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The Year of the Resilient Graduates

Last year we highlighted the class of 2020 in our blog to remind them that they are not alone missing out on their rites of passage and that it's okay if they were feeling sad about it. While it is not what we hoped, it is looking like the class of 2021 could be in a similar boat this year. However, this has been a difficult year for many so we wanted to feature some positivity on our blog this week. We checked back in with all of the students and parents from our 2020 blog post to hear about how their year has been and how they are doing one year post-graduation.

You remember their first day of school like it was yesterday. You stuffed their little bookbags with pencils and erasers and held their hand on the way into school or all the way to the bus stop. These 12+ years probably flew by and with them came hard exams, IEP meetings, friendships, and a lot of growth. Many parents struggle with their children's primary education ending and wipe tears away from their eyes as they watch their children walk across the graduation stage and into a new phase of life. This wasn't the case for the class of 2020. This class had to trade in their caps, and gowns (both graduation and prom) for zoom lectures and online finals. If you think back to your own last day of high school you may be able to remember how you felt walking out of those hallways you knew so well for the last time. Your life was no longer dictated by the ringing of bells and with the exception of a handful of friends many people who were daily facets in your life became merely a photo in a yearbook.

The class of 2020 didn't have that surreal feeling and they probably never will. They were not aware that when they packed up their books to head home because of a virus that is quite possibly could have been their very last time in those hallways and with those people. A graduation ceremony is intended to celebrate the hard work that the students, teachers, and parents have put in. It ties a nice bow on the first two decades of your child's life and helps to prepare themselves for whatever is coming next. Without this, the class of 2020 found themselves at the kitchen table submitting their very last assignment and graduating high school without neither pomp nor circumstance.

What makes it worse is the time of year that it hit. The last two months of senior year are what many students work the first 11 years for. All throughout school students hear stories of sports senior nights, prom, senior skip day, and more. These last months are not void of education but many schools use this as a time to really allow seniors to make memories that will last a lifetime. A Bucks County high school senior shared with us his internal struggle; "It was a weird feeling missing out on what everyone reminisces on. Though it is very minor compared to what others are going through it still feels like I was robbed of memories."

This then high school senior, now college freshman feels like the end of high school was "a lifetime ago." "I remember being so upset about missing graduation and prom and everything. What I failed to realize is how much this would impact my freshman year of college. My school has been really strict about COVID so I have not been able to make friends and have fun like I always thought I would in college. While I am sad about this past year I am proud of myself for getting through it and doing well in my classes. I think people are going to be so excited to actually leave our dorm rooms that next year is going to be a great year full of friends and actually doing things like going to football games. In terms of my education, I don't feel like I was able to connect with my professors this year over zoom and email so I am eager to get into my classes and build those relationships with them. All in all, it was an okay year but it has made me appreciate what we once considered 'normal.' I have a lot to look forward to and as much as learning online sucked I got a lot of my gen eds out of the way so when I actually get in the classroom I'll be learning what I came to college to learn."

College seniors were in a very similar boat. College is not cheap and can put a financial strain on the student and their family. Some students hold the distinct honor of being the first in their family to graduate from college. Minorities, immigrants, and low-income families fight very hard to give their children good opportunities, and their child walking across a graduation stage is much more than a photo-op. It is time to celebrate the sacrifice and hard work made by the entire family. The class of 2020 and their families did not get to bask in this celebration and mothers, fathers, siblings, and grandparents did not get to see their loved ones being celebrated. We spoke to a senior at West Chester University who mentioned that college itself had a very negative impact on her mental health. Anxiety and depression plagued her during her junior year and graduation didn't feel guaranteed for her. When thinking about how missing the end of her senior year feels she explained;

"Junior year was a time of loneliness and desperation. It was the first time it set in that it was possible I wouldn’t make it all. Pushing through and ensuring success was one of the most difficult things I had ever been though, and getting to celebrate that triumph was my driving force. Missing out on graduation was more than a disappointment, it was crushing and hurtful, and nothing will make up for celebration you expected. It was supposed to make it all worthwhile."

Hearing these words last year broke our hearts so when we checked in with her we were elated to hear that not only does she have a fantastic job that she loves; she has since gotten to experience a COVID-safe graduation. "Now I am actually a middle school teacher. It has been incredibly rewarding to help kids get through this year. It's been tough being completely virtual my first year as a teacher but I get to help my students navigate virtual learning and have kept their mental health as a top priority in my classroom. My college offered a safe way for us to celebrate graduation back in April and my family made a huge deal about it and it meant a lot to me. Even if it was a year late it felt amazing to get to celebrate my accomplishments."

As for parents, the loss of graduation is just as gutwrenching. We spoke to Montgomery County parents who are very saddened to not see their last child walk across the very same stage as had their older children. They were supposed to have one more lacrosse season, one more set of prom pictures, and one more walk across that stage. "It's the missing of an exclamation point on top of the last 13 years of your life. The closure of high school relationships and getting to start new college ones" said the father. The mother felt a similar sentiment when explaining that she felt like although it didn't compare to the people who have lost jobs, or heaven forbid loved ones, in all of this her son had still lost a lot. "A lost opportunity to say goodbye to their teachers, a lost opportunity to celebrate with their classmates, no graduation ceremony to celebrate with their loved ones; it's a lot of loss for him."

These parents explained to us that their son had a decent first year of school. "Obviously, it's not what he or we had hoped for but it was a good start to his college career. We took the pressure off for obvious reasons but he has been able to maintain his grades. I don't think he has been able to make a ton of friends but he and his roommate (who was a friend from high school) seem even closer than ever and didn't end up resenting each other even though they barely left their dorm room. We are really proud of him and happy that when he was struggling with his mental health he reached out to us. He is a strong kid that got through this year and we are hopeful that this upcoming year he will get his college experience," said dad.

For parents of children with social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenges it is even harder. You have held your own in IEP meetings, advocated for your child to get the education they needed, and supported your child every step of the way. You had countless frustrating times trying to help your children do their homework at the kitchen table and had sleepless nights worrying about them and their education. This was supposed to be a milestone that you and your family had been reaching for since your child first started school and there was no ceremony to mark that victory.

We wanted our families to know that what they were feeling was and remains valid. You weren't selfish to feel sad and angry by the loss of your child's senior year. While we encourage you to feel and express every emotion that you have we also want to remind you that you are not alone. The entire class of 2020 from coast to coast and all of their loved ones were feeling these feelings too. Ironically the world has never felt so connected and people across the country were doing what they could to make this time special for the class of 2020 and now perhaps for the class of 2021.

From us here at PA Parent and Family Alliance, we want to tell the class of 2020 and class of 2021; congratulations! Your hard work has not gone unnoticed. To the parents, guardians, grandparents, aunts, and uncles we want to say "Thank You!" for doing all you have done to raise our future leaders. While there may be no traditional graduation there is definitely a reason to celebrate. Always remember that if you need a non-judgemental person in your corner reach out to one of our FSP's for FREE and CONFIDENTIAL 1 on 1 support.

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