Their year included wearing masks, standing 6 feet apart and taking classes through a computer screen. And they’ll tell you quick how difficult it was enduring the worst pandemic in a century.
But they did it.
Over the past two weeks, seniors graduated from high schools across Guilford County. Mentors helped them get there. But they also helped themselves. They even surprised themselves on what they accomplished and had to do in the weirdest school year of their lives.
They all have stories, these 5,780 graduates from Guilford County Schools. Here are nine.
For six months over the past year, Jalen Thompson used the kitchen table as his classroom.
He’d park himself in front of his laptop and finish his homework or attend his classes at Western Guilford High School through a computer screen. Like every Guilford County student, Jalen couldn’t go to school because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Jalen also had another responsibility. He had to keep his stepbrother, first-grader Stanley Milton, on task. Stanley had to attend virtual class, too. So, at the kitchen table, Jalen sat to the right of Stanley and monitored his every move.
Jalen had to do it four days a week. His mom and his stepdad had to go to work. So, Jalen had to be the big brother with the big task.
“Sometimes, I got frustrated, more so when COVID first hit,” Jalen says. “I was watching him every single day, but I cut that out, that feeling. Had to. I kept thinking, ‘This is how life hits you. You gotta do it.’
“Some days, I’d wake up grumpy about what I had to do, but I kept thinking of my mom,” he says. “She had to go to work, and if we don’t have money, we can’t have a house. So, I knew I had to tough it out.”
Jalen graduated June 7 from Western Guilford. This fall, he’ll play football at Elizabeth City State University. At 5-feet-11, 250 pounds, Jalen’s big. Stanley is not. He’s 4-feet-6, and maybe, 70 pounds. But Stanley is big in Jalen’s book. He taught Jalen a lesson.
Keep going. No matter what.
Leslie Morales-Gallegos calls her day planner her “best friend.”
She bought it at Walmart last summer for $12. Along with a handful of Paper Mate ink pens, all different colors, Leslie kept track of her online classes at Kearns Academy and her full-time job as a cashier at Elizabeth’s Pizza.
She graduated May 27 from Kearns Academy, and her job helped her save money so she can attend GTCC for two years and transfer to UNCG, where she wants to major in business.
Leslie will now become the first in her family to graduate from high school and head to college.
How she did it makes her proud.
“I didn’t think I could do a full-time job and maintain my grades,” she says. “But I did, and it shows I can do pretty much anything I want to if I’m motivated. I’ve put in a lot of hard work. It’ll pay off eventually.”
Parker Stewart can run. Two years ago, he helped Northern Guilford High School set a school record in the 4-x-400 relay.
Yet, when he graduated June 7 from Northern Guilford, he will hang up his spikes to pursue a dream he’s had since he saw his first Army-Navy football game on TV as an eighth grader.
On June 26, Parker will report to the U.S. Military Academy. He is going to West Point. Parker, an Eagle Scout and assistant scoutmaster for Troop 103, was nominated by U.S. Rep. Mark Walker.
When he thinks about how he got there, he thinks of his desk in his bedroom.
Above his desk is a West Point application for admissions timeline along with a West Point banner. That, Parker says, kept him focused.
“When I got tired and down, I’d always look at that in front of me,” he says, “and it reminded me that I have to put in the hard work if I want to accomplish my goal.”
Ivan Nguyen loves to draw.
He started with graph paper and a pencil as an eighth grader at Allen Middle School. He needed the paper’s blue lines to keep anything he drew symmetrical. The first thing he drew was a landscape he found on his binder.
He went from there.
Ivan’s talent has gotten him a job painting a mural this summer at a café in Greensboro. But that’s not all. After graduating May 28 from the Academy at Smith, his talent will take him to UNCG, where he will major in digital arts.
“I get to be more creative,” Ivan says of going to UNCG. “I don’t know if this is the right word or not, but it’ll make me more mature, more responsible.”
As for drawing, he knows what it does for him.
“It’s really freeing,” he says. “It’s like flying in the air above the clouds.”
Ileanis Nicole Roman-Garcia
Ileanis Nicole Roman-Garcia figured she’d do something in medicine.
She was no older than 4 when she turned her playhouse into a hospital and had her big sister, Angelisse, become her patient. That’s why she went to Southern Guilford High School, because of the school’s Health Science Academy.
She became a certified nursing assistant. After graduating June 6 from Southern Guilford, her next step will take her to UNCG to major in nursing.
She wants to become a neonatal nurse. The why goes back to her playhouse — and so much more.
“I think the experiences I had as a child make me who I am today,” she says. “I came from a household full of love with my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandma, and they taught me the importance of giving to others. And I want the kids I help to feel the love I had growing up.”
At STEM Early College at N.C. A&T, teachers describe Reem Ali as a “fearless, natural-born leader.”
Reem is the president of the STEM Early College. She’s also the studious daughter, the oldest of five, who wants to become a biomedical engineer.
And she will.
She graduated May 28 from STEM Early College. She’ll attend A&T as one of 20 Dowdy Scholars. Named after Dr. Lewis C. Dowdy, A&T’s sixth president, and his wife, Elizabeth, the program covers tuition, room and board and all related fees for four years.
For in-state students like Reem, that scholarship means she will receive $68,000, and she calls what she’ll receive an “insane help.”
She comes from an incredibly close family, and she sees the scholarship as a way for her to avoid student debt, get a job, help her parents save money and contribute toward a college fund for her four younger sisters, who range in age from a one-month-old to a 14-year-old.
Reem always wanted to help her family in some way.
Now, she can. It’s not just money. It’s through her career aspirations. She wants to find ways to combat diabetes. For her, it’s personal. Reem has several relatives who have diabetes. That includes Renaz, her sister four years her junior.
“Imagine creating something that could help millions of families,” she says. “They won’t have to live in pain and inject themselves with needles every day. Imagine creating a device that’s affordable that anyone can have access to. That’s more than I can dream of.”
Cooper White has played baseball since he was 6. His dad has been his coach, and his grandparents have been his fans. With every game he’s played, Cooper could look in the stands and see both sets of grandparents. They always came to see him play.
After graduating June 5 from Northeast Guilford High School, he now steps away from the game and hangs up No. 19, the number on his navy-and-gray Northeast uniform.
He now heads to Appalachian State University. As for a major, he is undecided. But Cooper is sharp.
He’s the valedictorian of Northeast Guilford, the school’s student body president for the past four years, and a member of three of the school’s honor societies.
For the past two years, he’s taken classes at the Wendover Avenue campus of GTCC, and he’ll enter ASU with enough credits to be considered a sophomore.
“I think of all the opportunities and the clubs I’ve involved myself in, and I’m really grateful,” Cooper says. “To be involved with things like that have prepared me to get out on my own and go into a college setting prepared wherever I’m at.”
The first time Alexis Oxendine stepped onto a softball field, she got hit in the head. She was 5. She came back to the sport five years later, and when she got a hit, she skipped around the bases.
What a difference a few years made.
Alexis graduated June 7 from High Point Central High School and starred on the school's softball team all four years. She played third base and pitched four shutouts in her four years at High Point Central. This year, she achieved a first. She made All-Conference.
“I eat, breathe and sleep softball,” Alexis says.
This fall, she plans to enroll in GTCC to get a few courses out of the way before she transfers to UNCG. See, UNCG has a good softball team, too.
But for Alexis, it’s bigger than that. At 10 weeks old, her mom donated 20% of her liver to save her daughter’s life.
Doctors tell Alexis she will eventually need another liver transplant. Right now, she has gone to Duke every three months for the past three years for blood work and more tests.
Those procedures take all day.
“With all that she has to go through with those multiple trips to Duke, I’m proud of her,” says Amy Davis, Alexis’ mom. “When she misses an assignment, she’ll ask her teachers, ‘What do I need to do?’ She doesn’t miss a beat. She knows grades comes first, and she strives for excellence in everything she does.”
Gabriel Irizarry is a fighter.
He graduated May 28 from Middle College at N.C. A&T. He was a member of two honor societies, No. 7 in his class, and this fall, he will attend UNC-Charlotte, major in kinesiology and work his way toward becoming a physical therapist.
He wants to make people, as he says, “better versions of themselves.”
Like his dad did for him.
“I wish he could see how I’ve grown into the man I am today,” Gabriel says.
He was 15 when his dad died, and Gabriel grew up quick. He became more responsible. Consider what he did with his wrestling team.
The Middle College doesn’t have a sports program, so students who attend can play sports at their districted school. Ragsdale High School is Gabriel’s home school, and he wrestled for the Tigers for the past three years.
But not this year.
He was set to be a team captain. But he had to step away. He needed to save money for college, so he’s working two jobs in High Point — as a cashier and cook at Mrs. Winner’s Chicken & Biscuits and as a stocker at Walmart. He works 30 hours a week.
“I just want to be stable because I won’t have a job in college,” he says. “That’s why I chose not to wrestle. I had to pick the best option for me, and working was more beneficial. But man, it was hard. I’ve thought about it ever since October when I made the decision.
“I mean, everybody wanted me to come back, and I was supposed to be a captain. But I tell them, ‘It was time for me to focus on something else.'”
That something else is Gabriel’s future. His dad would be proud.
Jeri Rowe, a former columnist at the News & Record, is the senior writer at High Point University. He interviewed these 10 graduating seniors as part of the annual Senior Spotlight project for Guilford County Schools.