New Erie Grads Prove Resilient
Pandemic instills lasting lessons
At a small family gathering on May 31, I watched my granddaughter Molly's livestreamed graduation. On June 11, I clicked on Vimeo for the previously recorded graduation ceremony for my grandson Cam.
Cam was supposed to graduate in Waldorf, Md., on May 28; Molly's graduation from Harbor Creek High School had been set for June 4.
COVID-19 not only changed graduation dates and formats, the virus also upended the last months of senior year for my grandkids and their peers.
We've all read the accounts of young people who were upset that they couldn't compete in their final sports seasons, attend prom, or celebrate with throngs of family and friends at post-graduation parties.
But when I interviewed 10 Erie area teens, I learned that these newly minted grads are readily adapting to what we call the "new normal" of life during a pandemic.
This doesn't mean that everything is rosy. Some teens have had to put college on hold. Those who are heading off to school are somewhat uneasy about whether enough is being done to protect them from the virus.
Yet as they move to the next stage of their lives, they all have lessons to share about education, resilience, and innovation in the age of COVID.
Mike Wassolu, 17, didn't have difficulty switching to online learning for his auto mechanics classes at Erie High. Students already had been using the web at school to learn which tools are used for various types of auto repairs; they got new passwords to continue those lessons online at home.
Wassolu was well-prepared to adapt to change. When he arrived here in fifth grade from Burundi, in East Africa, "I did not know any English except for greetings," he said. Now he speaks the language perfectly.
"The best part of coming here was the great opportunity for education. We (in the U.S.) have a better education and everybody has a better future," said Wassolu, who plans to study engineering at Gannon University or Penn State Behrend.
Elaina Lawson, 19, is a graduate of both Girard High School, her home school, and Erie County Technical School, where she studied drafting and design. Most of her County Tech classes already required the use of computer software. When she had to switch to classes at home, she and her classmates had to complete some assignments using Word instead of technical software. "It was a pretty easy process," she said, because by that point in senior year, students had mastered most of the skills they needed to graduate.
Lawson, who plans to become an architect, had landed an internship with Erie architect Michael Grab but she only got to spend a week at the office before the shutdown. Now she's doing projects for him online. She hopes she'll be allowed to return to the office before she starts school at Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, where she will study architecture and sustainable design. The move-in date for freshmen has been extended to two days instead of one to allow for social distancing. Food will be served as takeout, rather than communal dining.
Villa Maria Academy graduate Lara Glendenning, 18, who will study electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, has some reservations about completely replacing classroom education with online learning. During her years of schooling, there has been wide recognition that kids have different learning styles, she said.
"I've been a relatively high-achieving student, but I couldn't have done nearly as much without actually experiencing and seeing exactly how the teacher was delivering (the lessons)," she said. Doing that via Zoom is much harder, she said. "For my education, I learned a lot in the classroom but I really got close to my teachers, and that was so valuable. It gave me not only knowledge … but gave me the basis for how to interact with people and how to talk to people besides your parents. That was very valuable growing up."
Her college will open on its regular schedule, but students will be able to choose among in-person and online classes. She wonders, though, about other colleges that will start early, offer classes on weekends, eliminate breaks, and finish by Thanksgiving.
In addition to coping with the pandemic, college students "will have no breaks to just breathe," she said. Such an accelerated schedule will be difficult in high-pressure environments, she said.
Abdulah Sadeik, 18, studied pre-engineering at Erie High and will major in electrical engineering at Gannon University. He, too, said there were disadvantages to taking his last high school courses online rather than in school. "It's just harder," he said. "In manufacturing and anything technical, it's hands-on. You can't learn it by just theory alone. Unless there's an instructor and someone proficient (teaching), you won't know what you are doing."
Collegiate Academy graduate Chonje Hassan, 18, planned to study nursing in college immediately after high school but is "taking a little break" so she can get a job and save money for school.
But adjusting to new circumstances is nothing new for Hassan, whose family is originally from Somalia. Born in Kenya, she came here at age 3. "Seeing all the people of different colors surprised me, but I was taught that the place I was in was going to help me with my education," she said. "Fast forward to now. I got my diploma, but not under the circumstances I expected. Our class was hit the hardest when it came to the pandemic, but our generation proves time and again that it can adjust and accept whatever comes at them. The protests proved how much we stick together for a cause or situation," she said.
Regina Malango, 18, an Erie High graduate, did not know English when she started second grade in Erie after arriving here from Tanzania with her family, who had fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
She mentioned the benefit of educational opportunities available in this country. "The good experiences are the opportunities that we didn't have back where we are from," said Malango, who will study criminal justice at Gannon University.
But adapting to a new country was difficult at times. "Some people ... might treat you differently," she said. She had to learn to be "confident and proud of where I am from." One of her disappointments is that she didn't get to wear her long dress in an African print to what would have been her first prom.
Collegiate graduate Tatiana Lamberty, 17, had been accepted to Akron University for nursing and Edinboro University of Pennsylvania for criminal justice but will put off college for a year because she is pregnant with a son, due in September. As an expectant mother, "You're more in jeopardy for easily catching something, like corona," she said.
She plans to go to college next year for a career in health care. "Nursing is something I will still try to accomplish. Being in an environment of helping people and saving lives is something I look forward to. I believe this (the pandemic) has opened many eyes of people who take things like school and work for granted, because it did for me," she said.
Ben Wyrosdick, 18, a Collegiate Academy graduate, will attend Penn State Behrend to major in economics and minor in political science or accounting. He plans to later transfer to Penn State's main campus and then attend law school.
Wyrosdick wasn't enamored with the coursework he had to complete online in the months before graduation. "It was like background work," he said. "Learning was severely limited."
But there was more to learn during the school shutdown than just academics. "Ironically, the quarantine has helped me to grow," said Wyrosdick. "Staying at home when most people are working has allowed me to become much more of an independent person," he said.
Wyrosdick has been working at Donatos Pizza since October and recently started a second job at Sheetz. He likes the "socialization" aspect of working at Donatos, but said the pandemic hasn't affected his other friendships. "It allowed us to kind of separate at an easy pace, rather than having that awkward slide (right before college)," he said. In addition, as an online gamer, a lot of his friendships are online, with people who live out of state.
Chloe Robison, 18, a Villa Maria Academy graduate, will major in exercise and sports science on a pre-med track at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. Her college classes are supposed to start on time, but she's a little uneasy that she will be rooming with two other students. "I feel like that's not super safe at the moment," she said.
Like other teens, she missed not participating in the milestones of senior year. "It definitely stinks but I think it made every one of us in this generation stronger and shaped us into innovators," she said. "We will be more flexible and adaptable to things that might happen in the future."
Her Villa classmate, Olivia Sanders, 18, will major in pre-med at the University of Notre Dame, where classes begin Aug. 10, two weeks earlier than the original start date. She won't find out about housing until July 2, which will definitely mean "a little more adjusting," she said.
But those changes are minor to what she has learned because of the pandemic. She and the other class speakers at the Villa and Cathedral Prep graduations focused on the theme "Enduring Much, Achieving More."
In her speech, Olivia opened by reminding her classmates that they had been born at the time of 9/11. "There was so much uncertainty during that time, so much fear, so much worry, yet so much strength," she said in her speech.
She talked about those strengths in an interview. "Prom and graduation would have been nice, but I'm just happy everyone is safe. It's woken us up to what's really important in life," she said.
Lawson, the graduate from Erie County Tech and Girard, said she knows several people who were the first ones in their families to graduate from high school. It was disappointing that their families couldn't celebrate that accomplishment in the traditional way, she said. But, she said, "In reality, the only other thing that really matters is that we graduated. Even if there isn't a ceremony, we know that we did it. In the big scale of things, it's better off having everyone safe."
Sadeik, the Erie High graduate, knows firsthand about overcoming challenges. His family went from Iraq to Syria and then to Turkey after the Iraq War started. Nearly 12 when his family moved to Erie, he had taught himself the "basics" of English when they were living in Turkey. "Other than that, I did not know that much stuff," he said.
He decided to become an engineer because he likes problem-solving. Dealing with the pandemic is one more challenge. "It's another hardship that we have to overcome," he said. "We're strong and we can get through it. That's my thought process."
Hassan, the Collegiate Academy graduate who will work to save up for college so she can become a nurse, was crushed at first that the virus made it impossible for her to graduate in the traditional way.
"I came to this point for my parents and family. I accepted life in America, learned English, passed all my middle school classes, got into Collegiate Academy, and now could graduate," she said. But there are lessons from this experience, she said. "What do I think this has taught me? A lot. Perseverance, dedication, hope. But at the very least, I was able to walk across the stage with my family. A girl who once had no dream finally accomplished it."
Liz Allen expects to be in good hands in her old age because both of her graduating grandchildren want to become doctors. You can reach her at email@example.com.