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So Many Missed Milestones for High School Seniors

Forget downtime: High school senior Aaliyah is working part-time during the pandemic while applying for scholarships and crafting her graduation speech.   

By Madeleine Burry

May 1, 2020

Aaliyah working on computer

Seventeen-year-old Aaliyah Thomas is a senior at Western High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. She lives with her aunt, a crossing guard who has been out of work due to the pandemic. 

Aaliyah’s school has been closed since mid-March, and aside from daily check-ins for attendance, Aaliyah doesn’t get assignments from her teachers. But while Aaliyah might not have a lot of schoolwork, she’s got plenty to keep her busy. As well as going in for shifts at her part-time job, Aaliyah has been focused on studying for her AP exams, applying for financial aid at college, and preparing her graduation speech—when teachers share the final grades for the year, she’ll know if she’ll be the school’s valedictorian or salutatorian. She’s not sure where she’ll attend college next year, but she’s got options: Aaliyah’s been accepted to 30 colleges, and one is offering her a scholarship that covers her entire tuition. 

For the latest installment of “COVID-19: Community Voices” we spoke to this high school senior about her still busy days.

What’s it like working part-time right now? 

I work at Del Taco, a fast-food chain. I still get a couple of hours of each week, so I'm helping her [Aaliyah’s aunt] pay the bills. For the most part, it's slow. There are busy moments, but because people are staying at home, we don't get that much traffic. 

To keep us safe, they have us sanitize everything. We have to wear gloves. We implement the six-feet rule inside the store. We actually have our dining room closed, so we only do mostly drive-in and take out just to make sure the employees are safe. It's not that bad. It's really slow and sales are down because of the coronavirus.

I'm very glad to have a job right now. I feel like it gives me something to do while I'm out of school because I realized without being able to go outside and do things, I have a lot of time on my hands. Spending a little of that time making a couple extra dollars to help support my aunt makes me feel better about myself during the times.

“I think for seniors, it's the hardest because it's your last year.…I know this pandemic's going to be gone, but you won't get that time back.”

Aaliyah Thomas

And what’s school like for you? 

I know it's different for every school in Vegas. I think a lot of teachers weren’t prepared for it. I know some teachers are still posting their lessons, but for my school specifically, they don’t have as many different resources. For seniors, they gave us all laptops but they couldn’t give them to everybody. 

I email my teacher for attendance each day. My teachers are having me just study on my own. They haven't really assigned me anything. [The teachers] gave us a bunch of resources to study, but they haven't really checked in. I get a lot of emails from the principal, but a lot of the information is confusing. 

I mostly have AP classes so they're just having me focus on studying for the test that's supposed to happen in May. They haven't really had any work for us. They are just telling us to review and do this study by ourselves. I'm not doing much for schoolwork otherwise. [Editor note: In response to coronavirus, the format of the AP exam has been updated.]

For me, I've taken multiple AP classes, so my work just didn't go to waste. I don't know exactly what's going to be on the test since everything's different this year and it's only going to be writing. There are only going to be like two writing questions. I'm nervous about that. I know there's tools online, but I'm still itchy about the whole thing, but I am still trying to study and be somewhat prepared for the actual exam. 

I've mostly focused on college. I've been applying to scholarships and working on my financial aid packages to decide which college I want to go to after this.

Where have you been accepted? Where would you like to go to college?

I've gotten into USG, University of Miami, University of Las Vegas—just [to] name a few. I've gotten into about 30 different schools.

I have a couple favorites but it's really going to just come down to cost and where is the most aid. I actually just found out I got a full-tuition scholarship from one of the schools I applied to. So, I'm really excited about that. I feel like having the time to sit down and actually look through my options has made me more prepared and given me more focus about what I want to do in the future. 

What’s a typical day like for you? How do you stay in touch with your friends? 

It's different. It depends when I wake up honestly. Sometimes I wake up and I just go to my computer and look at scholarships or just watch some Netflix. 

I just see how the day takes me. I don't really have a set routine yet. I do try to at least read, and section off some time to study, so I'm not just sitting at home all day just doing nothing.

“I'm hoping that everything chills out before I get to leave to go to college because I would hate for this to keep going into my freshman year of college.  ”

Aaliyah Thomas

As a senior in high school, are there milestones you’re sad to be missing? 

Yes. Well, for the milestones, I've gotten a lot of refunds for my senior trip and prom because they're canceled. So, I was upset about it at first, but they have to keep everyone safe so it made sense. 

Graduation-wise, we really don't know yet. Hopefully, we have one. I know everyone will be pretty bummed on it. I know graduation was the most important thing for me, but I think even if we have the virtual one, I would still be up to it because I did write a speech for it.

I’m going to be one of the candidates for valedictorian or salutatorian. Our grades aren't set yet, so we don't know who's going to be the top two yet until in a couple more weeks. They just had us prepare speeches. 

I think for seniors, it's the hardest because it's your last year. I know for a lot of my friends, they're upset about it and even I am because at least for freshman through junior years, you still have another year. 

I know this pandemic's going to be gone, but you won't get that time back. So, it does suck, but I think everything is meant for a reason. 

I have sort of been preparing myself for a virtual graduation. I'm going to be honest. I was really upset about it. I was upset when the campus was closed and all, like everything was ending. So, I'm just trying to stay positive about it. I think in the future, things might change and we might have an in-person graduation but I'm still staying hopeful. I'm just ready for the next stage in my life, like college-wise, so I'm hoping that everything chills out before I get to leave to go to college because I would hate for this to keep going into my freshman year of college.

Do you have any concerns about your family’s financial situation? 

We're not really worried about it. I know we are caught up in our bills, so we're not really worried like that, but depending on how long this goes, maybe in the future. I know right now we're pretty set, especially since I'm still working and we still have our savings up. I think we'll be fine. We also have a lot of resources with LIT [Leader in Training, a nonprofit aimed at empowering first-generation college students, beginning in high school]  and they're helping us.

Tell me about LIT—how did you get involved with this program? 

Leaders in Training (LIT)  is a program I joined my junior year through. What she's [Erica Mosca, Las Vegas, ‘08] doing during the time is she's going to people that are in the organization and she's bringing things like toilet paper, food, even laptops or computers. She's bringing them to their houses and she's calling a couple of us to see if we're okay and if we need anything. She's been calling us like at least once a week to make sure we're all doing good.

In LIT, basically, we're trying to give back to our community and we do that by going to different organizations and volunteering. We also do that in our own schools and in our own communities by being activists and doing different projects.

For seniors, we work mostly on our college applications and on scholarships. Erica makes sure that everyone has at least a goal for the future even if they didn't want to go to college or they're going to do a trade school. She made sure everyone had at least some type of plan. Every year is different for freshman through senior year.

More Community Voices

COVID-19: Community Voices” offers a glimpse of life and learning during the coronavirus school closures, in the words of students and parents in the communities we serve. Read other stories in the series:

If you'd like to tell your story or would like to suggest a story for us to cover, please email us. And find resources for educators supporting students through the coronavirus outbreak at Teach For America's educator resource hub.