MINT HILL, NC – As the Class of 2023 prepares to walk the stage and receive their diplomas, they look back with fondness and nostalgia on their favorite memories of the last four years.
For athletes like Queen’s Grant High School graduate Braden Fowler and Independence High School graduate Lola Cabaniss-Ali, those memories revolve around time spent on the fields and the courts. “Some of my favorite memories are the times spent on the baseball field with my teammates and coaches,” says Braden.
“One of my favorite memories was senior night for basketball,” recalls Lola. “We were playing against our rival Butler. The stands were packed with friends, family, and supporters. It was a surreal experience; I had scored 8 points and 17 rebounds, which was a big accomplishment for me. The final score was 56-52.”
“Another [favorite] moment of senior year was winning prom queen,” adds Lola. “Winning the crown that night felt like a dream. Attending prom with my best friend and brother was already great, but becoming Prom Queen was the cherry on top for the night.”
In fact, Senior Prom may have been the first event of its scale members of the Class of 2023 were able to take part in. With the worst of the pandemic firmly behind us, it’s easy to forget that COVID arrived on the scene three quarters of the way through the Class of 2023’s freshman year. Mask mandates and social distancing guidelines that lasted through the Spring of 2022 meant that senior year was their first “normal” year of high school. “This year, it felt good to attend school events like basketball games, prom and homecoming, without the masks,” explains Braden.
For Braden, the onset of COVID in March of 2020 also meant an abrupt end to his first high school baseball season. “My sophomore year we learned remotely, isolated from our friends,” he explains. “During that year, we lost out on socialization and much-needed classroom support. Junior year, we were allowed to return school, faces hidden behind masks, and this year, finally, one full year of high school with no social distancing, temperature checks or masks.”
Two years of virtual school, masks, temperature checks, and social distancing robbed the Class of 2023 of many of the experiences we all probably remember fondly from high school. “I definitely feel like I missed out on some normal high school experiences for a span of time due to COVID,” says Queen’s Grant graduate Ava Weimer. “I didn’t get to enjoy my first two years of high school,” adds Rocky River High School graduate Daijah La’Nae Bias. “I had to jump right into applying to colleges after returning from virtual school.
While COVID was doubtlessly one of the biggest challenges for the Class of 2023, some students were nonetheless able to find the silver lining. “COVID affected my high school experience more positively than negatively,” says Lola. “Sophomore year, I transferred to Independence and took [classes] online. That year I gradually got accustomed to Independence and started joining clubs such as Deca. It taught many students such as myself that in-person learning is crucial to building social skills and maintaining information instead of just completing assignments for attendance.”
In addition to pandemic-related challenges, this year’s graduates struggled with many of the same challenges that have plagued high school seniors for decades. “My biggest challenge as a senior was procrastinating because of ‘senioritis,’ laughs Daijah. “It’s hard to stay motivated when you’re ready to graduate but you realize you need to stay motivated in order to walk the stage.”
Another significant challenge across the board for the Class of 2023 was the college admissions process. With the volume of college application submissions increasing steadily since 2020, college admissions has never been more competitive, and no one felt that pressure more keenly than this year’s graduates.
“The biggest challenge I faced during senior year was handling the pressure of figuring out my plans for next year,” said Ava. “It can be overwhelming deciding where you want to spend the next years of your life and what direction you think you want to take.”
In part because of the looming specter of college admissions, many teens these days face pressure to pack their schedules with challenging classes, extracurricular activities and work experience. “Being an athlete, taking AP classes, Central Piedmont Community College classes, being in student council, Dream Team and choosing a college is a lot to manage,” says Lola. “Having a lot on your schedule can take a toll on your mental health. No off days. Enjoying the moment and maintaining good grades was a struggle.”
“The pressure of college application deadlines, writing college essays and narrowing down college choices, all of this while trying to juggle class work, and train,” adds Braden. “I had to keep my chin up because I knew this would be my last year, and I was determined to make the best of it.”
To help mitigate the stress, Braden recommends planning ahead and starting early. “Take time this summer to research and visit colleges you are interested in and learn about their admission requirements,” he suggests to next year’s seniors. “Take time to speak to admission counselors at the school and perhaps draft up your college essay in advance. This way you are one step closer to meeting the early application deadline in October. It is important to manage your time senior year effectively because it passes by faster than you think!”
“I advise future seniors to go ahead and knock out all of the college stuff as soon as they open applications,” Daijah adds. “Apply to as many colleges and scholarships as possible so that way you’ll rack up a whole bunch of award money! Get it all out of the way so you won’t be as stressed and you can enjoy your senior year!”
“Senioritis is real,” adds Lola. “My advice is to not get discouraged and maintain your grades by turning in all your assignments and talking with your teachers. Speaking with your counselors to make sure you are on the right track and answer any questions you have about the college process.”
The pressure to get accepted to college can feel enormous, but it’s important for next year’s seniors to remember that it’s your future, and you have options. “If you’re undecided about college, there are many alternatives post graduation,” counsels Braden. “Apprenticeship programs, vocational education, trade schools, military careers, entrepreneur, or employment careers.”
One last piece of advice? Don’t make senior year all about the work! “Try and cherish the time you have left with friends,” advises Ava. “Senior year is the last guaranteed time you’ll have with a lot of people that you’ve spent the last four years around. I know everyone says this, but the year really does fly by so make the most of it even on the days when you feel like you’re ready to be done. Take advantage of this final part of this stage of life because a lot of change is coming very soon.”
What’s next for the Class of 2023 is as varied as their diverse high school experiences. Next year, Braden Fowler will attend UNC Charlotte, where he plans to study psychology and physical science. Ava Weimer will attend Lipscomb University to study missions, ministry and leadership – one day she hopes to run her own nonprofit or outreach organization. Daijah L’Nae Bias plans to study fine arts at Howard University. She hopes to pursue her Masters and eventually become a Creative Art Director. Lola Cabaniss-Ali will attend Fayetteville State University, where she’ll major in accounting, be an active member of their honors program, and stay active playing basketball or running track.
One thing is for sure: the future is bright for this year’s graduates. Congratulations, Class of 2023!