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Graduating In A Pandemic Is Hard. Here’s How High School Seniors In Austin Reached The Finish Line

The graduating class of 2021 might be the most unique in a generation.

Their entire last year of high school, and part of their junior year, was dominated by the pandemic. That meant learning from bedrooms, adjusted sports seasons and dramatic changes to the events that cap off the high school experience. These students had to figure out what their lives would be like after high school during a period of uncertainty and while dealing with the same motivation slumps many of us also had.

Three seniors in the Austin Independent School District shared with KUT some of the experiences they faced during this uncommon year:

High-Speed College Apps

Virtual learning isn’t ideal for Maydelid Vasquez, a senior at Akins High School.

“The only thing that's been challenging is sitting and doing my work,” she said. “My attention span has gone to like ten seconds. I would read something and I'd be like, OK. And then next thing you know, I'm on my phone.”
Virtual learning was also tough because she didn’t have internet at her house. She received a hot spot from her high school, but it was painfully slow.

This became a problem when she started applying to college. Her hotspot would take five minutes to load a page, so she started taking her school computer with her to work at a shaved ice shop.

Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

“Whenever I had a break at my job, I had a 15-minute break, I would go and…work on my college applications,” she said. “They have internet, so I used their high-speed internet while on my break. I had Google Docs on my phone and data on my phone, so I used that up. It was a whole system.”

Vasquez is also a first-generation student and needed guidance on how to get through the college application process.

“I could not have done it on my own,” she said. “I contacted my college advisor. It was really hard because I had to fill out [the Free Application for Federal Student Aid] and nobody in my family has ever done it. So, I was here with my mom’s paperwork and I was like ‘help me’. If it was in person, I would just bring it to [the counselor] and she would be like 'here, here' but I had to take pictures, send them through email, she had to go from email to my FAFSA and share screen and it was this whole thing.”

But she completed the applications on time, and it paid off. Vasquez got accepted and committed to the University of Texas at Austin and received significant financial aid.

Feeding A Community

Philanthropy is part of Yazzen Turk’s household.

His mom works with a lot of nonprofits, and during the pandemic he watched them all spring into action. One of the organizations, Muslim Space, was regularly giving groceries to the food pantry at Northeast High School, where Turk is a senior.

“I knew that it was being used and that families were relying on [the food pantry],” he said. “So it came to mind whenever I was looking for a project.”

Turk wanted to find a project to help his community in a really difficult year. Last summer, he saw a contest posted by a local contracting company that would award money to someone wanting to do just that. He submitted a proposal and got a grant of $750.

 Yazzen Turk
Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT
Yazzen Turk

His project was to make meal kits for families at Northeast. He chose recipes that used simple ingredients and were easy to make. Then, he used the $750 to buy the groceries.

“Each family got five meals. There were 10 families, and all those meals fed a family of six,” Turk said.

He coordinated with the social worker at Northeast to make sure each meal kit got to families who needed them.

“This was my first time taking a project like this under my wing,” Turk said. “It was a new experience and it definitely made me more confident in my organizational skills. After I was done I was like, not only did I make a big difference, I was able to be an adult kind of, by making all these plans.”

Getting The Band Back Together

Daniela Velazquez grew up hearing mariachi music, but she never thought about playing it, even though she played violin.

When she started as a freshman at Crockett High School, that all changed. She joined the mariachi band and was hooked.

What I like about mariachi is that it is so loud all the time and it's always such a humble environment to be around, so that's my first love,” she said.

She’s also in the school orchestra and enjoys getting to play two different styles of music, but says there is something special about mariachi.

 Daniela Velazquez
Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT
Daniela Velazquez

“I'm able to let out all my frustration in in mariachi, all my anger, my happiness, everything,” Velazquez said. “If I'm nervous, I let it all out there when I'm playing.”

When the pandemic started in March of her junior year, she wasn’t able to rehearse with the band. She said they tried to do a few rehearsals online, but it didn’t really work. For months, she played her violin at home, alone, without the rest of the instruments to make it really feel like mariachi.

When school started again last fall, her senior year, the band tried to get approval from the school to gather and rehearse. Around October they met together for the first time since March.

“We finally started playing and even though we were just rehearsing outside, being able to play for people passing by – all the teachers, custodians, everybody at the school – it felt good to be back,” she said. That first time that I played with everybody else in the group, it felt like I was home. I felt something in me was finally complete.”

The group has still struggled to find time to rehearse together without a dedicated class, but they’ve tried.

“Being in mariachi has taught me a lot of things, like it gave me a family,” she said. “Whenever we get together and play, I feel like it's an escape for all of us somehow. In one way or another, we all share this passion for music because of whatever we're going through.”

Velazquez is attending Texas State in the fall and plans to try out for the mariachi band there.
Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

 The Crockett High School Orchestra and Mariachi pose before the End of Year Concert at Crockett Early College High School on May 12, 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT
The Crockett High School Orchestra and Mariachi pose before the End of Year Concert at Crockett Early College High School on May 12, 2021.