What it's like to graduate high school in the middle of a pandemic
'Our whole world was turned upside down,' says Grade 12 student Shubhkarman Jaura
Allisther De Castro admits that when she arrived in Canada a year ago this month, navigating a new school in her graduating year was difficult.
"I lived in the Philippines for 17 years and I left most of my relatives and friends that I grew up with," said the 18-year-old Maples Collegiate graduate from Winnipeg.
"But I guess I can say that it is an amazing experience because I get to meet and befriend people as well as [get] to know their culture."
For De Castro, graduating in June 2020 is a surreal experience — especially given she was named co-valedictorian with her classmate Shubhkarman Jaura.
"It is pretty devastating to think that we've waited and worked so hard for four years, and we suddenly find out that we can't walk across the stage and get our diplomas in front of our friends and families," De Castro told The Current's Matt Galloway.
Across the country, high school graduation ceremonies have been called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both De Castro and Jaura, along with other high school graduates, spoke to The Current for a virtual graduation ceremony.
"Our whole world was turned upside down by this pandemic.... It was quite sad," said Jaura, who moved to Canada three years ago from India.
WATCH: The speech Maples Collegiate's 2020 co-valedictorians would have delivered
Though he made the most of his final months of Grade 12, one major project ended up cancelled. Jaura was part of the Global Space Balloon Challenge team at his school, which put together a payload destined for the stars via helium balloon on April 22.
"What ended up happening is that because of COVID-19, we were not able to execute our plans," he said.
Both Jaura and De Castro are looking ahead to September when they begin their first university classes — online, of course.
With a $100,000 scholarship, Jaura will be studying engineering at the University of Alberta. De Castro will be staying closer to home, focusing on either health care or business at the University of Manitoba.
'I'm so ready to have more classmates'
In the Newfoundland outport Rencontre East, Lydia Hardy is her school's entire graduating class this year.
"There's a total population of about 130 people, and ever since kindergarten, I have been the lone student [in my grade] and I've really enjoyed the experience," the graduate told Galloway.
"But I'm so ready to have more classmates," she said, laughing.
The 18-year-old was one of 36 students, out of 5,000 applicants, to receive the Loran Award, a $100,000 scholarship for young community leaders.
"At the age of 11, I came out of the closet and I am the first person to be living in Rencontre and be openly bisexual," she explained. "By doing that, more people became used to the idea of having somebody in their community who was openly attracted to someone of the same sex."
"I also create awareness for mental health by talking about my own struggles," she added, explaining that she was diagnosed with and treated for anxiety and depression as a child.
Those struggles, Hardy explained, have inspired her to study behavioural neuroscience at Memorial University in St. John's this fall.
"My psychiatrist really helped me understand that it's OK to need extra help and that mental illness is the same as any physical illness," she said.
"I want to do the same for other people who are struggling with mental illness, and I also want to find more effective ways to treat mental illness."
Showing solidarity to communities
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown climate activist Naia Lee's plans up in the air.
"I was initially planning to take a gap year with a few friends to do some cross-country travel and provide some opportunities for other climate groups that we're connected with," the International Baccalaureate programme graduate told The Current.
"So we're trying to figure out if we're going to do some similar climate justice work in the Lower Mainland here in schools or with environmental organizations," she said, adding that she's also considering an offer to McMaster University's Arts and Sciences program.
The 17-year-old is behind Sustainabiliteens, a Vancouver-based climate action group inspired by Greta Thunberg's Fridays for Future movement.
Lee helped organize a climate strike in downtown Vancouver that drew more than 175,000 demonstrators, she says.
Asked what she thinks the future holds for this year's graduating class, Lee says that young Canadians are highly aware of the problems facing society and the planet.
"I think there really is potential, particularly now that we've experienced something that we've never experienced before in terms of a global pandemic, to be able to understand that something other than 'normal' is possible," she said.
"We can actually show solidarity to communities who are most affected — whether it's by climate change or by a pandemic or by racism — and really enforce that we have a commitment to doing more than the bare minimum and to not doing harm actively."
What is your advice to the Class of 2020? Tell us in the comments.
Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Suzanne Dufresne, Sarah-Joyce Battersby, Mary-Catherine McIntosh and Julie Crysler.