Courtesy of Mana Setayesh
Mana Setayesh (left) and her friends show off their decorated caps before graduation in Lafayette, Colorado, in May 2021.

Struggle and resilience: Lessons from the class of 2021

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As a new school year begins, pandemic still in tow, the story of three Colorado students from the class of 2021 offers a glimpse into how a generation of high schoolers survived one of the most unusual moments in American education.

There were countless struggles. But hope, it becomes evident, is not lost. 

Why We Wrote This

Three Colorado students confronted academic pressures, family needs, and questions about college during a fraught final year of high school. But they adapted in ways that suggest COVID-19 won’t define their futures.

Mana Setayesh, a student at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, tallied the negatives of her pandemic-upended senior year: missing out on sports and homecoming. She also tallied her gains: increased independence, and simultaneously, more time spent with her family.

Jaden Huynh, who had plans to graduate early from Arvada West High School, outside Denver, missed classes taking care of her family – but was still able to eke out all the credits she needed.

Michael Liao, one of Mana’s classmates, finished out the year online – not his preference, as his classmates started returning in the spring. But he performed in one last theater production in person.

“Life is mostly what you make of it and how you react to it,” he says. “As much as all of us would hope to erase the pandemic, we can’t. We all tried our best, and we’re getting close to the end, and that’s all really anyone can ask of us.”

When sports practices were abruptly canceled at his high school on March 12, 2020, Michael Liao, then a junior, started to worry how much the pandemic would affect his school – and particularly his upcoming theater performance. The next morning, he woke to an email announcing that in-person classes would be canceled for the foreseeable future.

By mid-April, the world had changed.

Jaden Huynh, then a sophomore at Arvada West High School in a suburb northwest of Denver, was confronting the new reality, too. One night she circled the dinner table plating goi – a Vietnamese salad – and spring rolls for her family’s Easter dinner and silently counted all the empty seats for cousins and extended relatives who weren’t coming.

Why We Wrote This

Three Colorado students confronted academic pressures, family needs, and questions about college during a fraught final year of high school. But they adapted in ways that suggest COVID-19 won’t define their futures.

Colorado’s lockdown had been in place for months when Michael’s classmate, Mana Setayesh, a rising senior at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, a half-hour north of Denver, sat stunned when her doctor told her a high school swimming star had come down with COVID-19 and could no longer attend college. Would her future get derailed as well?

All three planned to graduate at the end of the 2020-21 school year. But as the pandemic raged, unabated, each quietly realized their senior year could end far differently than they expected. The months of disruption continued for Michael, Jaden, Mana, and the 3.7 million other teenagers preparing for a triumphant final year of high school in the United States. 

“You don’t get a second chance at 12th grade,” Michael says. “This is it. This is the hand we were dealt.”

Stuck at home, these students saw their future threatened by an unpredictable and deadly virus that upended the economy and possibly their hopes for college. They watched as the police killing of a Black man in Minneapolis reignited the country’s fight for racial and social justice. And they lived through perhaps the most divisive presidential battle in American history. This chaotic year is now the foundation for these young people’s transition to adulthood.

As a new school year begins – alongside a fourth wave of the pandemic – the story of these three Denver-area students offers a glimpse into how well a generation of high schoolers in the U.S. survived one of the most unusual moments in American education.

COVID-19 confronted them with an unprecedented set of challenges and travails in their most important and formative year in school. But, thanks in part to efforts by their schools to keep them from being neglected, the three youths persevered and adapted, defying the common perception that the pandemic might forever map their futures or create a lost generation of students.

Jake Holschuh/The Hechinger Report
“I was faced with having to step up for my family or for my education, and I chose my family.” – Jaden Huynh, who graduated in 2021, a year early, from a high school in suburban Denver. She struggled to balance school and duties at home during the pandemic.

In late October 2020, Jaden walked through Arvada West on one of the two days each week she attended classes in person as part of the school’s hybrid schedule.

Public health officials had opened an investigation into her school for a COVID-19 outbreak just days earlier, but the school was still open and Jaden was meeting her English teacher for help with an essay. The conversation soon turned, as it often did with this teacher, to Jaden’s hope of graduating a year early. 

The teenager left feeling her teacher was “super against” her goal. “Graduating early during a pandemic is going to be incredibly difficult,” Jaden says. “It threw a huge fork into my plans.”

She had just applied for a full-ride scholarship that she hoped would start her on the long path to becoming a neurosurgeon. The scholarship, from the Boettcher Foundation, a Denver-based philanthropy, would pay her way to a university in Colorado, something her family could not afford.

Jaden was ready to start her adult life, one she hoped would allow her to support her family. Her father lost work during the pandemic, putting the family of 14 back on food stamps and Medicaid. Jaden is the third oldest in her family and dotes on her many younger siblings, some of whom are adopted. 

But learning from home was hard, and her slipping grades threatened her plans.

“I set deadlines for myself, but it’s hard with how many people I live with,” Jaden said in early November. “You can’t ask teachers for a later due date. They’re slammed, too.”

She had enrolled in nine classes to earn all the necessary credits to graduate by May. Even with a personal internet connection provided by the school, Jaden grew frustrated with spotty Wi-Fi during remote classes. A chemistry teacher warned that missing Zoom classes, for any reason, would result in missing credit. Meeting these requirements became even harder, isolated from the people she relied on for support. Jaden, who identifies as Hispanic, Indigenous, and Vietnamese, especially missed her mentors.

Across the U.S., learning loss during the pandemic hit children living in poverty and students of color particularly hard. Early data suggested about a third of low-income, Black, and Hispanic students did not regularly log into online instruction. Even though she had her own challenges with remote learning, Jaden was not ready to give up.

“When I commit to something, I commit, but I’m also bound to fail at times,” she says. On her college essays, she underscored the value of resilience. One began, “I’m really good at failing.” 

Rebounding from small failures, she believed, would lead to long-term success, no matter what the challenges. “I really have to kick up and dig in and dig deep if I really want this,” she says.

Jake Holschuh/The Hechinger Report
“It’s a pretty big deal. Your whole life builds up to this point, and then it’s just nonexistent.” – Mana Setayesh, who graduated from a charter school in Lafayette, Colorado, in May 2021. She spent her entire senior year learning remotely.

About 20 minutes away, in Boulder, Mana was also thinking about college.

She had entered Peak to Peak, a college prep program, as a sixth grader and never doubted her plans to apply to top-tier schools after graduation. But from her bedroom – decorated with new art she painted during the lockdown and a puzzle poster of the periodic table – Mana began rethinking her timing.

Older friends in college shared grim stories of dorm life during a pandemic. One remained stuck in her room alone, with only three other people on the same floor and classes completely online. Prepackaged food was delivered to another friend in a similar setup.

“They’re basically paying money to sit in a tiny square room, not allowed to come out, and no one to talk to,” Mana says. “Wouldn’t it be better to stay at home with my family?”

At home, Mana tested recipes from Iran, her parents’ home country, watched movies outdoors with friends, and spent time on her bed scrolling through news reports about the record number of applications to, and record low acceptance rates at, elite colleges. Many incoming freshmen had delayed their enrollment for a year, and some universities stopped requiring the ACT or SAT for admission. 

“You don’t want to get your hopes up, especially this year,” Mana says. After years of hard work aimed at being academically prepared for a school like Stanford University, her first choice, it suddenly felt like “there was just no way I was getting in.” 

Michael, the oldest son of Chinese immigrants, was also busy with college and scholarship applications. He debated whether to prioritize liberal arts schools, where he could major in the humanities, or more research-focused universities, which his father preferred. At least the applications offered a distraction from what he described as the “collective national trauma” of the pandemic.

Of the 56 schools in the Boulder Valley School District, Peak to Peak, where Michael and Mana were enrolled, had only resumed in-person learning for kindergartners and kept all other students in remote instruction. Michael tried to find humor and happiness in the absurdity of it all: Of gym class on Zoom – “Oh, cool, I get to watch myself work out now.” Of teachers’ pet animal cameos – “A shot of dopamine.” 

Michael sat alone in his room one day in October and recorded a violin piece. “Ugh, this is terrible,” he thought as he submitted the clip for class. The final version of it – included in a performance his teacher put together from student submissions – made him feel better. 

He wasn’t as bad as he thought, he decided, and “the comfort I took in helping to create a small ensemble piece, regardless of how terrible it was performed, was not insignificant.” 

Jake Holschuh/The Hechinger Report
“You don’t get a second chance at 12th grade. This is it. This is the hand we were dealt.” – Michael Liao, who graduated from a charter school in Lafayette, Colorado, this spring. He missed playing the violin in orchestra while remote learning.

During a second-quarter break, the teacher offered optional Zoom sessions on Fridays, so students wouldn’t get rusty with their music. Michael was the only one to show.

“This is not what anyone asked for, but we’re still here, and we’re all working to make sure it’s as pain-free as it can be,” he says of the pandemic, determined at that point in the fall to maintain his optimism. 

But as winter set in, Michael began to feel lonely, like many students. In a national poll, nearly three-quarters of the more than 2,400 high schoolers surveyed reported a poor or declining sense of mental health, with disproportionately high numbers of female and Hispanic students. Many young people also struggled with food insecurity. 

More than a year into the pandemic, the Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a pediatric mental health state of emergency, as youth behavioral visits to the medical system’s emergency rooms increased more than 70% over early 2019.

Mana struggled with health issues of her own. In December 2019, as news first started trickling in from China about a new, highly infectious virus, Mana had wakened with sudden hearing loss in her left ear. Her doctors were unable to explain why, and the experts her mother consulted around the globe weren’t helpful. 

Even with all the distractions, Mana remained focused on one thing: getting into college. On Dec. 11, in between errands she was running for her quarantined grandmother, an email arrived from Stanford University.

It was a rejection letter.

“With college, I have no gut feeling of where I’m going,” she said a few days later. But her hearing had improved some, which made her feel less pressured about the rejection. “Being in the present and being isolated made me realize that Stanford was everyone else’s dream for me. ... I knew this wasn’t meant for me, but I had no idea what else was. That’s pretty scary.”

Her whole future seemed hazy. And after losing out on key senior milestones such as homecoming, powderpuff football, and a senior hike she had anticipated since sixth grade, Mana continued to wonder whether taking a gap year would be best.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” she says. “Your whole life builds up to this point, and then it’s just nonexistent.”

Jake Holschuh/The Hechinger Report
Jaden Huynh plans to study neurosurgery to help support her family of 14. She worked as a back-up mom during the pandemic to care for her younger siblings.

Even as record-setting warmth melted most of the snow during the holidays, the winter surge of coronavirus cases in Colorado kept Jaden at home for her 17th birthday, on New Year’s Day.

Jaden’s family typically celebrates with some Ecuadorian friends, who burn in effigy a representation of something bad (or annoying) from the old year. Eating vanilla cake in her room that night, Jaden watched shaky Zoom video of her friends setting fire to an effigy of COVID-19.

“That’s the entity that we would be better off without,” Jaden says.

A couple of weeks later, her mother was sidelined by health issues, forcing Jaden to put school aside to help her family.

Jaden began to set her alarm for about 4 o’clock each morning. She’d spend a few pre-dawn hours on homework before waking her younger siblings and preparing breakfasts of cereal, pancakes, or ramen noodles. At night, she cajoled the kids into showers before tackling more homework and finally collapsing into bed herself before 11. 

Like many other teenagers last year, Jaden dutifully accepted the role of backup parent, even as her frequent absences and missing assignments further threatened her early graduation plans.

“I was faced with having to step up for my family or for my education, and I chose my family,” Jaden says.

Michael was also confronted with family issues, but it was tempered by some good news. He had received early acceptances from three colleges. 

The congratulatory letters included an initial estimate of his financial aid awards. The offer of full-ride scholarships from Centre College, a private liberal arts school in Kentucky, and the University of Texas at Dallas left Michael pleased with himself. “It’s a good mood booster, when you’re starting to feel burned out,” he said in December.

Still, Michael was struggling getting work done. In early January, he watched the storming of the U.S. Capitol on TV with his family. “I’m so tired of historical things happening,” he says.

Courtesy of Michael Liao
During the pandemic, Michael Liao finished high school with a schedule consisting entirely of remote classes, including physical education. In December, he used resistance bands in place of weights training for PE.

Stresses were building at home. His father had a health condition that made it risky to interact with anyone outside their family. In between driving his mother to work at the university and picking her up later in the day, Michael busied himself with chores at his family’s rental property: shoveling the driveway, fixing a broken toilet, and shutting off all the outdoor plumbing so the pipes wouldn’t burst. 

“The burnout is real,” he said in February. “I haven’t really socialized ever since cases started rising again.”

One morning, he got a text message from a friend, asking him to visit the coffee shop where the friend worked. Michael’s parents had reservations, but he hadn’t seen his friend since July, during a physically distanced farewell for theater members heading to college.

Lugging hefty textbooks, Michael nervously walked into the cafe. He ordered a small drink and lifted his mask to take quick sips while eavesdropping on the surrounding customers.

“It was mostly about basking in the presence of other people,” Michael says. “There’s something about that ambience that I didn’t know I missed.” He also got a hug from his friend – an unexpected embrace in the parking lot – “which is wild, considering I don’t do that very often, even in normal times.”

The isolation, he realized later, had changed him: “I have been incredibly touch-starved.”

In a March 2021 survey from the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, about three-quarters of parents said the pandemic had a negative impact on their teens’ ability to interact with friends. That held true for Michael, but therapy helped.

“I find it hard to be vulnerable, and this simple act of giving a hug recognizes that a person means something to you,” he says. 

In April, Jaden waited to learn if she had won the full-ride scholarship. Then, both her mother and father tested positive for COVID-19. Jaden was back to playing backup mom.

“I can’t afford to be a kid anymore,” she says. “I have obligations and people I need to support. I don’t have time to hang out with friends or go to a dance.”

After her parents’ recovery, Jaden sat on her bed and tried to complete yet another overdue English essay. The constant patter of her younger sister running up and down the stairs – relaying reminders from their mother that Jaden needed to scrub the kitchen counters – tested her patience.

By that point, she had considered staying at a friend’s house for some peace and quiet. Her mother said no, and Jaden began to lose faith that she could ever improve her failing grades. That morning, she’d had enough.

“I couldn’t stop yelling,” she says. “I needed to just be left alone. I felt so sick. I could never choose school over family, but school used to be everything to me.”

Jake Holschuh/The Hechinger Report
Mana Setayesh refined her baking skills during the pandemic and tried many recipes from Iran, her parents' native country. She wonders if her college dorm will have the necessary kitchen equipment for her to continue baking.

Mana and her parents were fully vaccinated by April. In between hugging friends for the first time in 12 months and planning for actual college visits, Mana allowed herself to start imagining a future that looked more like the one she’d had in mind for years.

The arrival of acceptance letters from five schools – mostly her backup choices – made that seem even more likely.

“I want to do every single thing I can possibly do,” Mana says. “I just want to get out, not in a bad way. I just need to explore and make up for lost time.”

Mana visited three preferred schools in California. Peak to Peak announced tentative plans for an actual prom – the state would limit students to dancing in pods of 10 people or fewer – and an outdoor graduation ceremony.

Mana created a balance sheet to account for her final year of high school. Among the losses: Volleyball tournaments. Homecoming. A final ski season with her dad. Gains: Increased independence. A stronger sense of self. More time with her family.

“We had meals together every single day. We used to only do that on weekends,” Mana says. “It’s been a blessing especially because it’s my last year at home. A lot of times, most students pack their last year and it’s so busy and hectic, they lose out on that.”

In the final quarter of school, Peak to Peak opened its doors to in-person learning again, and Michael’s father also got his first shot. He traveled to California to visit Michael’s older sister, who lives and works there. While he was out of town, Michael’s mother decided to send Michael and his brothers back to class.

“I haven’t seen someone sit next to me for a very long time. It’s glorious,” Michael says of that first week. 

But after dinner one evening, Michael’s father called. He demanded to know why he went back to school. After a conversation with his mother, the mandate was set: Michael and his brothers would finish the year from home.

Michael had one lifeline that his brothers didn’t: Theater rehearsals had started again, and he was allowed to go.

For a two-night, outdoor performance of “Matilda the Musical,” the cast started each rehearsal in a big circle. Reciting tongue twisters in a British accent made Michael chuckle during the vocal warmups, and transparent face masks made it easier to see his fellow actors’ smiles. 

Before the closing performance, he and the other seniors gathered for the “tradition of shroses” – each held a bundle of fake roses for each show they had participated in since freshman year. Michael, with “a dinky four flowers,” fought back tears as his castmates gushed about their adopted family.

“They’re all kind of wacky, and I mean that in the most endearing way,” he says. “We’re all a group of misfits.” Getting back to theater was a benchmark for Michael. “Before, I was unhappy. ... At least now I’m sad with friends,” he jokes.

In May, Jaden got the go-ahead to finish her remaining credits over the summer and graduate a year early as planned. She also received a full scholarship and decided to attend the University of Colorado Denver. She didn’t walk with graduating seniors at Arvada West, which was fine. But Jaden was sorry she’d missed the last chance to see her teachers and counselors. 

“I spent this entire year in a constant state of I-don’t-knows,” she says. “Obstacles were thrown at me left and right, and I took on more responsibility than I thought I could bear.”

At least she feels ready for college. “Putting a lot on yourself is super difficult, but not impossible, if you involve other people,” Jaden says. “The more I rely on others, the less difficult a load becomes.”

At CU Denver, she plans to take advantage of free therapy available for students in her dorm and a recording studio where she can pair music to her notes from class. 

“I’m excited – and so terrified,” she says.

Early in May, Mana sat on the living room couch and opened her phone, expecting bad news. “Let’s just open them,” she told her mother of the application status updates from the two Ivy League schools at the top of her list. “If I didn’t get in, it’s fine. Let’s move on.”

She got in.

“We called my dad over and he was like, ‘What! You got in?’ It was just a lot of excitement and surprise.” Mana chose Cornell University, where she plans to study biotechnology. 

After enjoying family trips to Dallas and San Francisco over the summer, Mana flew to New York City with her parents and grandmother before moving to Ithaca, New York, for her first day of classes at Cornell. The university is requiring face masks and vaccinations for all students.

“Things will be different from how they used to be, and that is OK,” she says. “I am trying to stay optimistic.”

Michael spent part of his summer sweating in the Danville, Kentucky, sun as he helped restore parks there for an orientation with Centre College.

He worried about leaving his family, especially after the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes. But classes – including a course in Mandarin – began in late August. And like Jaden and Mana, he feels ready.

“Life is mostly what you make of it and how you react to it,” Michael says. “As much as all of us would hope to erase the pandemic, we can’t. We all tried our best, and we’re getting close to the end, and that’s all really anyone can ask of us.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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