Graduating seniors talk about impact of attending school during changing times

Staff writer

It’s the moment that many students look forward to almost since the first time they get on the bus in kindergarten: graduation day, when high school is finally completed and adulthood and all the places it can take them awaits.

The Virginia Gazette’s 2019 senior roundtable gathered local students who took time to reflect on the past four years and their time growing up in Williamsburg.

Each may be headed to different places and have many different goals in mind, but they all spoke about the moments that defined them as students growing up and going to school in Williamsburg.

The roundtable was made up of Lily Roberts, of Jamestown High School, who will attend the University of Virginia; Hallie Rubenstein, of Lafayette High School, who will attend University of Virginia; Landon Jones, of Warhill High School, who has enlisted in the United States Marine Corps; Chrishawn Harris, of Bruton High School, who will attend North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University; and Jordan Wright, of Williamsburg Christian Academy, who will attend Liberty University. Students from Walsingham Academy were invited but were unable to attend.

High school days

Whether they grew up in Williamsburg and attended local schools their whole lives, or moved here and attended a few years of high school, all of the seniors spoke about how their time here changed them.

Rubenstein, who will graduate from Lafayette Saturday, said as excited as she is to move on and live elsewhere for the first time, her years in Williamsburg and in school were happy ones.

“I will miss the small-town feel, like running into classmates at the grocery store or grabbing coffee late at night with them and walking around Colonial Williamsburg,” Rubenstein said. “I’m ready to go live somewhere bigger, but Williamsburg is a lovely town and I’ll miss it.”

Roberts, who moved here with her family two years ago from New Jersey and enrolled at Jamestown, said she really connected here.

“I’ve made so many close friends and gotten so close to my teachers too, especially my math teacher, Mr. Eames, who always was there to tell me to keep pushing forward,” Roberts said. “I also will always remember sewing my own prom dress for junior prom, and how so many people liked it, that when it came time for senior prom, I also made dresses for two of my friends.”

For Bruton’s Harris, his years in Williamsburg absolutely made an impact on him and especially on his plans after high school. Having grown up in Mississippi, Harris knew he wanted to attend a Historically Black College and University, but his desire to study music and music education came from his time in the band at Bruton.

“I went to Warhill my freshman year, but started at Bruton my sophomore year and I started playing saxophone in the band, and the music teacher there, Mrs. Townsend, had a huge impact on me,” Harris said. “I decided to go into music education because of that. I want to teach music, and I hope to impact my students the way she impacted me, the way Bruton impacted me.”

Whole new world

One thing the Class of 2019 has seen first-hand is the generational and technological shift going on around them, which has even affected the schools — and, in many ways, the schools haven’t quite kept pace.

Sometimes it shows up in something as small as lesson plans that haven’t quite caught up to the times.

Williamsburg Christian Academy’s Wright offered an example the seniors picked up on the most: All the time spent learning to write in cursive.

“We never use it outside of our signatures, and we even knew that was the case all those years in grade school when they made us learn it,” Wright said. “While the schools got better with technology in the last few years, there’s still so much we don’t know about it, and from working in student government, something like debate would have been nice.”

Far bigger than changes to the classroom, the biggest generational change has been the omnipresence of technology, the internet and social media in their lives. When every student has a phone, and when Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the internet are just a few seconds away, high school’s sometimes famously difficult peer environment follows students home.

Warhill senior Jones talked at length how this year alone, a freshman at Warhill committed suicide and another was arrested for bringing a gun to school, with both instances dominating conversations and social media in and outside of Warhill. All of the seniors had heard about these instances, and all could cite other examples of bullying, both in person and online.

“Everybody has a phone and social media now, and the worst part is seeing how people will rush to make comments on social media or loudly offer their opinions, but then they forget,” Jones said. “It’s part of why I’ve dedicated myself … to be kinder to everyone, you just have to work that much harder to be good to everyone.”

Those efforts to reach out and be kinder earned a round of agreement from each of the graduating seniors — when school and school problems follow students home so immediately, being good to each other becomes that much more important.

“It’s important to be kind to everyone you meet, because you have no idea what’s going on in their lives,” Wright said.

Next steps

So what comes next for these seniors?

One thing they all have in common is, despite claims that Millenials/Gen Z don’t want the traditional American dream, each of them discussed how they’d eventually like to get married, own a home and have children of their own.

“I’d really like to be married and either have a kid, or have one on the way by the time I’m 30,” Rubenstein said. “I really think it’s a generational thing. In order to go really far in your profession, you need to get as much education as you can, so I see myself working on my Ph.D in nursing in 10 years, working in neonatal nursing, working with kids, maybe even have some kids of my own.”

All of them expect to spend years in college pursuing advanced degrees before they can afford to start families and pursue other goals. They each have accepted, or at least resigned themselves, to the reality that a bachelor's degree doesn’t offer the job opportunities it once might have.

“It’s sort of an expectation, but I do think it’s the new normal, that to get the well-paying jobs or to be able to support your families, they have to get an education beyond just the four-year degree, because that’s not enough anymore,” Roberts said.

“My mom was working on her Ph.D. when I was born when she was 30, so depending on what I’m doing at that age, maybe I’ll be working on mine … and I know it’s possible to strike a balance between work, school and starting a family.”

That’s a big reason one member of the senior roundtable who isn’t heading to college, Warhill’s Jones, looked for an alternative and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He’ll ship out to Parris Island on Aug. 8.

“I enlisted because I wasn’t quite ready to spend a few more years in school just yet. I wanted to go out, do something physical, see the world and do something to challenge myself, and the military will let me do that,” Jones said.

“I come from a family of Army veterans, so military service isn’t anything new, though there was some surprise that I chose the Marine Corps. I’d like to serve my 20 years, then get a government job or work as a contractor.”

Parting Words

Looking back, none of the seniors said they had regrets about high school — as Rubenstein put it, “even the mistakes got us to where we are now.”

However, for all of those still in high school — and especially for rising freshman — each offered some hard-won insight.

» Stay on top of things.

“Endure when things get rough. Try to manage your time, stay focused and keep your head in the game,” Harris said. “Bruton’s a small school, but we're close, and I hope you really make the most of that.”

» Don’t stress the small stuff.

“Have perspective — before you stress about something, ask yourself if it is going to matter in a week, in a month, in a year, in five years,” said Wright. “It’s so easy to let something that won’t matter in the future drag you down, so take a moment to reflect before that happens.

» Step out of your comfort zone and try new things.

“Embrace being uncomfortable sooner. There are times where that self-esteem or confidence was an issue, but looking back, I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone when I did, and one of my few regrets is that I didn’t do that more often,” Roberts said.

“Find and focus on things that interest you, don’t waste your time doing things because “its the right thing” or because it will look good on a college application, do what you’re passionate about and do your best, and things will still work out.”

» Pursue your passions, not what people tell you to or what you think will look good applying for college.

One grade doesn’t define who you are, and I wish we told students that you don’t need to take every AP class, those grades don’t define who you are, and one or two grades will not affect you and will not matter looking back,” Rubenstein said. “Everyone told me ‘you had to get straight As’, or ‘do this many extracurriculars’, but looking back, I wish I had laid back a little bit. So try to strike a better balance between classes and activities, and just take some time for yourself.”

» Be kind to each other.

“Kindness and respect, to the staff and to the other students, it goes a long way,” Jones said. “If there’s anything the next group of students does better than we did, I hope it’s that they’re kinder to one another because trust me, that makes school so much easier for everyone.”

Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email sean.korsgaard@vagazette.com, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.

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