'It's been a year': Graduating seniors reflect on COVID pandemic, look to the future

Steven Spearie
State Journal-Register
Southeast High School senior Glen Gochenour is heading to Saint Louis University in the fall to study pre-med with hopes to become an emergency room doctor. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

About to be sent home with other Illinois students by Gov. JB Pritzker in an effort help stem the spread of COVID-19 on March 13, 2020, then-Southeast High School junior Glen Gochenour recalled discussing with another student how long they might be out.

Gochenour's friend told him the absence would be a short one. Gochenour said he thought schools would be back in April.

"Neither of us were correct, obviously," Gochenour said earlier this week. "I think there was a lot of underestimating the kind of impact it would have on all of us. It's been a year, for sure."

See also: District 186 school board, in 4-3 vote, opts to send students back under hybrid model

It would be almost 10 months to the day — Jan. 12, 2021 — that Gochenour would return to in-person learning under the hybrid model. For other seniors like Omarion Perez of Lanphier High School and Adepoju Arogundade of Glenwood High School in Chatham, there would be no return. Both were among students who opted to stay, for various reasons, with remote learning through the year.

Sensing the end of his academic career there, Arogundade did go back on the final day of school.

Lanphier senior Omarion Perez will be attending Harvard to study neuroscience with future  plans of medical school and becoming a neurosurgeon. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

"It was really nice to be able to see my teachers and friends I hadn't seen in pretty much over a year in person," Arogundade said.

Senior graduates said they have been formed by COVID-19 — and some say they are more resilient because of it — but they are also ready to get on with their college careers and futures post-pandemic.

As signs continue to point to a full reopening of the state next week, graduates are hoping for in-person learning on college campuses this summer and fall.

Previously: Pritzker orders all K-12 schools closed; Illinois confirms 46 coronavirus cases

Some feel like a good part of their senior year was "stolen" from them, including athletic seasons, extracurricular activities and traditions like prom and homecoming.

All are glad to be participating in formal graduation exercises Saturday — Lanphier at 11 a.m., Southeast at 2 p.m., Springfield High at 5 p.m., and Glenwood at 8 p.m. at the Bank of Springfield Center — as opposed to last year when graduation was limited to a "stage experience" because of a limit on crowd sizes.

"I just want to put all of this in the past," said Shane Miller, who is graduating from Springfield High. "I applaud all of the workers and the first responders and everyone for risking their lives, so we can be back to normal. There's still going to be complications of this virus in schools, but I can't wait until we get back to normal."

Springfield High School senior Shane Miller plans to play basketball this fall at Illinois Wesleyan University. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Like Gochenour, Miller thought he would have a couple of weeks off from school and then things would be fine.

"We didn't know how serious it was," Miller admitted.

As last summer progressed and the COVID numbers spiked, Miller was resigned to the fact that classes would start online in the fall.

Miller was dealing with other obstacles. He had torn the meniscus in his right knee playing football his junior season but soldiered on that way through the basketball season.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was no guarantee Miller's surgery would go on until surgeon Dr. Diane Hillard-Sembell stepped in to schedule it in April 2020.

The surgery meant Miller's summer AAU season, when colleges get a look at players and make scholarship offers, was wiped out, making his prospects uncertain at best.

"I couldn't get in the gym. I had to find rehab," recalled Miller, who will play basketball and major in sports management at Illinois Wesleyan University. "I was probably at my lowest point during the whole pandemic, not knowing where I was going to go next year. What my family always tells me is that God always has a plan and always has a purpose. He's going to do what he needs to do to get us where we need to be in life. I just prayed with him, with my family every night because I wanted to go somewhere after high school."

Adepoju Arogundade faced his own uncertainties at Glenwood.

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Sports schedules got changed around so Arogundade, a drum major in the marching band, missed out on several performances when the football season got moved to the spring and was compressed.

Also curtailed was travel and performances by Titan Fever, one of the top high school show choirs in the Midwest.

"There was a period in the fall," Arogundade recalled, "when (the Illinois High School Association) canceled a bunch of fall sports and activities. I was online, and some of my friends were in-person, and I felt like I was missing out because I wasn't able to see them as often as I did now."

For some, the pandemic unlocked new doors and meant new opportunities.

Glenwood senior Adepoju Arogundade plans on attending Bowdoin College to study earth and oceanographic science at Bowdoin College. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Gochenour, who played three sports at Southeast, took up another, cross country, one of the few activities the IHSA offered during the fall.

Arogundade was able to get into music production including making a song for his college music portfolio and generating a rap beat with some friends for an English class project.

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For Omarion Perez, it oriented him more intently to a dream he had harbored since middle school: getting into Harvard University with designs on being a neurosurgeon.

"Sometimes it was a struggle," admitted Perez, who stayed with remote learning because of family situations. "I've never experienced a loss of motivation (like this). I was always on top of things. There was a lot of scrambling to get things turned in.

"It definitely has shaped me. The pandemic taught me to be able to do things on my own and be able to be my own friend when no one else can physically be there."

Perez, Lanphier's valedictorian, admitted students wanted the normal high school experiences, from prom and other dances to hanging with their friends.

"I do feel like that in a sense the pandemic has stolen a lot of fun from me and from peers. It's stolen a lot of memories that could've been made," Perez said."But I've just kind of adapted this attitude, that it is what it is. We can't sulk about this past year. We can only hope and pray for the future.

"We have to look forward and plan to make memories in the future and plan to make our futures brighter than this year has been."

While he was rueful of having a lot of his senior experiences stolen, Miller was mindful of a bigger picture.

"We all knew that people's lives' were affected and the people who passed away (from COVID-19), they were far greater than our needs," Miller said. "We kind of sacrificed something to where (other students) can get back to normal in the upcoming year."

"I wouldn't say (anything) was stolen from me. People lost family members," Gochenour added. "I don't think (anything) was taken from us because I learned not to take things for granted anymore."

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One of the biggest lessons Gochenour said he learned from the pandemic and will take with him to Saint Louis University, where he will major in pre-medicine, is learning to lean on friends and family and helping support one another.

"It's OK to ask friends for help or just to lift you up mentally," he said. "I definitely think that it's OK to be vulnerable sometimes."

Arogundade is bound for Bowdoin College to study earth and oceanographic science with an eye towards counteracting climate change. 

"I'm going to feel super prepared to be able to tackle any challenge I face," he said. "You can't get much more worse than (a global pandemic). It's made me a little more resilient to challenge hardships and difficulties, so I do feel more hopeful coming out of this pandemic."

Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com, twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.