Chatham’s 2021 graduates reflect on finishing school during a pandemic

Posted 6/9/21

When Jacquelinne Marroquin Tobar moved to Siler City and started school at Jordan-Matthews High School four years ago, she knew very little English and struggled to feel comfortable around other …

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Chatham’s 2021 graduates reflect on finishing school during a pandemic

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Posted

When Jacquelinne Marroquin Tobar moved to Siler City and started school at Jordan-Matthews High School four years ago, she knew very little English and struggled to feel comfortable around other students.

Now a senior, she will graduate this weekend, with plans to attend Wake Forest University in the fall to study political science and foreign affairs.

In her four years at J-M, she accomplished a lot: mastering English, being named as one of Chapel Hill nonprofit LatinxEd’s “20 under 20” 2020 recipients and starting the school’s first Water Bottle Recycling Project, a campaign intended to teach students about the importance of recycling. During its more than three years of operation, the project collected more than 1,000 bottles each week.

“My experience at Jordan-Matthews was definitely one of the best things that could have ever happened to me,” Marroquin Tobar said. “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.”

Born in Houston, Marroquin Tobar moved to Siler City from Guatemala. In addition to language barriers, she also grappled with making friends and adjusting to cultural differences in America.

“It’s so much different from life in Guatemala,” Marroquin Tobar told the News + Record last December. “The school is different. The classes are different. … Everything’s different, and it’s so hard to adjust when the only thing you have known for years has disappeared.”

As it turns out, Marroquin Tobar’s high school experience would be bookended by challenges and uncertainty — her class is the first to graduate following a senior year that took place entirely during the coronavirus pandemic.

Marroquin Tobar and her classmates learned completely online from March 2020 until last February, when hybrid learning meant students could enter the school building twice a week for in-person learning. She returned to in-person classes four times a week at the end of April, when CCS moved high schoolers to Plan A. After a challenging year of trying to learn remotely, missing interaction with friends and struggling with isolation, Marroquin Tobar was one of many CCS students grateful for the opportunity to be back in person.

“It wasn’t a bad experience, because I learned to be more responsible,” she said of remote learning. “This is a 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.”

Tessa Yell, a graduating senior at Northwood High School, said the best part of her senior year was returning to in-person learning.

“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,” Yell said. “So it’s been fun the past few months actually being in school.”

Yell will attend the University of South Carolina next fall, where she’ll be a part of the International Business Education Alliance, a consortium of four international business schools where students learn about business on four different continents.

Like Marroquin Tobar, Yell also found bright sides in the pandemic — less stressful pacing online and time to spend on more things outside of school.

“Being at school takes more time, so I’ve been able to relax,” she said of the majority of her 12th grade year, “but it has been a weird, weird senior year.”

J-M senior Jennah Fadely’s year was also out of the ordinary.

For starters, she became a record-holding state champion for swimming in February, winning the title in the women’s 100 breaststroke event with a 1A/2A state-record time of 1:02.11 and placing second in the women’s 200 IM. She also served as the editor for the school’s yearbook, an honor she’d long been striving toward.

Still, as was the case for many students, her senior year was difficult, particularly without regular interaction with classmates and friends.

Fadely opted to remain virtual for the remainder of her senior year, as she enjoyed doing her work at her own pace and felt changing routines so close to the end of the year might be a challenge. Still, she missed being face-to-face with friends. Though she saw peers at in-person swimming practices, when those ended, the majority of her in-person interaction with classmates did too.

“This last year and a half just went by really quickly, and I wasn’t really expecting it to happen this way. You know, I always thought, I’ll go back to school, I’ll see my friends again,” said Fadely, who will attend Ohio’s Kenyon College in the fall. “But the last time I’m going to see them is graduation, which is kind of scary now that it’s here. Because when I was a freshman, I was like, graduation is so far away, I have so much time and it’s here now.”

Marroquin Tobar agreed, saying she hopes next year’s seniors will have a more normal final year of high school, as school leaders expect to fully reopen in the fall due to vaccine availability and lower COVID-19 case counts.

“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,” she said.

Then, directly addressing rising seniors, she said: “Don’t take it for granted.”

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

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