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A collage grid shows six high school graduates celebrating their big day.

Valedictorians from Chicago Public Schools’ Class of 2022 share their trials, tribulations, and successes.

(Clockwise from top left) Courtesy of Makayla Merrell, Brooklyn Hammond, Daniel Kocot, Yafae Cotton, Jelila Surakat, and Thomas Haran

‘Ignore the negativity’: 16 Chicago valedictorians on finishing high school in the COVID era

The fight to rebuild school communities after two years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

The class of 2022 started high school when no one even knew what COVID-19 was. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and shuttered Chicago Public Schools classrooms for more than a year. 

Even after schools reopened for full-time in-person learning this year, Chicago had a few stops and starts when the omicron variant hit and a dispute between the district and its teachers union over COVID safety protocols shut down classes for five days. 

The 16 high school valedictorians you’ll meet below were sophomores when schools throughout Illinois shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. After 18 months of virtual classes and hybrid learning, they were able to go back in-person for their senior year – allowing them to reconnect with friends and teachers, go to prom, and graduate in person with their peers.

In a statement to Chalkbeat Chicago, CPS chief Pedro Martinez advised each student to “keep an open mind about what you want to accomplish in the future.”

“Some of you may already have an ideal college and dream career in mind, and that’s great,” Martinez said. “But if you’re less certain about the future, don’t let that bother you. The key is to keep seeking out the peers and mentors who will challenge and guide you.”

The class of 2022 valedictorians have had to adjust to remote learning, take jobs to support their families, and mourn the deaths of loved ones. But they are also looking ahead – to plans that include attending colleges and universities such as Harvard University, DePaul University, Pomona College, and Iowa State University. 

Here, in their own words, the students describe how they got through these turbulent times and offer advice to their first-year selves.

Responses from students have been edited for length and clarity.

What challenges did you face while going to school during the coronavirus pandemic? How did it change you?

Valeria Ramirez, Peace and Education Coalition High School, is undecided. 

“One of the challenges I faced while attending school during the pandemic was getting used to being on my own for the most part. I, also, had to learn how to manage time better so that I would turn in my work on time but overall I think it made me more responsible and punctual.”

Aja Halbert, Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, will attend Vanderbilt University this fall.

“One huge challenge I faced was a higher workload from my cleaning job causing me to have to work before and after school during the pandemic. I would work at 4 a.m., go to school, then work at 9 p.m., after school to help support my family. I wasn’t really sure I could maintain straight A’s with this crazy work schedule, but I proved myself wrong.”

A group of eight high school seniors in formal dresses pose together for a prom picture.

Jessica Correa (third from the left), valedictorian of Ogden International High School enjoying prom with friends.

Courtesy of Jessica Correa

Jessica Correa, Ogden International School of Chicago, will attend DePaul University in the fall.

“The main challenges that I have faced were with procrastination, motivation, and self-care. At the beginning, it was really hard for me to find my purpose and a reason as to why I was doing the International Baccalaureate program and my post-secondary plans. However, by learning more about myself, speaking to others, and trying to be honest with myself, this has allowed me to learn and gain new perspectives on what I should do.”

Brooklyn Hammond, Walter H. Dyett School of the Arts, plans on majoring in computer science in the fall.

“One of the biggest challenges I faced during the pandemic was the constant feeling of making myself get up for classes. It’s a bit different when you leave the house and actually go into school because your parents drive you or you’re going to miss the bus. But, when you’re at home you get to wake up right before your first class and you’re drowsy than usual. 

You have control over if you want to open your device or not. It changed me a lot. I used to wake up as soon as my class started, which made me very sleepy. It became hard to learn because I’m a visual and hands-on learner. After a while, I got used to listening to what my teachers had to say and taking notes helped me visualize and remember more.”

Yafae Cotton, Michele Clark Magnet High School, will attend Pomona College in the fall.

“Senior year has been the hardest year of my life. Leading into my senior year Anjay, my cousin who was more like a brother, and my sister Nya got into a car crash — Nya survived but tragically Anjay didn’t make it. This felt unreal because we grew up together. We did everything together. I was lost. 

But football season was coming around the corner and that was the only thing that brought me some comfort because Anjay and I grew up playing together. It was one way I felt connected to him.

However, one day during the session I was injured and it resulted in me having a dislocated and fractured right elbow. At this point, I couldn’t go to school or do one of the things I love. My grades were slipping. At the time I had Ds and F’s. After a long talk with my family, they reassured me that I was going to be ok and I thought back to Anjay and knew that he wouldn’t want me to be this way. I also knew that nobody was coming to save me and that I had to still accomplish my goals.”

Who would you like to thank for helping you to become valedictorian for your high school? How did they help you?

Makayla Merrell, Al Raby High School, will attend Loyola University in the fall.

“My mentor and advisor. My mentor helped me become the woman I am today. My advisor helped me academically.” 

A young man, wearing pink suspenders and a pink bow tie, poses for a portrait on a bridge with a black suit jacket slung over his shoulder.

Daniel Kocot, valedictorian of Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center.

Courtesy of Daniel Kocot

Daniel Kocot, Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, will attend Harvard University and major in electrical engineering.

“I would like to thank my twin sister, Olivia Kocot. She has stuck by my side through all of my silliness over the years and has been my strongest support system during times when I questioned myself. Early on, she had her mind set on academics while I played video games practically 24/7. She pointed me in the right direction whether it was by providing her feedback on my 1st grade cursive or testing my math skills with multiplication times table practice sets.”

Thomas Haran, Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, will attend Iowa State University to study engineering.

“My peers and friends were a joy to be around and provided group experiences for education. The faculty and staff were always friendly and open to conversation, and they demonstrated immense interest in what I was doing. My teachers were my main pathway to learning, and they provided me with challenging, engaging, curriculums while introducing me to many facets of the world of greater education. They helped keep my desire to learn alive. The people that also helped to keep my desire to learn and grow alive, as well as the people who started this desire, were my parents. I cannot thank them enough.”

Arelly Arellano, Prosser Career Academy, will attend the University of Notre Dame.

“I want to thank my counselors. There were times where I wanted to give up and had self-doubt. There were times where I felt that there were other students that deserved that spot and they made me realize that I have worked so hard and that I deserve to be recognized for my commitment.”

Jelila Adedoyin Surakat, South Shore International College Prep, will attend the University of Southern California in the fall.

“I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to my academic and emotional progress. From my daycare teachers to my elementary and high school teachers and administration. I would like to thank you for your care and belief in my potential. I would like to send a special thank you to Sergeant Logan, Captain Rover, 王老师, Ms. Randall-Jones, Ms. Curtis, Mrs. Mathis, and Mrs. Flatt for their support, belief, and contribution to who I am today and my life beyond high school. My friends Keni, Oluwapelumi, Oluwalosetemi, Destiny, and Chanel deserve a huge thank you for being my emotional support throughout my four years. Last but certainly not least, I want to thank my mommy and daddy for being my biggest cheerleaders, source of motivation, and supportive of all my dreams. I promise to make everyone proud.”

What advice would you give to your freshman self?

Devan King, Morgan Park High School, will attend Middlebury College and hopes to major in political science. 

“Do not give in to the peer pressure and the voice in your mind. Fight through all of the adversity that you will face and knock it out.”

Jane Miller lifts a barbell overhead during a weightlifting competition.

Jane Miller, valedictorian of Lincoln Park High School.

Courtesy of Jane Miller

Jane Miller, Lincoln Park High School, will attend Emory University in the fall to study environmental science.

“I would give advice to find the things that make me happy. The only way that I was able to succeed in high school was by maintaining a balance between my academics and the things that brought me joy, my friends, family, and sports.”

Karen Menez, Kelvyn Park High School, will attend the University of Michigan to study nursing. 

“The advice that I would give my freshman self would be to make sure to stay organized. Although my freshman self stayed on track and accomplished a lot of things for her first year, she still stressed over the deadlines and schedules that come with high school. Organization can take you a long way, regardless of meeting deadlines. My freshman year, I could have avoided doing essays and assignments last minute. With this advice I would probably have more time to invest in relationships, such as my friends and family.”

Amy Villaseñor, Carl Schurz High School, is undecided but would like to study psychology or environmental science. 

“Put more value into your time with people you care about and your happiness. Happiness is important to have a healthy life. Sometimes you can spare some study time for family time, because in the end what you really hold on to are the good memories you shared with others. Those warm memories can help you when you’re going through a rough time. “

A young man with a short beard, wearing a suit and tie, smiles for a portrait.

Ali Khan, valedictorian of Stephen T. Mather High School.

Courtesy of Ali Khan

Ali Khan, Stephen T. Mather High School, will attend Harvard University in the fall.

“Focus on your objectives and do not let the name of your school deter you. Ignore the negativity and prove to others — but most importantly yourself — that you CAN and WILL get through it!”

Fatima Mendoza, John Hancock College Preparatory, will attend Harvard University in the fall.

“I would remind my freshman self that she is just as capable of reaching her dreams as anyone else is. I would let her know that as long as she is doing her best, she is doing enough.”

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.