockdown is I am more independent than I knew. I found out it’s OK to be by myself.

But hardest thing about this year has been being alone — just not seeing anyone at all.

We invented new ways to connect. As part of ASB (Associative Student Body), we started a podcast KUWK — Keeping Up With Keppel — to help all the students stay connected.

Kendall Tam, foreground, takes part in basketball drills with teammates on an outdoor court

Kendall Tam, foreground, takes part in basketball drills with teammates at Mark Keppel High School during their first week back at practice in a year.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Since we had no basketball at school until March 26, I’ve been running with my brother and practicing shooting and dribbling at home.

It was hard to motivate myself to write the college application essays but I would write one and take the next day off and look at it again. I want to be a teacher or a counselor. This year has gone by fast — even with no school on campus.

Kendall will attend UC Riverside or UC Irvine.

Kendall Tam, left, sits outside talking with teammate Emily Liu before basketball practice.

Kendall Tam, left, talks with teammate Emily Liu before basketball practice.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

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