Chatham’s 2021 graduates: A weird, but not wasted year

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Last week’s graduation festivities concluded 2021’s Chatham graduations.

After more than a year of school during a pandemic, the News + Record spoke with graduates from around the county about their school experiences — what they’ve learned, how they’re reflecting on graduating amid COVID-19 and what’s next.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What was your school experience like? What were your main communities or points of involvement?

Tessa Yell, Northwood: I had a very positive experience at Northwood — I enjoyed my teachers, classmates, and all the extracurricular things I was involved in.

Main involvement: Track and cross country, swim, marching band, Science Olympiad, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, National Honor Society, Spanish National Honor Society, Spanish Club and Student Athletic Advisory Council.

Michael Jabari Anthony, Northwood: Well, my experience, first off, very great, very welcoming of the freshmen. There’s a lot of positive energy and not a lot of negative — it was really fun. I was in FFA (Future Farmers of America) and SkillsUSA. They were also very welcoming. My teachers were like, you should come join, give it a try, and I wasn’t really sure about it, but then I just took a chance and it really paid off for me in the long run, and it helped me get into colleges. So I really advise joining those clubs.

Shane Conroy, Jordan-Matthews: I came into Jordan-Matthews as a part of the dual language program, so I’ve been with that group of kids since elementary school, so I came in with that community sort of pre-attached so to speak. I’ve continued to be a part of the dual language program through my four years of Jordan-Matthews. I’ve enjoyed that.

At Jordan Matthews, I joined robotics as a freshman and eventually, I became captain of that … I know a lot of kids through robotics, and I really enjoyed my time in robotics and had a strong community there. This is definitely sort of in the nerdy realm but I founded a Dungeons and Dragons club, and we probably had maybe 20ish members there at one point, so I enjoyed that community. And then I’ve done just kind of random different things — I ran track, cross country.

Evelyn Long, J-M: Well, it’s been interesting, considering what’s happened the last two years. It’s been a lot different than how I first imagined when I stepped in, when I stepped foot into the doors at J-M. It’s not the senior year that I hoped for, but I’m still making the most of it. I tried to stay involved a lot throughout my high school career.

Involvement: HOSA (Future Health Professionals), DECA, volleyball and softball.

Jacquelinne Marroquin Tobar, J-M: My experience at Jordan-Matthews was definitely one of the best things that could have ever happened to me. I started high school as a newcomer, as an ESL student, with pretty much no English, basic. And just the way Jordan-Matthews welcomed me and supported me in everything that I did — all of my ambitions and goals — it was amazing.

And I was involved perhaps not as much as other students because of language barriers that I had, but I was able to create my water bottle recycling program at school after six months of living in North Carolina, and they supported me like no one else.

Macy Henson, Chatham Central: Of course, the last two years have been a lot different than the first two years. But it’s mainly just a really cool place because of how small it is, and you get to know everyone and all the teachers know you.

Involvement: FBLA, Beta Club.

Ember Penney, Woods Charter: Woods is a K-12 school, I’ve been going there since kindergarten. So it’s the only school I’ve ever gone to. And it’s kind of very small, and a common theme I heard was that we all feel like family together. It’s going to be very hard leaving, just because when you’re in a small environment like that everyone gets so close.

Involvement: Girls Learn international, sustainability club and running.

Jay Charbonneau, Woods Charter: It’s been a real treat, I will say, getting to know so many people on such a deep and connected level. It’s something that I definitely would not have gotten at any other school.

Involvement: Cross country, track (captains for both this year)

Carter Phillips, Chatham Charter: The atmosphere when I came here was very different. It was just a new environment where I could tell that people were really focused on learning and just, they wanted to better themselves through the programs, which Chatham Charter offered us.

Involvement: College credit program, baseball

Christina Agnew, Chatham Charter: I also started my freshman year like Carter. I was coming from another charter school, but I still felt that change and shift, and how even my classmates were really there to learn, which I appreciated a lot.

Involvement: DECA chapter president, college credit program, Beta Club, photography

Morgan Rush, CCCC: I studied criminal justice for probably two semesters in person, before we got sent online for COVID. It was a good experience, but then COVID happened and put us all online.

There might be some overlap here, but what are your main interests, hobbies and passions?

Yell: This is kind of an overlap, but my passion probably is running. I love the community it’s given me and I love working toward my goals in running. And besides running, I enjoy traveling, boating, reading, hiking and tons of outdoor activities.

Anthony: I’m very passionate about football. I do a little bit of pickup basketball, I like playing the Wii. I’m a very social person, like having fun.

Conroy: I definitely like technology and electronics and programming, which is what I originally joined the robotics club to do. I like music as well, I’ve been playing the violin for a long time, I did a year of band in school, which I enjoyed, I just, it didn’t really work out with my schedule as time went on. Overlapping with track and cross country, I like running around a lot.

Long: I’m very passionate about my sports — volleyball and softball. It created a lot of new friendships for me, created a lot of new opportunities. So I’m very passionate about them. And I owe a lot to them, because I don’t really think I would be the kind of person I was if I hadn’t played those sports in high school.

Marroquin Tobar: Recycling, I have to say, but also just being able to teach other kids. … Just reading awareness is one of the other things that I really love to do. And learning, I should say, learning from other cultures, from other students.

Henson: I’m currently a part of three different clogging competition teams that are from some of them around here. I also play the fiddle in a bluegrass band that has people all from all over North Carolina, and that’s also helped me needing a lot of different people and gave me a lot of opportunities. And then I’m also really passionate about politics and like to get involved in county politics and stuff.

What are some of the biggest lessons you learned during your high school experience?

Yell: One lesson I’ve learned, has been persevering through challenges, like having grit and staying positive when things don’t go as planned. I was injured for more or less like two years, so I couldn’t run and I had to miss practice and races that all my teammates were in. So I did physical therapy and a lot of appointments, but during that time, I tried out swim team for the first time and staying positive really, really helped during that time.

Anthony: Some of my biggest lessons were to be organized, because organization is a key factor in my life now.

Conroy: I’ll start out by saying, one thing I kind of wish I recognized earlier on was challeng(ing) some of my own ideas about myself or what I was good at, or what I enjoyed. For my first several years, I maybe told myself I didn’t want to do sports, or I wasn’t athletic or something like that. And then, I joined track and cross country and kind of because of the pandemic, and I was bored, and whatever else, I really enjoyed those, and I was actually pretty good at them — not like the star of the team, but definitely able to enjoy that and compete.

Long: I would say the biggest lesson is to make sure to just have confidence in yourself and trust yourself, and don’t be scared to do different things. Because I was one of the ones that was very shy, and it’s taught me a lot to not be shy just to get out there.

Marroquin Tobar: While I was in high school, I definitely learned the true meaning of diversity. It’s hard to believe that in other countries, countries that are not considered a “melting pot,” such as the United States, we don’t see a lot of diversity. When I came to Jordan-Matthews, that was one of the big things that I learned, aside from academics. I just couldn’t believe there were so many people from so many other countries in the same place — cultural shock for me, because I wasn’t used to it.

Henson: Chatham Central’s really helped me realize that contributing to that community, but also, if you put into it, you get a lot out of it as well because they’re always willing to help you and that’s been one of my favorite things of being there.

Penney: Woods is such a quirky school, it kind of taught me that the best way to go about your life is to be yourself, and then the people who stick around are the people who are meant to be there anyways.

Charbonneau: Never underestimate the power of the community. Because we’ve had so many new kids come in from over the years who have like, the stigma of woods being like a weird hippie dippie school and with all of them, it’s turned around and they love the school. I think that’s in part due to the community being so welcoming and willing to just form bonds.

Agnew: The biggest lesson I learned was to advocate for myself, which is helpful because going into that college setting can be very intimidating.

Which people or events stick out as having the biggest impact on you during your four years there?

Anthony: Dr. (Derrick) Barbee for sure. Sr. (Henry) Foust. Ms. (Phyllis) Bazzari. They kind of opened my eyes coming in high school, especially Sr. Foust and Ms. Bazzari my freshman year, to what high school is like. And it’s not like they’re gonna hold your hand all the way through — it makes you more independent and prepares you for life. So those are people, key teachers, who helped me out a lot.

Conroy: I really enjoyed taking AP government and AP U.S. history with one of our history teachers, Jay Palmer, I think he really changed the way I thought about a lot of institutions in history in an interesting way, and got me to challenge some of my beliefs, but that sort of stuff. In general, Jordan-Matthews actually had a really good environment to expose you to those different sorts of things or challenge your ways of thinking because it was such a diverse school.

Long: Definitely the teachers that I created relationships with that were there for me through everything. It was really nice to have a teacher there that I know I could count on.

Marroquin Tobar: I have to say that all the teachers were just a huge part of this journey in high school. I was able to receive some support from them, and especially those teachers that were with me since the beginning, they noticed that I was a newcomer — a lot of support from every single teacher.

Thinking specifically about this past year, what’s been one of the best and worst parts of your senior year?

Yell: The best part was probably getting to actually go to school, because I guess this is the worst because I didn’t like being doing school at home by myself. I missed getting to be with my classmates every day and getting to ask my teachers questions in person — it was just boring at home. So it’s been fun the past few months actually being in school.

Anthony: The best was playing football this year and being able to play in the playoffs — the worst was when we lost in the second round.

The most challenging part for me was probably staying on top of my work ... but like when I came back, like going back to school was probably the waking up part. I’d gotten used to sleeping in a little bit, so that was kind of a challenge waking up earlier.

Conroy: The worst part is definitely that I kind of missed out on a lot of the typical senior stuff and didn’t really get to see a lot of those people that are, you know, acquaintances that you enjoy, but you’re maybe not as close with, and just hanging out and taking more and more classes. Online school was definitely not a lot of fun. Obviously, everybody had to experience that, but I wish it had not fallen on my senior year. As far as positives went, again, it definitely got me to try some new things and step out of my comfort level a little bit.

Henson: Well, I think the best part was definitely graduating. Going in, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding whether or not we would get to have an in-person graduation, so being able to have that milestone together as a class was something that we weren’t really expecting. So it was very nice to have that and that has probably been my favorite moment. But the worst part, I guess, would be just starting our senior year completely online.

Phillips: I guess the one thing I could say is the best and worst part of my senior year was probably dealing with the pandemic. It was both a blessing and a curse for me in a way, because on one hand, it forced me to go outside of my comfort zone. But at the same time, it took away half of junior year and most of my senior year away from me, which is something you don’t really get back.

How are you reflecting on the last year-plus of learning and finishing high school during a pandemic?

Yell: Well, it has been different for sure. The time with virtual learning has been kind of nice, because it’s been less stressful and I’ve gotten to focus on some other things and spend time that I usually don’t have, because being at school takes more time. So I’ve been able to relax, but it has been a weird, weird senior year.

Anthony: It was kind of hard at first but then my teachers eased me in, and kept a positive attitude about it and helped us with our work when we needed help — we’d send an email and they got back to us in a matter of minutes, they were very open and lenient with us, helping us turning in work. It was better than I thought it was gonna be for sure.

(The return to) in-person learning was very smooth. It was like a first day back at school type deal. Smooth, introducing and getting class interaction. It was very fun, and it was still safe at the same time because teachers were very strict about having masks on.

Conroy: Again, I really wish that things had not gone down this way because everybody missed out on a fun period. It certainly wasn’t all bad — like I said, I tried some new things and met some new people through those things that I enjoyed. And on top of that, you know, I usually run a pretty busy schedule. So I’m probably glad for the extra time I had to work on stuff like college applications and whatnot. I do think I have maybe a greater appreciation for — you sometimes get in the mood, “I don’t like school. I don’t want to go back here anymore.” But because that got stripped away from school for a year and a half, it definitely changed my perception of that.

Long: I’ve just learned to make the most of it and to not take things for granted. And to just look at things differently and still see that I am still getting your senior year. It just might not be the one that I really wanted, but just to try and make the most of what I am getting.

Marroquin Tobar: It wasn’t a bad experience, because I learned to be more responsible. One of the big lessons from remote learning is you have to figure it out, go and find the answers. This is a totally different experience than what we’ve been doing in the last couple of years. It was good — it had its silver linings, but it was difficult at the same time.

Henson: It’s been a lot. But I really do think that in a way, it is like better preparation for college because we will have to be on our own making sure we get our assignments done without being told to everyday. As hard and as troublesome as it may have been that there are some positives to it when you look at it, especially for those of us going to college.

Penney: That’s a little hard for me to accept, that we’re graduated now, because it feels like we were robbed of a senior year. Even the spring part of our junior year, and it feels like there’s a lot that has been left unfinished or unexperienced. But I guess I’m beginning to come to terms with it … just because it feels like we didn’t really get a full experience of our senior year, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t meaningful moments throughout it.

Charbonneau: It’s certainly a bittersweet feeling. On one hand, I wish I could have another year to stay with my friends. But on the other hand, I know that this is how things are, but my time at Woods was certainly something I will not forget. It’s just been so impactful.

Rush: I’m really not sure honestly, probably being in the pandemic and having to go online and not having like in-person graduation. Because I did all that work to get out in two years just to have a drive-thru graduation. Which is better than no graduation, but still.

Any advice to rising seniors on making the most of the end of high school?

Yell: I know everyone always says this, but I recommend everyone to get involved. It helps you make friends and learn important lessons and also learn about yourself and what you like doing, and this will help you as you look for college and careers and future.

Anthony: Stay focused, and I mean, pick the right classes for your career path.

Conroy: Be yourselves. Try not to fall too hard into the trap of senioritis. Make sure to spend lots of time on your college applications, and it’s not too late to try and do something different.

Long: I would have to tell them to make the most of it because they might not get exactly what they dreamt for, but just to make the most of every moment that they do actually get.

Marroquin Tobar: For seniors, I know that next year is going to be different, it’s not gonna be like this year, they’re trying to go back to normal. Don’t take it for granted. We don’t know what’s going to happen next year. If you’re at school, enjoy that day. Enjoy the opportunity to be with your teachers and be with your classmates.

Penney: My biggest piece of advice is hanging out with people and talk to people you don’t normally do. Because I think that was a big regret for a lot of people at the end of the year was getting to see all these wonderful people and feeling like you didn’t have enough time to reach out to all of them.

Charbonneau: Don’t be afraid to go out and try new things. Just don’t wait to do stuff, because before you know it, if things are going to be all over and gone, you’re out your chance will be gone.

Phillips: Use the resources that you’re given.

Rush: Don’t procrastinate, because it just causes you more stress. And know the people at school are there to help you.

What’s next?

Yell: This summer, I’m working as a waitress and at the Autism Society at Camp Royall. Next year, I’ll be attending the University of South Carolina participating in the International Business Education Alliance. I was one of 10 students selected to study on four continents over four semesters. ... Besides that, I plan on running a marathon next year and hope to become involved in some service organizations at school.

Anthony: I’m going to play college football at Guilford. I’m going to be focused on college football and I’m going to do a little internship with physical therapy.

Conroy: I am heading to NC State to study statistics as of right now, I might change that down the road. I got a cool scholarship to do that so I’m pretty excited for that. In the meantime, I’m probably gonna hang around this summer and deliver pizzas to try to make some money.

Long: I plan to attend CCCC to pursue nursing.

Marroquin Tobar: I’ll be attending Wake Forest University and I’m planning on majoring in political science and foreign affairs.

Henson: I’m attending UNC Chapel Hill and planning to double major in business and political science and hoping to go home to law school.

Penney: Right now I’m on a month-long summer road trip — this group of four friends and I have been planning it for about two years actually, because it’s something really fun and special to do after graduation. In the fall I’ll be going to UNC and majoring in biology and environmental science.

Charbonneau: I will be going to NC State to study textiles and I’m very happy about that.

Phillips: I will be attending Clemson University in South Carolina on a academic scholarship, worth $22,000 a year, which I fully believe that if I didn’t go here and maximize my time here, I would have never gotten. I’m majoring in animal and life sciences.

Agnew: I will be attending North Carolina State University in the fall and am planning to study middle grade education focusing in language arts and social studies.

Rush: I got my Associate of Applied Science and criminal justice, and I think I’m going to get a bachelor’s degree sometime later down the road. So I’m going to continue my education, I just don’t know what yet.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.


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