For the more than 5,700 graduating seniors from Catholic high schools across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the last few weeks have marked the end of a journey whose final year was marred by uncertainty, isolation, and often, heartbreak. 

But there were also vital lessons learned, prayers answered, and new opportunities discovered while having to finish high school during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Some of this year’s graduates shared with Angelus about what graduation means to them as they continue to college and beyond.

Sacred Heart High School, Los Angeles

Kelley Manzo, a standout middle blocker on the varsity volleyball team that went to the state tournament in 2019, was her school’s senior class president and a top-three scholar.

It is a long way from the time she and her siblings were abandoned by her mother and raised by her grandmother and uncle.

During the pandemic summer before her senior year, Manzo decided to move to Yucaipa to be with her grandmother and continue distance learning.

“The craziness and uncertainties that were happening all around pushed me to this change,” said Manzo. “At first, it was very difficult to be 80 miles away from the rest of the family and friends. I found myself very lonely in Yucaipa.

“What helped me persevere most is wanting to make my family proud and take advantage of the opportunity I was given. My other six siblings did not have the opportunity to attend a private school and have the education I did. I also wanted to be the one to end the cycle of drugs and crimes that my family found themselves in. 

“My Catholic faith has always taught me to put my trust in God, and I knew that what was going on around us was all part of God’s plan. I kept my faith and hope in home.”

Manzo will go to UC Riverside, where she will study biochemistry with an eye on a career as a veterinarian. She is a recipient of the prestigious “Angels Scholarship” that covers costs for all four years of college.

Saint Joseph High School, Lakewood

Analise Espinoza said she last saw her father, Raul, when she was at their Whittier home.

He had been exposed to COVID-19 and was in danger as she was in a distance learning class on the first day after Christmas break starting her second semester.

“I stepped out of my room to see my dad being taken to the hospital,” she said.

The family could only Facetime with him three times every day, and it seemed he was getting better. But soon he was intubated when his breathing labored.

When the phone call eventually came that he had died, “it was unreal,” Espinoza said. “It was hard to come to terms that he was not coming back home and I would never be able to hug him again.”

An only child, Espinoza realized she had to be strong for her mother, Martha, in what she called a “life-changing moment.”

“I can say I believe I have pushed through and tried to not allow myself to be consumed with this negative and sad feeling, but continue to make my dad proud and having him present through my words and actions.”

Espinoza did not return to the Saint Joseph campus for senior year, but participated in some events toward the end of the semester “to have a feeling of some normality and interact and truly feel like a senior,” which included attending prom and dancing with her friends.

The 18-year-old will be attending the University of La Verne this fall, majoring in business administration and dedicating her studies to her “amazing, loving, supportive, and inspirational dad, who is in heaven with God and is my constant guardian angel.”

Espinoza with her father.

Edalyn Bray, a 17-year-old from Bellflower, will head to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, to major in biomedical engineering on a pre-med track with hopes of becoming an orthopedic surgeon or anesthesiologist.

She said school had always been “a big part of defining myself,” and not being on campus was a “huge disadvantage ... one of the greatest parts of my high school journey was taken away from me. I was anxious to get back.”

But she also saw her mother, Henyday, in and out of the hospital with immense asthma issues due to recent Southern California fires during this time.

“There were many days I cried and was worrying about so many things,” said Bray. “I felt there was a point I just wanted to drop out of school. I felt helpless to my entire family, friends, and community.”

Bray took on more part-time shifts at a local café to help the family pay for medical bills. She also benefited from the senior Kairos three-day retreat that helped “give me answers to what I was looking for in my relationship with God.”

One of the actions Bray also took was establishing a nonprofit organization called “Hearts of Learning,” offering free educational resources and tools to schools in need around the world. She received a Christian Service Award from the archdiocese.

Natalia Rodriguez’s adjustments to distance learning took on a new challenge when her brother, David, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, a case of rhabdomyosarcoma.

Rodriguez with her brother David.

“I had been struggling in school because of the pandemic and this made it harder to see my brother while he was in the hospital,” said Rodriguez, who lives in South Central LA. “My teachers were very understanding of my situation and helped me with whatever I needed. I can see this as a life lesson, by being able to push through this tough situation knowing it is always OK to ask for help.”

A three-year member of her school’s volleyball team, Natalia heads to Cal State Long Beach to major in sociology. David Rodriguez, 16, was able to go back to school at St. John Bosco High.

Isabella Saunders-Squieri said she gravitated to St. Joseph High School because her mother, aunts, and many cousins went there, and she felt a pull to be part of a legacy her grandmother created for the family.

From left: Isabella Saunders-Squieri, with her mother Tinamarie Squieri, her grandmother Maria Squieri, her aunt Rosemarie Squieri, and her cousin Samantha Squieri.

But in having to do schooling from home in Long Beach, she admitted the challenges were difficult juggling schedules. In addition, she said she lost several friends “through major fallouts that now seem so minimal and petty and could have been solved through better communication. Disagreements and misunderstandings are what every friendship faces.”

Adding to the stress was that her father, first diagnosed with cancer in 2017, continues to battle various health issues “but continues to persevere,” she added.

The 18-year-old is heading to Orange Coast College on the way toward San Diego State to study psychology or business. Her journey so far has taught her that “the world doesn’t stop just because things go wrong in your life. I can be more independent and capable of more than I thought.”

Alexis Rangel was just starting her junior year when a serious car accident in October 2019 sent her and her mother to PIH Health Whittier Hospital.

“It was a true miracle I sustained no physical injuries,” said the Hacienda Heights resident. But her mother, in critical condition, was hospitalized for more than a month.

“I always looked up to my mom because of her independence, but her inability to do simple tasks such as eating made me very emotional,” said Rangel.

Rangel said her mother encouraged her to seek professional help for her mental well-being, and despite initial hesitancy to confide in a stranger, “it was the best decision we could have made. I was able to initiate my healing process.”

A week after the campus was shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Rangel lost her very close uncle and godfather to a heart attack, a person who had encouraged her often “after achieving goals, continue to set new ones. As a little girl, I remember him telling me I have so much to offer this world that I was unaware of my potential. That completely changed my perspective.”

In December, she learned about the passing of another uncle from COVID-19.

“Within a year, my family lost two of my father’s brothers and it left us devastated,” said Rangel, 17, who will go to Santa Ana College this fall and continue playing softball. “I still seek therapy to help cope with what I endured, but among my struggles, I have grown to learn how to trust God and his plan, even if I feel the entire world is collapsing. I am thankful I stayed true to my faith and I know God has made me into a stronger woman than I was before.”

Bishop Mora Salesian High School, Los Angeles

Christopher Rosado, who at age 3 was allowed by his mother to have her sister and mother raise him as his father was incarcerated and they were experiencing homelessness, channeled the words of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” in a speech to classmates and families at the school’s Senior Awards Ceremony recently.

The senior class president won a $120,000 Evans Scholarship to attend Northwestern University and study law — based on his involvement in the Chicago-based Caddie Academy Program. Rosado was made aware of the program by his principal, Alex Chacon, as a way to introduce him to sports and improve his interpersonal skills as a caddy on a golf course.

Rosado, in fact, said he knew nothing about golf before taking the leap of faith to try this program.

“It’s very tough to recruit students whose families are OK with sending their 15-year-old to Chicago every summer during high school but it worked well for him,” said Chacon. “We are all so proud of him and his efforts in the face of so much adversity, and we know we will hear of his many accomplishments for years to come.”

Verbum Dei High School, South Los Angeles

Geovanny Martinez said the main thing he learned about himself during the pandemic “is that I am an overcomer. I began to see the value of hard work, not only in my schoolwork but in also playing the viola.”

Since the age of 10, Martinez has played viola for the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, a group affiliated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 2019, that gave him a chance to go to Scotland, London, and South Korea for the Philharmonic’s 100th anniversary of touring. Through participation in the nonprofit LA-based Eagle Empowerment, Inc., he has also traveled to 40 states and Belize to broaden his understanding of the world.

“Playing the viola during quarantine helped me keep a schedule and have discipline to practice,” said Martinez, an 18-year-old from Inglewood who is heading to Drexel University in Philadelphia to study biomedical engineering. “My faith in Christ has helped me persevere and handle challenges through hard times.”

By the way, Martinez’s middle name is Champion.

Notre Dame Academy, Los Angeles

Joselin Ordoñez-Garcia, salutatorian of her class, admitted that COVID-19 restrictions made her first semester as a senior stressful and worried about college acceptance.

The LA native will soon begin her major in neuroscience at USC, just a few blocks from home. 

“It was also difficult to choose which college I wanted to attend,” the 18-year-old told Angelus. “Because of COVID restrictions and financial issues, I was not able to visit many campuses. I could only visit USC since I live just a few blocks from the campus. Thankfully, I was able to figure it all out, and it turned out well for me.”

The first in her family to finish high school, Ordoñez-Garcia attended Catholic elementary and middle school, but credits the faith formation she received at Notre Dame with helping her surmount the obstacles of an unpredictable final year. 

“[At Notre Dame], I learned more about my faith and different types of prayers that I can incorporate into my personal life. Those moments also gave me time to reflect on my own actions and myself in general. Over this time, it was difficult to find a quiet time when I could just let go of all of my stress and worries, but I was able to find that peace during my prayer time.”

“I feel that my relationship with God and my faith became stronger throughout this period of my life, and that relationship is something that I want to continue to strengthen.”

Mason Heath, whose Mar Vista-based family is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is headed to Brigham Young University to study child and adolescent psychology.

“Thankfully I had an idea of where I wanted to go before the pandemic hit, so I was able to visit the campus before the restrictions were in place,” she said.

One of her biggest takeaways from the last two years is “the fact [that] I came out a better person on the other side of all the madness that 2020 and 2021 have had to offer gives me confidence that I can face and conquer anything in life. If I ever struggle in the future — with friends, school, world news, politics, etc. — I can just think back to my time as a senior in high school and remind myself, ‘If I can survive that, I can survive anything.’ ”

So how did attending a Catholic school help with that?

“My favorite part about receiving a Catholic education is knowing that my school is a safe place filled with good people,” said the 17-year-old. “Not only are we taught about Catholicism, but we are taught morals, ethics, and how to be upstanding global citizens. I love being able to come to school knowing that I am surrounded by faculty, staff, and peers that are all just good people.

“I am not Catholic, but my faith has helped me persevere over this time regardless. I have relied on God so much in the last year and a half and it is such a blessing to know that he is there with me, guiding me along. There are so many similarities between my religion and the Catholic religion, one of the most important ones being just that — we have access to God and he wants us to reach out. He loves us and he is willing to help us if we seek it, because we most definitely need it.”

St. Monica High School, Santa Monica

Taylor Lugo was elected president of the school’s Black Cultural Society right at the time of the death of George Floyd in May 2020, also during the initial COVID-19 lockdown.

“I had pushed for a discussion to be made at my school and further discussions on African American representation in our school curriculum,” said Lugo. “Although the discussion is still going, I am glad I was able to start the needed conversation.”

Lugo said the key take-away from her senior year was about the value of communication.

“Before quarantine, communicating came so easily. Technology, and seeing people at school daily, made it simple to be able to communicate clearly to others. With online school, both students and teachers shifted the way they spoke to one another. Google Meets, emails, private chats and longer explanation periods in class were all heavily used with distance learning.” 

Lugo will follow in her mother’s footsteps by attending USC in the fall. She said communication on the homefront presented its own challenges, too.  

“Staying at home with eight people and seven animals was a little hectic at times, but learning how to convey our thoughts and feelings became a necessity.”

Zachary Mikhail became associate student body president at St. Monica’s in a year when the student body was mostly only available via Zoom calls.

“My goal this year was to cultivate school spirit, but as I’m sure you can imagine, it is hard to cultivate school spirit when nobody is at school,” said the Los Angeles resident.

For Mikhail, the situation proved to be a valuable lesson in “thinking outside the box.”

“The whole ASB team was coming up with solutions to never-before-seen problems, and I know that the problem-solving skills we all gained this year will serve us well.”

After having attended Catholic schools since kindergarten, Mikhail will stay the course by attending the University of Notre Dame in the fall. The decision wasn’t so simple, though: Because of COVID-19 restrictions, he wasn’t able to visit the campus for the first time until late May, well after he decided to accept the school’s offer. 

Mikhail says he feels fortunate to be able to attend another “small Catholic school.”

“At many big public schools, students feel like just another number. At St. Monica’s I have always felt like a family member, even during distance learning. I am truly grateful that I was able to go to a Catholic high school, and I am very excited for four more years of Catholic school at Notre Dame.”

Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto High School, Los Angeles

Janel Merritt founded the Black Student Union Club on campus as a junior to build awareness and pride in her culture. But as a senior, when racial tension surged during the George Floyd murder and public protests emerged involving the Black Lives Matter movement, she said she found herself during virtual meetings with her peers “able to really grasp the importance of spreading awareness and continuing to be informed correctly.”

More than 50 students were part of the Black Student Union, and they focused on how this movement was “not just a trend or a hashtag.”

Raised by her grandmother after an estrangement from her mother and the absence of her father, and the middle of three children, Merritt said she was also engaged in making sure her 12-year-old brother stayed focused on his distance learning schoolwork.

“I decided to stay home because it was getting overwhelming for my grandmother to navigate on her own,” she said. “With all [that was] going on in the world, it made me fearful [of] what would happen next. I began to look at my own family members and wonder if we were safe. It truly saddened me to witness everything that happened but that empowered me even more to do my part in keeping the true message of Black Lives Matter alive.”

A Catholic school student since pre-school, and helped by the Catholic Education Foundation the entire time, Merritt said that growing up, “I began to realize that although God used my parents as a vessel to bring me into this world, God wanted to place me in the lives of loving grandparents because he knew they were just what I needed.”

Merritt, attending UCLA this fall with a major in biochemistry, added that starting the Black Student Union “taught me to never doubt yourself and to fully step into something with confidence. It is a life lesson for me to never be intimidated by how hard something looks.”