Metro Vancouver valedictorians reflect on pandemic and perseverance as they address fellow graduates in person again


“We’re all ready and at the same time not ready, we feel like we missed out on a lot of stuff.”

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Perseverance and resilience are common themes at grad ceremonies around Metro Vancouver this spring.

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After COVID limited the past two grads to virtual ceremonies, the class of ’22 is enjoying in-person grads again and looking ahead with a mix of hope and anxiety.

“It’s been tough on a lot of us, including me,” said Quincy Johnson, valedictorian at Vancouver Technical Secondary.

A high-caliber athlete, she and teammates were excitedly awaiting the spring track and field season back in March, 2020, when the curtain fell. And just like that, not just the trips that were about to be taken but most of the next two years got cancelled.

“High school is a funny time. It’s not the best time for everyone,” Johnson said, “so I think people are excited to move on.

Quincy Johnson is the valedictorian for Vancouver Technical Secondary School's class of 2022.
Quincy Johnson is the valedictorian for Vancouver Technical Secondary School’s class of 2022. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

“But personally I do have this feeling of ‘I’m ready’ and some regret because (COVID affected) two really important years of high school, when you start forming your senior bonds, things like that.

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“And there’s sadness and stress because we’re done in two weeks. That’s crazy to think about. We’re all ready and at the same time not ready, we feel like we missed out on a lot of stuff.”

In Burnaby, Cariboo Hills Secondary’s Samantha Harris was the valedictorian for the district’s Indigenous students.

Samantha Harris is the valedictorian for Burnaby's Indigenous education program's class of '22.
Samantha Harris is the valedictorian for Burnaby’s Indigenous education program’s class of ’22. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

“Watch out, we’re coming,” she said when asked what message her classmates would like to share. “I know my grad class is eager to get out in the world now.”

Her speech flowed, orally and metaphorically, like a river: Rather than a trip down memory lane, Harris compared her peers’ arrival at this point in their lives to a canoe journey.

“Instead of talking about, ‘Oh it was difficult,’ I say we’ve all been through some rough waters, the river of life has capsized our canoes, we’re in swirling waters and maybe have lost a paddle or two along the way, but we still made it through, no matter what.”

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Moving forward after what they’ve been through — the world coming to a near stop — there doesn’t seem much the class of ’22 can’t overcome, Harris said.

“I feel that for our whole grad class, that no matter what we’re always going to pull through because we’ve been through so much uncertainty, so much change.”

Put it this way: Kids spend 12 years between elementary and secondary school, so the pandemic took up almost 20 per cent of that academic lifetime.

It was a lot of work as students and teachers navigated their way around the grave new world. Courses were condensed, friend was isolated from friend, at times the pandemic seemed like it would never end.

Valedictorian Chelsea Guhit at Surrey's Queen Elizabeth Secondary School.
Valedictorian Chelsea Guhit at Surrey’s Queen Elizabeth Secondary School. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

“It was really interesting to go, in Grade 10, from full classrooms to everything just stopping,” said Chelsea Guhit, valedictorian for Surrey’s Queen Elizabeth Secondary.

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“Regardless of everything we’ve been through, we still made it, we’re still here. We’re learning and we’re thriving.”

Her elder sister, Anna, graduated from Queen Elizabeth in 2020, before edicts forced ceremonies of all kinds into the virtual world.

But even in 2020, COVID-19 forced grads to sit in small, social-distancing groups.

“Ann said it was fun because they were at least able to have something,” Guhit said. “But she said it didn’t really feel like it was the end, an accomplishment.

“The emotions wouldn’t be the same as if the whole class was there and there were a whole bunch of people there watching.”

Expect a lot of emotions to be present with not just grads, but friends and family filling auditoriums again.

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“We need to take in the moment that we’re living in and enjoy it,” Sophia Santa Ana of Richmond Secondary said of her valedictorian speech’s theme, “rather than overworking ourselves in an attempt to make the moment our idea of ​​perfect.”

Sophia Santa Ana, valedictorian for the class of '22 at Richmond Secondary.
Sophia Santa Ana, valedictorian for the class of ’22 at Richmond Secondary. Photo by Ruthy Nguyen

She and her classmates felt hope they would leave them at times during the last half of their high school lives.

Grad is not only a chance for one final, big get-together, but a huge weight off everyone’s shoulders.

“As scary as it (grad) is, it’s something monumental for each of us.”

One day, these grads will attend reunion ceremonies, wonder where the years went, and look back at 2022 with who knows what memories. For now, though, diplomas in hand, they’ve persevered and they’re ready for life’s next adventure.

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Cariboo Hill’s Harris closes her valedictorian address with a quote from a children’s book about Indigenous heroes, Go Show the World, by Wab Kinew.

“We are the people who matter, yes it’s true; now let’s show the world what people who matter can do.”

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