Graduating seniors reflect on forces that help shape them

It’s graduation season, which for high school seniors means the end of their secondary education career and the beginning of the next stage of their lives.

The Virginia Gazette’s 2018 senior roundtable spoke with local students who took time to reflect on the past four years. They talked about what their high school careers were like and got serious talking about how the “March for Our Lives” movement affected their last year of high school. While some talked more than others, everyone had something to say.

Defining Moments

High School shapes people in many different ways, but for Lafayette High School senior Patrice Cummings, making a connection with other people was a big goal for her. Cummins said before sophomore year, she had never been able to relate to her classmates. She made her first best friend as a sophomore, saying he was the first person she ever made laugh.

“I made a connection with someone and that was huge for me,” Cummings said. “Well, we can talk about anything, and it's just really strange for me to just talk about anything with somebody, and it affected me a lot."

After making a friend, she has been able to continue to build relationships and connections with others.

“I’m more outgoing and I guess my spirit has become like flourishing in a way,” Cummings said.

Thomas Ludwig, from Jamestown High School, said deciding to attend New Horizons’ Career and Technical Education Center during the past year provided his big wake-up moment. He signed up to see if a career in firefighting was the right path for him.

“It really changed my attitude,” Ludwig said. “Before, I was kind of childish in class, always messing around, but I’ve started going here and I started paying attention. The teacher would make me do push-ups if I was messing around, and it just changed me a lot. Really made me grow up.”

Rylan Haggerty, from Warhill High School, and Brendan Simpers, from Providence Classical School, agreed that their big lesson was learning to balance their time. Both went to school, worked and had extracurricular activities.

"Learning to juggle a job, schoolwork and an after-school activity and still maintain grades was a very important aspect,” Simpers said. “Just learning how to do multiple things to the best of my ability at the same time was just very important.”

Unlike other students, Da’Shawn Cook, from Williamsburg Christian Academy, had his defining moment overseas. Cook went on a mission trip to Jamaica to help build a sidewalk at a school for deaf students. He said seeing the state of the school he was working on made him realize he should thank God every day for what he had.

“We were working on cement (and) the guy who was helping us, he was deaf, he didn’t really have any shoes,” Cook said. “He was wearing flip-flops. You don’t wear flip-flops in cement, so I gave him my shoes and my socks when we were done working. I still keep in contact with him to this day.”

Gun violence in schools

Two major events that marked the 2017-18 school year for seniors was the “March for Our Lives” and National School Walkout on March 14. Both were in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

“It's very sad to watch the news and see everything that happens and it really breaks my heart, but at the same time just seeing all the students coming together in that way to show what they support and what they believe in is really amazing,” said Leah Thomas, from Bruton High School. “I think our generation is kind of a loud one in a way because we are willing to speak our minds and just act out and walk out of school, which seems somewhat rebellious.”

Thomas said the walkout at her school was a memorable moment for her and her classmates. She said many students cried during the moment of silence when another student read out the names of those killed in the shooting.

However, Cummings thought people needed to do more than sound off on social media, attend marches or even contact legislators.

“We need to do something ourselves because I think that is the only way we’ll get something changed,” Cummings said.

Cook said while some people might not want change, the world has already changed.

“I think back in the day they didn’t even do (lockdown drills), and that's because they didn’t really have that much of a worry about it,” Haggerty said. “It definitely affects the kids and the students, teachers, it affects everyone. I guess society has changed in a weird way where we have to be afraid of going to school and stuff.”

Something different about this generation of students compared to others is they have grown up with lock-down drills and the very real threat of school shootings.

“I think it's sad that active shooter drills are part of procedures like fire drills, because it gives it that tint of normalcy,” said Baily Ward, from Walsingham Academy. “At least because we know that it’s a drill and are prepped to know that it’s a drill, it’s kind of just a break from class time and they dim the lights and they cover the little door slit and then we just sit in a corner. And there’s no real discussion, so then you just go back to your seat and continue on with your day. I feel like if I was in a situation where that was an issue, I still wouldn’t really know what to do with myself and it would really depend on the teacher.”

Cummings said she felt the same way. A year ago when she went to an event, there was a metal detector at the front entrance of the school. She said she was the only one who was surprised or taken aback by the metal detector.

“I don’t know if everyone else had seen it before but it just shook me. It shouldn’t be normal that this is happening and it frustrates me that everyone is kind of casual when there’s a drill,” Cummings said.

“Or clear backpacks, or stuff like that,” Ward said.

“Yeah, its just frustrating,” Cummins said.

“It's almost, like, sacrilegious ... It's a school. It is supposed to be the center of everything that is really good in society because you are instilling values in children and an education is the most important — besides love and family — that you can give somebody,” Ward said.

Looking Forward

So what’s next for these Williamsburg seniors?

Ward, Simpers, Cook, Thomas and Cummings will attend four-year universities after high school. Cook said he and his twin brother are the first to attend college in his immediate family, so he is proud of that.

Ludwig will attend the paramedic program at Thomas Nelson Community College to become a firefighter paramedic.

“I want to be a firefighter because basically you go to work every day and you don’t know what’s going to happen, and I like that uncertainty and I don’t want to work at a desk my whole life because it doesn’t interest me," Ludwig said.

As for Haggerty, she has joined the Navy and will attend basic training in July. She’ll pursue medical training while in the military. Haggerty said she plans to attend college, but would like to wait a bit.

“I’m very excited because I want to help people like (Leah Thomas) said, but I also don’t want to go to college. I don’t really have the money for anything so I thought well, if I do a career in the military they pay for schooling and stuff,” Haggerty said.

Simpers said he plans to join the military after college. While he did not get into the Coast Guard Academy, he will attend the University of Virginia for its engineering program and apply again to become an engineering officer afterward.

Final thoughts

Some students had some regrets leaving high school. Ludwig wishes he had worked a bit harder, while Ward and Thomas wish they had stressed less about everything.

Some students said they’d miss certain parts of high school, such as summer break or certain teachers.

“I just remembered this last week has been the last spirit week at my school, which is really bittersweet because I’ve been on SCA for the past three years, so we’re like in charge of planning spirit weeks and pep rallies and everything, and I loved doing that. So it’s like really sad, you know?” Thomas said. “I think that’s something I’m gonna really miss.”

However, one thing all the seniors had in common was they were excited for high school to end.

“I never thought it would happen this fast and I never thought I would be ready for graduation, but now that I’m at this point I feel like I’m ready to move on and to move onto college to see all the other things," Cummings said. "I’m really looking forward to after high school.”


Da’Shawn Cook, Williamsburg Christian Academy, University of Mary Washington

Patrice Cummings, Lafayette High School, the College of William and Mary

Rylan Haggerty, Warhill High School, U.S. Navy

Thomas Ludwig, Jamestown High School, Thomas Nelson Community College

Brendan Simpers, Providence Classical School, University of Virginia

Leah Thomas, Bruton High School, Virginia Tech

Bailey Ward, Walsingham Academy, the College of William and Mary

Amelia Heymann can be reached by email at, or on twitter @HeymannAmelia.

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