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Graduation 2021: Vergennes seniors wax about futures

ALEXIS LACLAIR

VERGENNES — When asked about the challenges and high points of the past two school years, the period during which the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted their education and lives, Vergennes Union High School seniors with different backgrounds and plans for the future sounded similar themes.

Challenges were different for each, but to start with, all missed seeing their friends, while at the same time found support from them, according to seniors who spoke with us just before or after the school’s June 11 graduation ceremony.

“It was definitely helpful if you made plans to meet up outside with someone to go for a walk, or do something outside where it was safe. I would go on a walk outside with my best friend,” said longtime Ferrisburgh resident Reagan Kayhart, also a student representative to the Addison Northwest School District Board.

“That was just a really helpful experience to just decompress a lot, figure out what is happening.”

Class of 2021 unity took a hit, but the last couple months back in school and events like the annual senior walk-a-thon, prom, and a normal graduation ceremony restored togetherness, the seniors said.

“Last year we didn’t have any of these celebrations, and this year, senior year we are starting to have them. It feels very happy,” said Nima Mehregan, who immigrated to Vergennes in August 2017. “It’s very nice to see everybody going back to normal life. It is amazing, I would say, with all the vaccinations and stuff.”

Online learning and the two days in school, three days out hybrid model of most of the VUHS academic year received mixed reviews at best from the members of the Class of 2021.

“I’d say the hardest parts for me were the lack of human contact and communication,” said Alexis LaClair, a Vergennes resident who transferred to VUHS before her junior year.

“Fully remote it was hard. Because you didn’t have those people there in person. And then when we switched back it definitely made it easier. But that was one of my biggest challenges, the lack of being able to physically be there and get that physical help.”

CHALLENGES

For Mehregan, the pandemic posed a problem shared by others new to a country trying to absorb its language. When he arrived from Iran he spoke no English.

Now the VUHS senior who also attended the Hannaford Career Center is justifiably proud of not only his recent first-place finish in a state-wide high-school culinary competition (he competed on June 16 for a national Skills USA title), but also his English language skills.

“Believe it or not, when I first came here in August back in ’17, I couldn’t speak any English,” Mehregan said. “And here I am now, speaking English really good.”

But for those learning any new language, interaction with native speakers is a critical, if not the most critical, way to do so. In March 2020 that avenue was closed at VUHS, and in the 2020-2021 year it was limited. 

“It was very hard because we had to be on Zoom, and I couldn’t see the teacher. And when you’re in person it’s easier for you to learn English, or any language I would say,” Mehregan said. “I would say my learning English in my junior year was like nothing, because there weren’t any opportunities for me to talk to anybody.”

Fortunately, his daily class at Hannaford this past academic year was in-person.

“This year, my senior year, when I went to the career center, and when it was more hands-on stuff, and there were more people I saw, it was amazing,” Mehregan said. “I learned more English. I learned more culinary stuff, and I’m super happy.”

Kayhart and LaClair said they found online learning challenging for their regular course material. Kayhart added they were not the only ones, and that it was also difficult to maintain educational momentum this past year while jumping back and forth between distance and in-class learning in the school’s hybrid model.

“One of the challenges that was definitely difficult for me as a student was to be learning remotely and in-person. It was a really difficult step, and it was a learning curve for everyone,” Kayhart said.

LaClair said the distance learning felt lonely at times, and assignments did not always feel meaningful.

“I definitely did miss being with everybody, even though I only know a few people here. It’s nice to see everybody in my class, not just a pinch here and a pinch there. And it was also difficult education-wise, because it felt different. It didn’t feel like we were learning. We were just doing the work to get it done,” LaClair said.

Kayhart said she was one of many who missed extracurriculars lost to the pandemic.

“There were things that didn’t happen, such as the musical, and I was a part of that in past years. So it was disappointing to see things not happen that had happened in the past that you were looking forward to doing in your senior year,” she said.

MAKING IT THROUGH

Teachers and friends were common threads when the seniors discussed what helped get them through the past 15 months.

Mehregan, who earned scholarships to help him attend the Culinary Institute of America this fall and hopes to own his own restaurant one day, cited both when asked what had helped.

“All the teachers and students, because if they were not here, my English would not be as good. Because I had the opportunity to talk to them, and they told me my mistakes. And I could speak and speak and speak, and I was not shy. It was amazing,” he said.

Kayhart, who plans to study aerospace engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, added family to the list.

“I did a lot more activities with my family because my brother (Parker) didn’t have sports all the time. There were teachers doing morning meetings at home when you were at home. That was a helpful time because you were able to talk to someone. Just being able to talk to someone was great throughout the time,” she said.

LaClair said despite some of her misgivings about remote learning, she felt the academics were strong overall at VUHS, and that gave her a boost along with support from teachers and friends.

“Coming from a school where I felt like I wasn’t learning a single thing to a school where I felt like I passed some of my hardest classes … that definitely kept me going to know that I’m better off here than I was there,” LaClair said.

“Along with amazing teachers who were there every step of the way, and my small group of friends who were with me every step of the way. I would look forward to talking with them even if it was over Zoom. But it definitely kept me like, ‘You got this.’”

ENDGAME

All appreciated the return to fulltime school and the activities that came along with it, like the annual senior walkathon that had been postponed from the fall, a prom held outdoors at VUHS, and finally graduation.

Kayhart cited both prom and the walkathon, in which the seniors raised money for the for the Alzheimer’s Association and the Vermont Food Bank with a bonding round-trip walk to Ferrisburgh Central School.

“We had the walk-a-thon, which was such a great experience as a class,” Kayhart said. “That was a great opportunity just to get together again because we hadn’t seen each other in forever. That went really well, I think. We had a great attendance for that.”

And she added just being back in school with the entire class of 103 rather than an alphabetically assigned cohort twice a week was a welcome change.

“You were able to connect and talk to people. And I think that was the most important thing throughout the whole pandemic, being able to still communicate and talk to people,” Kayhart said.

LaClair said it took some adjusting to return fulltime, but it was worth it. 

“I was anxious at first, because I kind of overthink a lot. I hoped I could just follow the rules,” she said. “But coming back together we followed the rules. We reunited. It’s been really nice to have the whole school back. It feels like we’ve been back to normal,” she said.

LaClair enjoyed prom — and graduation.

“It’s like, whoa,” she said. “That’s all I can say. We did it. We made it.”

Now, LaClair, like all members of the class, is going on to the next phase of her life — she said she has multiple job offers in St. Albans.

“I’m going to try to get my first job, my first car. Get myself on my feet, really,” LaClair said. “Being an adult. Yay!” 

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