Before the pandemic, Nasim Martin’s every moment seemed to be accounted for. If the straight-A student wasn’t working on classwork or dual-enrollment college assignments at Fountain-Fort Carson High School, he was running track, playing basketball or squeezing in time with friends.
Once COVID-19 hit and Martin, now 18, found himself barred from so many of the activities that normally structured his day, he was left with something foreign to him: time for self-reflection.
“When the pandemic happened, the first thing that changed for me was my mindset,” Martin said. “I was no longer focused on just myself.”
Colorado’s seniors weathered a most unusual end to their high school experience thanks to COVID-19, which reshaped nearly every aspect of the last year, starting with abrupt school closures in March 2020. As they started their last academic year in the fall, there was still little certainty about how schools would operate amidst the public health crisis.
The seniors who spoke to The Denver Post said they worried about maintaining their grades in a virtual learning environment and having access to resources such as school counselors. Few could be prepared for the whiplash of switching between in-person and online classes, as schools adapted to new COVID-19 protocols.
“I learned how very dependent I was,” said Emilyann Owens, a senior at the Early College of Arvada. “I had to learn how to be independent because of the pandemic, like managing my own schedule and just like not losing myself in everything happening. My whiteboard became my bible.”
Living through a global pandemic changed the lives of Colorado’s high school seniors, who said the disruption to daily life and school activities resulted in ample time alone with their thoughts. The introspection, students said, bred developments both beneficial — college majors changed upon soul-searching — and challenging, such as mental health struggles.
As they stand on the brink of graduation, one thing the seniors had in common was enthusiasm about the future, even if it wasn’t what they originally had in mind.
Eric Montes, 17, a senior at West Leadership Academy, poses for a portrait at his home in Denver on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Charting a new course
The extra time alone with his thoughts opened Martin’s eyes to the current events swirling around him, including the virus and racial justice. The high school senior said his mourning for the loss of a normal senior year transformed into an appreciation of learning, inside and outside the classroom.
“I realized how much more important education is because there’s a lot going on in the world,” Martin said. “Knowledge and lack of knowledge matters so much.”
When Martin’s sports were put on hold, the athlete’s dreams of going to college for basketball skidded to a stop, too. Rather than pursue a degree in sports medicine, the pandemic gave Martin time to consider that a business degree at the University of Northern Colorado might be more rewarding.
Maria Tovar, a senior at Denver’s Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, can relate.
Like many graduates, Tovar originally planned to pursue a degree to appease her parents and teachers, who encouraged her to study engineering. But with unfettered time to explore her passions, the 17-year-old decided it was time to pave her own path. She plans to major in apparel design and merchandising at Colorado State University when she enrolls this fall.
“During this pandemic, I got to stop caring about what other people had to say, and I got to learn about myself and the hobbies I was into — for example, fashion,” Tovar said. “I feel like that’s my way of expressing myself. It just allowed me to be confident and love myself more.”
Some students, like Denver West High School senior Eric Montes, were more directly inspired by COVID-19.
At the beginning of the school year, Montes had the opportunity to take a class from the University of Colorado Denver and chose a public health course, something he admits may not have seemed intriguing if not for the pandemic. That course sparked an interest in sociology, which Montes now expects to study further when he attends Stanford University this fall.
“I saw that was something I was really passionate in, as opposed to prior to the pandemic, when I was really STEM-heavy and really focused on biology, chemistry, lab sciences,” he said.
Paula Cerros Liceaga, 17, a senior at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts, poses for a portrait in front of the school building in Thornton on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Several seniors’ post-graduation plans were influenced by firsthand experience with COVID-19.
Paula Cerros Liceaga, for one, always dreamed of going to college out of state, branching out from her hometown of Thornton to grow and learn somewhere new. But after the pandemic hit close to home, she changed course.
It was the first day of wrestling practice when Cerros Liceaga found out her beloved uncle in Mexico died of COVID-19. Then both her great-grandmother and great-grandfather were hospitalized with the virus. The 17-year-old decided spending her college years closer to home at Colorado State was for the best.
“I will be living on campus, but I just want to be close to (family),” said Cerros Liceaga, a senior at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts. “This way, they can help me out with something if I need it. We’re the only family we have here. It’s really important, especially during this time, to stay together as much as possible.”
Owens did not get sick with COVID-19, but she witnessed her best friend’s dad battle the disease.
Owens has committed to Vanderbilt University, which is helping research, develop and test the Moderna vaccine. While she said it was scary to watch someone close to her suffer, it also gave her something of a higher calling.
“That was one of the reasons I decided to do a double-major in biomedical engineering,” Owens said. “I realized how much vaccines help people, especially since where I’m going to college is contributing to this whole thing in a positive way.”
Rosy Juarez, 17, a senior at John F. Kennedy High School, poses for a portrait at the empty parking lot of the school in Denver on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Hope for a more normal year
Though the seniors said they have plenty to be excited about, they acknowledged the many challenges they had to overcome this year.
Before the pandemic, Rosy Juarez was buzzing around Denver’s John F. Kennedy High School, keeping up with volleyball, dance, track, good grades and extracurricular clubs.
“I was full of motivation,” said Juarez, 17. “It was all going great. I was everywhere doing what was best for me. I had a plan. After the pandemic, that changed drastically.”
Restricted from all the things that kept her busy and filled with fear about the virus, Juarez said her motivation tanked.
“I have had some mental health issues throughout the pandemic,” said Juarez, who was prescribed depression medication. “It’s really draining. It takes a toll on my self-esteem. I feel lazy since I don’t have that motivation to get things done, but I know it’s just because of what I’m experiencing. It just makes me feel really down since this is something I wouldn’t normally do. It’s new, and it’s hard.”
The unusual academic year even made Juarez reconsider going to Metropolitan State University of Denver in the fall, though she ultimately decided to enroll.
The uncertainty of the pandemic had other students weighing the pros and cons of college in the fall, said Lorii Rabinowitz, CEO of the Denver Scholarship Foundation. This year, students appeared to take longer deciding where they wanted to attend college as they awaited details of what the fall semester might look like, she said.
Colorado State and Stanford are among the many higher education institutions requiring students to be vaccinated before attending classes in the fall. Both Tovar and Montes, who are attending those colleges respectively, support the requirement and already have been vaccinated. They both also contended they would more likely take a gap year if the universities only offered virtual classes, especially considering they were robbed of many of the senior year traditions like prom.
“Being at home 1,000 miles away is not the way I want to experience college,” Montes said. “I want to able to live in dorms and hang out with my friends.”
Graduates, friends, families and educators gather during the Northglenn High School graduation ceremony at North Stadium on Thursday, May 13, 2021.
Graduation is poised to be one bright spot.
As the number of people getting vaccinated increases across Colorado and the weather warms up, schools are planning in-person commencement ceremonies, many of which will take place outdoors in the coming weeks with social distancing to allow for guests.
In Denver Public Schools and Jeffco Public Schools, for example, each graduate is able to invite four people to watch them walk the stage.
It’s a welcome, if incremental, shift to normalcy, the seniors said — one they hope will lead to a more recognizable rest of the year.
Cerros Liceaga is planning to wear a traditional Mexican dress for her graduation and decorate her cap to commemorate her parents. Tovar and Owens are hoping to make summer travel plans. And Juarez is simply looking forward to getting back into a routine at MSU.
“I’m actually excited to have assignments again and having a schedule and getting a better routine,” Juarez said. “I’m excited to learn new things and expand my knowledge. Even though I don’t know what I’m going to be doing yet, I want to have an education.”
This content was originally published here.