As thousands of high school seniors graduate this month, pause and reflect on what it took them to get here.
This year’s seniors faced major disruptions to their freshman and sophomore years of high school when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The students learned online for at least three months at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, with some online into 2021. On top of that, seniors faced the daily problems of high school teenagers: growing bodies, considering what to do with their lives, deadlines and creating community.
Of the thousands of graduates, many stand out for their talent and drive. The Dayton Daily News chose four outstanding graduates from school nominations to feature this year.
Maria Camacho, a Carroll High School graduate, found power in speaking up and advocating for her immigrant community.
Ja Kayla Harris, a Northmont High School graduate, is a dancer and artist interested in the STEM fields. She has found representation matters.
Hiba Loukssi, a Xenia High School graduate, found her voice in poetry and was able to connect her experience as the daughter of an immigrant to thousands of others.
Jonathan Quallen-Cooper, a Stivers High School graduate, clung to his community through ADHD and depression to reach the end of his high school career.
Maria Camacho is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and plans to go into public policy to advocate for her community. She is headed to Brown University in the fall through QuestBridge, a competitive scholarship which will cover the costs of four years of college, including books and housing.
“Especially with my background, my family being immigrants and just being a woman of color, it’s very important to me that you get representation,” she said. “A lot of the issues that are present in some communities that aren’t usually talked about can be represented, and there can be a direction of resources and attention to these types of issues.”
While at Carroll High School, she got involved with the Youth and Government program, speech and debate and literary magazines. Camacho focused on getting young students involved in voting and aware of political issues.
“If I were building a student from scratch, that student might end up like Maria Camacho,” said Carroll High School teacher Chris Sorrell. “She takes equal amounts of pride in her performance and the well-being of her classmates.”
She noted immigration is often brought up in political situations and it is painted in a partisan way. But Camacho believes most immigrants come to America with the intention of creating a better life for their families and kids.
“A lot of those kids work really, really hard to get to places that are just very normal for other kids,” she said. “I think it’s especially important to recognize not just the work that immigrants provide, but also the humanity. They’re people, too. They deserve to have stable homes, good income and health care, and all those things.”
Ja Kayla Harris
Ja Kayla Harris is a dancer with the Dayton Dance Conservatory Company and a violinist who advocates for diversity in the arts.
Harris, a Black woman, has inspired other young Black girls to enter dance. She worked with her dance company on a class for neurodivergent kids, including creating sensory-friendly spaces where the kids would not be overwhelmed but could dance.
Harris is also one of Northmont High School’s valedictorians, takes all advanced classes, and has a long volunteering list.
“Watching Ja Kayla dance is like watching fireworks,” said Northmont Spanish teacher Sarah Gosser. “It always amazes me how someone could do things that are very difficult and make it look effortless. Truly, that’s Ja Kayla. She was never loud, never flashy but boy, was she magical.”
Though her high school career her mother, Tianna Renee Harris, has battled chronic pancreatitis, which doctors determined was genetic, and was frequently hospitalized.
Ja Kayla Harris said she was able to get through it by staying busy and knowing the rest of her family was there for her.
“She would check in with us all the time,” Ja Kayla Harris said. “As far as her missing things, that was really sad, but I knew that my other family would be there to support me.”
Her dad, JaVon Harris, stepped up, Ja Kayla Harris said.
Ja Kayla Harris said she has dealt with imposter syndrome as a Black woman interested in STEM fields. But having her family support her helped battle that.
In the fall, Harris is headed to Harvard University on a near-full ride. She plans on majoring in physics but said that may change as she is interested in several different career fields.
Hiba Loukssi, a Xenia High School graduate, won the Ohio Poetry Out Loud competition and competed nationally this year.
Loukssi, the daughter of a single mother from Morocco, said poetry gave her the words to explain her own experiences. She cited Dayton poet Paul Laurence Dunbar as one of her favorite poets.
“You can find so much power within a voice, you’re going to find so much power within your own words, and I have the ability to create change,” Loukssi said. “So why am I not using that?”
She pitched ideas to her school and to the city of Xenia. She said she decided to use her voice after realizing the impact of laws and policy on her community.
“I’ve seen policy affect the members of my community in negative ways so often, and I’ve seen policy just not work the way it should, or laws not be enacted in the way they should,” Loukssi said.
With poetry, she has been able to write about her own experience of being the child of immigrants and bridging being a first-generation American and clinging to her own culture.
“I know there are so many first-generation, American-born children who know the feeling of trying to understand their family members, but there’s some kind of language barrier, or there’s a cultural barrier,” she said.
Jennifer Burgess, Xenia High School English teacher, said Loukssi is able to inspire others.
“What I find most impressive about Hiba is that her confidence, along with her enthusiasm and drive to be involved in our community, is contagious,” Burgess said.
Loukssi is headed to Cornell University in the fall.
Jonathan Quallen-Cooper is a Stivers High School graduate who found refuge in band during a mental health crisis in high school.
Quallen-Cooper has long known he has ADHD but during his sophomore year of high school — the 2020-2021 school year — a combination of factors, including that almost his entire school year was remote, meant he became depressed.
“Most of the days I would stall until the last possible moment to get ready for school and leave, because it’s like, there’s no point to it,” he said. “I’ll just be there again tomorrow. No one will miss me or anything. Then, as I came to school more often, in band, I’m needed.”
Being in band and playing the trumpet meant he had a responsibility he had to show up for. He said his band teacher, Ryan Griffin, encouraged him to show up.
“We can’t have a song with one trumpet,” Quallen-Cooper recalled Griffin telling him. “We need all of them.”
Griffin said Quallen-Cooper has grown from a shy student to a confident young adult.
“He has really opened up during his senior year and likes to chat every day before and after class,” Griffin said.
Quallen-Cooper said it helps if people around those hurting can if see they’re struggling and ask about it.
Finding a niche and a community was key for him to find his way out of depression, he said.
“Humans are a social creature,” he said. “We need each other somehow.”
Quallen-Cooper said he plans on taking a gap year before going to trade school, likely to become an electrician. He said he is considering becoming a band director or doing something else musically down the line.