New Brunswick

Pandemic doesn't stop these 3 valedictorians from making big plans

For some students, the unusual turn of events this year was a reminder that when life doesn't go as you planned, what matters is how you react.

New Brunswick valedictorians won’t let the COVID-19 pandemic slow their life plans

Ruth Bawa, standing here between her mother, Affo-Alibi Aye Femi, and her father, James, graduated from Moncton High School and will study sciences at the University of Moncton. (Submitted by Ruth Bawa)

It was an extraordinary last year of high school for students everywhere because of COVID-19, and it didn't end the way anyone dreamed back in September.

But for some students, the unusual turn of events was a reminder that when life doesn't go as you planned, what matters is how you react. Here are the stories of three valedictorians.

Like home, again

Ruth Bawa never really felt at home in Accra. 

She was born in the middle of violent unrest in Togo, and it wasn't long before her parents decided to move to Ghana, a neighbouring country in West Africa 

As native French speakers in a country where English was the official language, Bawa, then just four and an only child, her mother and her father, would sit at their dining room table in Accra with English books all around them.

"My parents are French teachers, so all of us were learning English together," Bawa said.

Bawa's parents chose Ghana because they thought applying for Canadian residency from there would be easier, and they were sure Canada was the country they wanted their children to grow up in. 

"You know, for the better opportunities and all the great things it has to offer," Bawa said.

Bawa, here with her mother, started studying English as a small child in Ghana but was happy when she learned her family would move to a bilingual province in Canada. (Submitted by Ruth Bawa)

The application process lasted about 10 years. When Bawa was about 14, the family was ready to move.

"I remember when I heard New Brunswick was a bilingual province, I was so excited because I wouldn't have that barrier of not speaking with other people."

In Moncton, Bawa made friends quickly. Now, she's graduated as Moncton High School's 2020 valedictorian.

Even though graduating during a pandemic meant most of her family in Africa was unable to attend, Bawa said she's excited for what comes next. She will be studying sciences at the University of Moncton in the fall.

All of her courses will be online during her first semester.

"How do I feel about it? I am pretty confident the teachers will be there to help us."

In celebration of a most unconventional final year of high school, we bring you a message from valedictorians. 7:29

Nothing outstandingly new

Bawa is focusing on the positives, as are most of her friends, who she said are enrolling at universities across the province.

"I will have more time because I won't have to drive to school and back, and I will be learning in the comfort of my own home. My siblings will be going to school, so I will have the house all to myself."

Bawa said moving to different countries when she was younger has helped her to overcome unusual situations. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News)

Graduating during a pandemic is just like moving, Bawa said.

"When you first move to a new place, you are always at home, you don't know people so you have nowhere to go. But I've done it a few times before, and I feel it has prepared me to overcome instances like these."

Same lunch date all year

Andrey Estrada started school at Miramichi Valley High School when he was 17 years old. 

With his family, Estrada left Costa Rica for Miramichi after his dad got a job working at Tim Hortons through an Atlantic immigration program.

"It was like Miramichi had chosen us," Estrada said.

His parents, like Bawa's, had wanted to leave home in search of a life with more opportunities for their kids.

Estrada remembers how surprised he was in Miramichi to see air conditioners in every store and building he went into. He was accustomed to the humid heat of Central America, so this was new.

Andrey Estrada and his sister Angie Estrada Abarca had lunch together every day in school, while they slowly met new people who later on became their friends. (Submitted by Andrey Estrada)

Entering a new school in Grade 11 meant most students had already established their cliques. 

"During lunch break, I sat with my sister every day for the first year," he said. 

"We tried buying food from the cafeteria at first, but we weren't sure how to do it. I even asked some teachers and they were unsure as well."

Work brings reward

Two years later, Estrada received a call from the school principal saying he was the class valedictorian.

Estrada felt all of his hard work had finally been recognized.

Estrada moved from Costa Rica to New Brunswick with his family when he was 17 years old. (Submitted by Andrey Estrada)

Now, Estrada is at home with his sister and his mother, while his father is at work. He's trying to figure out the student residence situation at Dalhousie University, which he will attend in the fall.

Regardless, Estrada knows it will be fine.

"This is one of the most unique, I would say, years in high school history. But we shouldn't be afraid. I guess my family and I have been good at adapting to new situations."

Other things to prioritize

Samantha Keow, from Fredericton High School, grew up in the city helping her mother with chores at home.

From the time she was a toddler, her father would leave New Brunswick and work in Malaysia for a few months at a time. 

This fall, Samantha Keow will be attending Western University, where she wants to study science in hopes of becoming a doctor. (Submitted by Samantha Keow)

Graduating as a valedictorian, Keow hasn't had much time to stress out about the unconventional graduation she was part of because of COVID-19.

She also hasn't had time to feel sorry about the activities that won't take place at Western University in London, Ont., where she is enrolled for the fall.

Keow has spent her days with her mother at home, Skyping every day with her dad, who is still in Malaysia.

In her valedictory speech, Keow emphasized how students should take this time to grow together even though they are driven physically apart. (Submitted by Samantha Keow)

"Everything we have come to expect is not a reality anymore," she said.

"In all, the important thing that I have just tried to keep in mind is that closure and expectation are not something that can always be replicated with big ceremonies. It is more of something that you recognize in yourself."

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