6 New Orleans graduates on how the pandemic changed them and what comes next
High school can be separated into three distinct phases for the Class of 2022: before, during and after the pandemic closed schools.
Graduates said while they struggled with lockdowns, remote classes and not being able to see their friends, these experiences also led to immense personal growth.
Saniyah Barthelemy, 18: ‘I made it through COVID. I can make it through anything.’
Before the pandemic, Saniyah Barthelemy said she was thinking about attending college online — then her high school went virtual in March 2020.
“I was like, ‘Nope, this is not for me,’” she said. “I need to be in person with a teacher in front of me. That’s probably the only thing I’m grateful for — the pandemic giving me that experience before [college].”
Barthelemy, a recent graduate of New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School (Sci High), plans to pursue a career in social work and will be taking classes at the Southern University of New Orleans starting this fall.
“The fact that I have the power to make a change no matter how small, that’s something that’s really big for me,” she said.
While she’s scared to see what this next chapter brings, completing high school during a global pandemic has given her a sense of confidence.
“I made it through COVID. I can make it through anything."
Andre Pellebon, 17: ‘I think it did add a lot to my character.’
Andre Pellebon, a visual artist who recently graduated from New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), said at the beginning of lockdown he was happy to be home since it gave him more time to work on his personal projects.
“Now I recognize the ignorance in that,” Pellebon said. “I was excited to be there, but on the outside everybody’s dying, everybody’s sick, they’re fed up with having to stay inside.”
The experience made Pellebon more self aware and empathetic. He said the challenges of online learning also brought his friend group closer together.
“I always checked up on my friends and they checked up on me,” he said. “It was definitely a learning moment. It wasn’t something that I would have wanted to go through, but I think it did add a lot to my character and to other people’s character.”
Pellebon plans to study visual and studio arts or videography at the University of New Orleans. He’s found professional mentors in New Orleans and said he wants to stay in the city so he can pay it forward.
Cameron Watson, 17: ‘It’s like we couldn’t really be who we wanted to be.’
Cameron Watson said he thinks of his graduating class as “underdogs.”
“We were there from the start to the end, so it’s like we couldn’t really be who we wanted to be because there were a lot of restrictions,” Watson said.
But as things continue to return to normal, Watson thinks a renaissance of sorts is underway.
“I think this class, the creativity will really be unlocked this summer,” he said.
Watson, who recently graduated from Morris Jeff Community School and NOCCA, plans to attend Loyola University of New Orleans and then transfer to Berklee College of Music in Boston. He plays piano, drums, bass, guitar and sings.
When he thinks about his future, Watson said he’s setting the bar high.
“I think about inviting my senior class to the Grammys. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I’ve told them, ‘Y’all are not going to see me till the Grammys. I’ll be busy working.’”
Chynna Polk, 18: ‘It’s going to be a beautiful life.’
First a degree from Dillard University, then on to law school: that’s recent Warren Easton Charter High School graduate Chynna Polk’s plan. After that, she wants to work as a military lawyer in the Air Force.
“I’m pushing toward it,” Polk said. “It’s going to be a beautiful life I’m going to have for me and for my mom and dad.”
Polk said she and her friends pulled together to make sure they all graduated, and the fact that they all made it — and no one had to go to summer school — feels like an accomplishment.
But the city’s crime surge has dampened the end-of-year excitement. Polk said the fight at George Washington Carver High School’s graduation made her upset. That was before a graduate’s grandmother was shot dead outside the Morris Jeff Community School graduation.
“Sometimes I’m scared to go places. Somebody might shoot somebody here. Somebody may shoot somebody there,” she said.
Polk would love to see people supporting one another more in New Orleans, “instead of trying to fight each other.” She said violent crime is part of the reason why many people in her generation are trying to leave the city.
After she has her degree, Polk said she'd like to move to New York or Atlanta.
Ronnell Pugh, 18: ‘Why would I want to go to college?’
When classes moved online in the spring of 2020, Ronnell Pugh said he was anxious and depressed.
“I was struggling mentally and emotionally,” the recent Morris Jeff graduate said. “It was just really hard for me to care about my grades … surprisingly I didn’t fail.”
But while Pugh, a self-described “very social person” had a hard time with lockdowns and quarantine, he said being alone forced him to self-reflect.
“It caused me to really reflect on who I was and the decisions I made, but mostly the mistakes that I made and how to just be a better person overall,” he said.
It also got him thinking more about what he wanted to do after high school. He always thought he would go to college, but like a lot of students, the pandemic made him reconsider his options.
“‘Why would I want to go to college?’” Pugh said he asked himself before settling on real estate school instead. “It’s hard out here for me to be relying on my mom financially and that was just not something that I was willing to do.”
Pugh said he already has a job lined up once he’s certified. And while he wants to be a writer, he doesn’t need a degree to do that.
“Whether I go to college now or go to college later, it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “Those four years I feel like are just a part of growing up and learning to be independent.”
Anastasia Rene, 18: ‘Whatever happens, happens and I’ll make the best of it.’
While virtual learning was hard, recent Sci High graduate Anastasia Rene said it broke her out of her usual routine.
“The pandemic definitely changed a lot of people, including me,” she said. “I feel like my mind opened more and I had time to learn things outside of school.”
Rene said more time at home allowed her to pivot her passion for skincare toward a career in dermatology. She plans to attend Delgado Community College for her first two years and then transfer to a four-year school out of state.
When it comes to her future, Rene said some days she’s optimistic and other days she’s more uncertain: “I’m like, ‘What’s going to happen? Am I doing this right?,’” she said. “But whatever happens, happens and I’ll make the best of it.’”