When members of the Class of 2020 are asked someday what graduating during a pandemic was like, they’ll have some interesting stories to tell.
For local Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, getting through the school year has been an “extraordinarily disorienting” experience, acknowledges Department of Catholic School Superintendent Paul Escala. For most students, the rituals of May and June — proms, graduations, baccalaureate Masses — were either radically modified, canceled, or postponed.
But to Escala, who in August will mark one year at the helm of LA’s Catholic schools, the unexpected changes carry some valuable lessons.
“Yes, we didn’t have moments we wanted, but if we look at the whole educational picture, those are fleeting moments,” Escala told Angelus. “The experience itself is bigger.”
Escala said the experience is something he’s been reminding graduates about.
“Take from this what you’ve learned about yourself and how you did more than you ever thought you could do under these circumstances,” Escala has told them. “That defines your compromises and opportunities in life. A pandemic or social tragedy or personal tragedy is a collective trauma, but it will pass, and what you take from it is how you meet these moments in the future.”
As parish elementary and high schools celebrate their graduation ceremonies via livestream or in parking lots, Angelus spoke to students from schools around the archdiocese.
Verbum Dei High School, Watts
Jesus Estrada Jr., has firsthand experience in how the coronavirus (COVID-19) could turn a family’s life into disarray and dismay.
On April 27, he tested positive for the virus, seven days after his mother and five days after his father, who works at the Farmer John meat plant in Vernon, also tested positive. That left his sisters and brother-in-law to care for the family.
“It was easy to lose hope watching the news, seeing the death toll rise every day,” he said. “Having the infamous coronavirus also came with fear and rejection from others. But we also saw a communal strength.”
His school and his church’s youth group continued to give him extended support.
“Despite these extraordinary circumstances, I remained focused on my studies, and the perseverance in this face of adversity showed me I can overcome anything in life,” said Estrada, who was honored with five major awards at Verbum Dei, including the Principal’s Award, Campus Ministry Award and Exceptional Character Award.
Before Verbum Dei, Estrada attended the Catholic school down the street, St. Lawrence of Brindisi, from third to eighth grade. The 18-year-old recently penned a blog post for the Center for Advancing the American Dream’s website, titled “Overcoming Adversity,” reflecting on the experiences that have led to his aspirations to become an immigration lawyer.
Estrada will take his next step toward that goal at Loyola Marymount University, where he plans to double major in theological studies and economics.
He credits his Jesuit education at Verbum Dei with giving him “a greater understanding of who I am, and the man God wants me to become.”
Justin Funez, heading to the University of Chicago to double major in economics and international business, came to Verbum Dei after growing up in San Pedro Sula in Honduras, with a stop along the way in Campeche, Mexico.
At Verbum Dei, he captained the school’s soccer team to its first league championship in the school’s history. This month, Funez took the graduation stage as his school’s valedictorian.
Getting there wasn’t easy.
“One of my biggest challenges in high school occurred during my junior year, when I moved from Mexico to Los Angeles seeking better educational opportunities,” said the Compton resident.
“English is not my first language, so the first couple of months were hard for me because I would often get lost with colloquialisms or when people talked too fast. It took me some time to get used to speaking English almost 24/7.
“Although at times it was frustrating, I never gave up and I always tried to improve. Los Angeles is a completely different environment then the culture I was used to in Mexico. It was hard adapting to the culture,” he said.
“I believe what I learned from my experience is the ability to adapt to different circumstances in a short amount of time. This gives me confidence because I know wherever I go from now on, there will be new incredible people I will meet along the journey.
“One of the main teachings I am taking away from my Catholic education is the principle of showing my faith through actions. I think prayer is important to strengthen my faith, however, I believe the best way to share my faith with God and with others is through my actions. My school’s motto, ‘Being a man, with and for others’ is something I have truly taken to heart and I will continue to practice throughout my life.”
Tyon James, a South Central LA resident who will go to Cal State Fullerton and pursue business administration, was given the school’s Verbum Dei Award. His twin brother, TyJon, was the school’s salutatorian and a Scholar Athlete Award recipient.
Both were on the National Honor Society — Tyon was the president — and each won Exceptional Character Awards from the school. Their mother, Shaquienta, received the Parent Appreciation Award.
Notre Dame Academy High School, Los Angeles
As the student president and vice president of Notre Dame’s campus ministry, Evelyn Murray and Ava Purcell developed a plan to personally connect with as many students and faculty as they could. It started with writing the morning prayers and planning meeting agendas, and giving notes of encouragement.
“We made significant efforts to deepen prayer life at NDA, such as forming prayer groups and setting up different opportunities for reflection during the Lent and Advent seasons,” said Murray.
“Even after the quarantine began, Ava and I continued our work by writing letters to every NDA student in the school directory. Although each of our positions was more difficult than we signed up for, the small moments of joy we brought to our peers made it all worth it, and it was this achievement that I am most proud of.”
Murray’s involvement with the Liturgical Choir and achieving straight A’s that led to the NDA President’s Award and Pillar of NDA Award for being a Woman of Compassion comes from the foundation of her Catholic education and upbringing, something that “has connected each aspect of my life in a balanced web of experience. I have not only been taught, but also have grown to truly know over time to recognize God’s actions in the world and in those around me.”
Purcell said her Catholic education “taught me the importance of seeing a person for their holistic self, not just their intelligence or their popularity. It gave me eyes to see each person as created in the image of God, worthy of love and respect. It taught me to learn for the sake of learning; not just learning to earn a score or get a certain grade, but to learn because learning itself is fulfilling and enjoyable.”
When the news came of having to miss attending school on campus, Purcell admitted she reacted with tears: “I … felt like all of my hopes that I had been dreaming of for so long were ruined.
But there was a moment when she realized the choice in front of her.
“I could remain bitter and probably get a lot of pity, or I could be positive and thankful and make lemonade out of the lemons I was handed.
“Although it was so hard,” she recalled, “I chose the second.”
The ceremony for Murray and Purcell’s graduating class was held over Zoom, capping a year that taught them some unforgettable lessons.
“All of this taught me that trials produce perseverance, perseverance produces strength, and strength produces character,” said Purcell. “Overall, I am proud that I am a stronger, more kind, and more thankful woman than I was before.”
Murray, who lives in Playa del Rey, will be attending Thomas Aquinas College this fall, while Purcell, from Los Angeles, will be a part of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.
Cathedral High School, Los Angeles
Jason Argueta, headed to the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg on a soccer scholarship, scored the final goal in a 4-1 win over Loyola High School to clinch his school’s CIF Southern California Division I soccer regional title.
With a 4.0 overall GPA and ranked eighth in his senior class of about 125 students, the 18-year-old South Gate resident recalled his biggest obstacle in balancing his AP classes with athletics. A lesson came when he was not able to play soccer as a junior because of an ankle injury.
“It was hard for me to be able to have that motivation to keep up with my school work because, for me, soccer is a way of life, an escape from reality,” he said. “I kept doing the best in telling myself how once I began playing everything would be good again and so I used that and tried again. Soon my grades began to rise up and came out great.”
Argueta said he had a special appreciation for David Galaz, the school’s science department chair who taught his chemistry class.
“He identified himself as not being a teacher. It was kind of odd at first, but looking back I finally understand why he says this,” Jason explained. “He tries to be a knowledgeable friend, giving advice. The one thing he said that stuck with me was: ‘Be a better man than your father.’ This impacted me because I never had the opportunity to grow up with my father. I am blessed to have a strong mother who raised me to be who I am today.
“Being able to strengthen my relationship with God also helped me become a better man and a better athlete. I felt like Cathedral has helped accomplish this because of all of the guidance from our teacher in religion classes and outside advice.”
St. John Bosco High School, Bellflower
Ryan Jones, an active participant in his school’s theater program, will continue his education at Brown University, having already studied on the Ivy League campus in Providence, Rhode Island, as part of his high school’s Biomedical Pathway program with four other classmates. Ryan also found value as a recipient of the COPE Health Scholars internship program.
In his senior exit interview video, Jones, 18, explained how his faith has evolved and strengthened “throughout my many trials” and gave him more leadership abilities.
“I’m proud of the many times I ran for student government, as it helped me see the true work of servant leadership,” said Jones. “Some of my most formative roles in leadership also came in theater production, which put me in a position to be a role model and mentor to my fellow cast mates due to my experience over the years.”
Jones also composed this “Quarantine Poem” about his senior year:
Stuck in the house in this viral breakout
Like Rapunzel we stay with no way out
Confined in my room, I’ve done nothing but tweet
Or go to the kitchen where there’s nothing to eat
I’ve binged three shows
20 movies I suppose
Gone to class in my night clothes
And started to doze as I pretended my screen froze
Basically, I want the classroom back
Been weeks since I’ve even looked at my backpack
I miss the friends that brought me positivity
I just can’t miss every senior activity
Might be no graduation and that’s a sad crazy thing
I say it isn’t over until the fat lady sings
Regardless we gotta admit it’s not all terrible
Spending time with my family is surprisingly bearable
Most of all from this, we can all see
We’re not bad company when we’re alone stress free
So if you’re bummed out, I want you to know
You can always use this time to let yourself grow.