In addition to being a time to praise the biggest achievement in a young person’s life so far, graduating from high school often marks a teenager’s initial steps into adulthood. The coronavirus may have claimed much of the final weeks at school, and with it the right-of-passage parties and get-togethers, but most students remain rightfully proud of their accomplishment as they look ahead.
“I’ve always found a way to become involved in some way,” said West Ashley High School graduate Kim McCurdy. “I really just have a lot of school spirit and I overall really loved high school, especially this last year. I couldn’t imagine having a better four years. I’ve been really grateful for the ways I’ve grown.”
After a few years at Palmetto Scholars Academy, a small charter school in North Charleston, McCurdy said she wanted a different experience for her high school years.
“I’ve always been a natural leader,” McCurdy said. “I just wanted to expand on my opportunities, so moving to a bigger public school was really good for me because I found DECA and ended up moving up the leadership ladder in that.”
She isn’t alone. A few years ahead of her, but sharing a strikingly similar story, is William Pugh, who attended Academic Magnet High School and graduated from Howard University this year. A native of Nashville, Tenn., who moved around a bit, Pugh always considered Charleston to be his home. After spending time at Princeton University before transferring to Howard, Pugh encouraged 2020 high school graduates to embrace the next period of their lives to learn and grow as adults.
“Their college years will be some of the most formative years in their lives,” Pugh said. “They will make new friends, be exposed to different people, cultures and ideas, and be presented with new opportunities for success and failure.”
“There’s a saying that ‘A smooth sea never made a skilled captain.’ It’s better to fail and make mistakes while you are young than decide to get adventurous when you are older and have more to lose. Now is the time to take risks and be bold.”
Around the time of spring break, initial pandemic alarm bells started going off for many students. The first inkling of trouble came when students were told they would get some extra time off from school, but some had gut feelings from the beginning that they wouldn’t be coming back until fall, and even that wasn’t certain.
“I knew from the start we weren’t going to go back to school,” McCurdy said. “I was just trying to be realistic, and I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I remember hearing about it and thinking, ‘Oh, it’s not going to happen over here.’ It was a really surreal moment.”
For many, spring break marks the apex of senior year. While exams loom on the horizon, the excitement of ceremonies, parties and events keeps stress at bay. Senior awards, banquets, prom and, of course, graduation, were just a few of the lost moments for the Class of 2020.
“I really missed out on just that sense of camaraderie with other seniors,” McCurdy said. “As things roll out, regardless of what situation you’re in, it’s that common ground everyone is on. We were all in the same position together, and we wanted to share those moments together.”
McCurdy isn’t the only one missing friends and classmates more than the celebrations. For many, it’s during the last year of high school when students really begin to get to know their teachers, building bonds that extend beyond the classroom.
“That was really tough for me,” said Sydney Clinton, a graduate from Fort Dorchester High School. “Most of my teachers I’ve had this year I’ve had for the last four. I’ve really had the opportunity to get to know them on a more personal level. They’ve really become mentors, not just academically, but as a human being.”
“Now, the opportunity to brace ourselves and say goodbye before leaving, we don’t get to do,” she said. “I’m really excited that we will get to see them again at graduation in June, because before we knew that, we just thought that we would never see them again.”
For Pugh, with or without the pomp and circumstance of ceremonies, grads should not miss a chance to reconnect with those who invested in them throughout their academic careers.
“Graduation is less about me as an individual, and more so something I was looking forward to as an opportunity for friends and family and mentors to come and celebrate with me,” he said. “I never looked at it as, ‘Look what I’ve done,’ but more like, ‘Look what we’ve done.'”
In an effort not to miss out on these chances for celebration and recognition, many schools have done what they can to ensure seniors are honored for their accomplishments, giving them and those around them along the way a chance to celebrate.
Schools are holding virtual graduations, with some offering make-up graduation ceremonies in the summer with some restrictions and social distance guidelines.
Regardless of whether they toss their caps, this year’s graduates are preparing for their future, a wide-open future after the coronavirus pandemic
“It’s just trying to find a happy medium between where we were before COVID and where we are now,” Clinton said. “We have to be mindful of the things we are doing as individuals and as a society do what we can to protect ourselves and each other. It’s just a matter of adjusting to this new normal that needs to occur.”
Graduates’ “new normals” may look different as they head their separate ways. Some schools, like Clemson University where McCurdy will enroll, have announced a return to in-person classes this fall. For other schools, plans are still in the works. Regardless of the uncertainty, Pugh believes this year’s graduates have already distinguished themselves for their ability to adapt in a changing world.
“It says a lot about our generation — we often get a bad rap in a lot of different ways,” Pugh said. “But, I’m proud of 2020 high school and college graduates for not turning this into an opportunity to voice our disdain, but focusing on ways that we can make the best out of a pretty bad situation.”