This year's seniors aren't getting the usual pomp and circumstance. The COVID-19 outbreak meant that after spring break, they finished high-school via Zoom. Online classes. No prom. No walking across the stage to get a diploma in front of a packed stadium. And big questions about what the world is going to look like as they head out to learn more about it.
This week, managing editor Logan Burtch-Buus, associate editor Jeff Gardner and longtime columnist Tom Danehy introduce you to four outstanding seniors. Leilani Serbousek of Mountain View went from a shy freshman to lobbying lawmakers and fighting against climate change. Sunnyside High's Natalia Padilla is headed to UC Berkeley "because it is a school known for political activism, which is something that I'm passionate about." Kaitlyn Hsu learned the importance of family when her mom got a frightening medical diagnosis, but she persevered through her studies to become Canyon del Oro's valedictorian; and Pueblo High's Janay Ladriere is off on the premed track at Smith College.
You'll find more profiles of outstanding seniors online at TucsonWeekly.com. Congrats to all graduates on their four years of hard work. Now go kick some ass.Mountain View’s Leilani Serbouse
When Leilani Serbousek was told she would be this year's valedictorian at Mountain View High School, it was a tremendous weight lifted from her shoulders.
Graduating first in her class was a goal Leilani set for herself after receiving her first transcript freshman year and saw she was ranked No. 2 in her class. Some of her friends doubted she could earn the top spot.
"They teased me about it, thinking I couldn't do it," the 17-year-old senior said. "That just ended up fueling me more because I like proving people wrong. I told myself I would get more serious about this."
Leilani was extremely shy her freshman year. She credits Academic Decathlon for breaking her out of her shell and awakening a love for public speaking. She made close friends who were there for her when she needed honest advice.
"It connected me with a lot of amazing people," she said.
Leilani's four years with Academic Decathlon included two terms as vice president as well as the presidency her senior year. She won honors at regionals for her performance in the interview and speech category.
"You've got to put yourself out there and do things you think you might not be able to do and surprise yourself," she said. "That was the one class or club that impacted me the most. It taught me a lot of life skills like public speaking and interviewing."
Mountain View 2019 valedictorian Shania Wachenschwanz introduced Leilani to Model United Nations, which let her explore politics. She was fascinated as she learned about geopolitical situations and played out a mock Bretton Woods Conference, walking through the steps of founding a country and writing resolutions.
She got a taste of real-life politics by registering voters and signing them up to receive ballots as part of an internship with the Pima County Democratic Party during the 2018 midterm election.
Leilani also spent two years as a member of Tucson Teen Congress with the Metropolitan Education Commission. In addition to working with other high school students to better understand their interests and concerns, the teen group went to the state capitol in order to speak with legislators and share ideas, which left her disappointed with some state lawmakers.
"One of the biggest things I learned is that some people just aren't open, especially legislators, to new ideas and aren't open to anything that isn't completely set with how they want it to be," she said. "If they aren't getting their way, they aren't willing to compromise, and that really showed me the reality of politics and how much harder I'm going to have to work in my future political career."
Environmental protection is at the top of her list. She first learned about climate change in middle school, but decided to dismiss the idea because "it was scary." But as she learned more in high school, she changed her opinion and ended up founding the Green Initiative to teach her fellow Lions about sustainability.
"You can't deny the fact that pollution exists, at least plastic pollution," Leilani said. "If you just take a second to look along the highway as you're driving, you're going to see trash. So our whole focus was just educating people on the different ways they can help the environment in a local setting. One person can make a difference."
All this, and she even found time to volunteer at the Pima Animal Care Center.
Despite her numerous efforts Leilani was still connected to Mountain View, a school she said provided an environment for her to succeed as a student.
"It wasn't perfect, but at the same time I wouldn't have any complaints," she said. "There's the opportunity to challenge yourself and get a more difficult course load, but there's also regular classes and extracurriculars that are more fun."
While she excelled at school, Leilani was quick to admit she struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic to stay on top of her assignments. She found solace in video chats with her friends and stayed motivated with their help.
When school closures were first announced, Leilani said she was upset about missing senior prom, graduation and other traditions, though she has since found other things to focus on—including writing a speech for the school's virtual graduation.
Leilani said her graduation speech includes the COVID-19 pandemic and not seeing her friends and classmates, though she also wanted to send her fellow graduates off with a positive message.
"I am so proud of everyone no matter where they ranked, because school doesn't define someone," she said. "Our school system today doesn't actually highlight everyone's personal, unique abilities and I'm thankful that somehow I fit the school mold, but I know that not everyone does and that's not fair. You don't have to excel in high school to be great."
Leilani will attend Northern Arizona University in the fall, and hopes to double major in civil and environmental engineering.
Leilani's father, Lamont, beams with pride over what his daugher has done, whether it's hitting the books, walking dogs or registering voters.
"She's a very compassionate person," he said. "Very caring, thinks about others. She's also very driven and has a strong work ethic. She's a really wonderful young woman and I'm very proud of her."
Sunnyside High’s Natalia Padilla
Despite earning a killer scholarship to the University of California-Berkeley, Natalia Padilla wasn't exactly sure what going to college would look like in the age of COVID-19.
Would campus open? Would she start her classes online? How would student housing work?
"There was so much that was unknown," she recalls. "I didn't know when college would start, whether we would be on campus or what."
Right about the time Padilla was participating in Sunnyside High School's May 20 Farewell to the Seniors, she received good news from former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano.
Napolitano, the president of the 10-campus University of California announced that "every campus will be open and offering instruction this fall."
Most everyone knows of the two main campuses—the main one at Berkeley and UCLA in Westwood—but there are also campuses in Riverside, Santa Cruz (where the school's mascot is the Banana Slug), and there's UC Merced (which even Ken Jennings doesn't know about). Padilla was accepted to Berkeley, UCLA, Santa Cruz, Riverside and UC Davis.
"I was excited, but I knew I wouldn't be able to attend without (scholarship help)," she said.
The final step in the scholarship process involved in-person interviews. The airfare to Berkeley proved prohibitive for Padilla's family, so she made the trip by bus.
"When I got to Berkeley, it was amazing," she said. "I got to meet people and see the campus. I was nervous about the interviews, but I guess it went OK, because they offered me the scholarship. It just instantly felt like home and I felt as though I belonged in that community of students."
The scholarship is the Regents and Chancellor's. According to the school's website, it is "the most prestigious scholarship offered by UC Berkeley to incoming undergraduate students." Of the several UC campuses from which to choose, Padilla said that she chose Berkeley "because it is a school known for political activism, which is something that I'm passionate about."
In the summer of 2019, Padilla took part in the Med-Start Health Careers Program at the University of Arizona. She got to live in a dorm and take college-level courses. She was so impressed with her experience that when she got back to school, she started her own Medical Research club, which brought in a variety of medical professionals to speak to the students.
It was a lot of work, balancing a full class load, National Honor Society, being involved in politics in her community and being the captain of the Academic Decathlon team. That last part was "really cool."
"We had lost a lot of seniors from the year before, so I was the one with the most experience," she said. "We had a young team, but we worked hard and made it to state."
This coming summer, before heading off to Berkeley, Padilla will take part in a six-week program at the UA with the all-time great name of the Summer Institute on Medical Ignorance. She is truly blessed, as since those final years in the 19th century when doctors were still using leeches to bleed people, 2020 is definitely the most important year to be looking into widespread medical ignorance.
—Tom DanehyPueblo High School’s Janay Ladriere
Pueblo High School's Janay Ladriere was sitting in her living room surrounded by her family when she found out she got accepted to Smith College, one of the highest-rated liberal arts colleges in the nation. Ladriere immediately started crying, as did her older sister, who already attends Smith College.
Moving across the country to Massachusetts to attend college might normally be nerve wracking for a high school senior, but Ladriere says she isn't anxious because her sister, as well as her classmate Janice Salazar, will join her on campus. In fact, she already received a tour of the private women's school when her sister moved in.
"I had never even heard of Smith College," Ladriere said. "But when she got in, she'd call me all the time and tell me how much she loved the culture and the feel of all these girls helping each other. It was a very good place to be accepted."
Ladriere is graduating with a 3.88 GPA, and landing in the top 10 percent of her class of 327. While her major is still undecided, she plans to enter the pre-med track, and is thinking of becoming an anesthesiologist. However, she acknowledges that students often change their majors, and the same may happen to her. The pre-med track reflects her favorite high school subjects; she found science courses easier to grasp in high school.
Ladriere stayed busy during her time at Pueblo High, participating in the National Honor Society, Chemistry Club and cheerleading. However, much of that was cut short when the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shifted her senior year to online classes.
She recalls being in class and hearing the teacher talking about how bad the pandemic was becoming in other countries, and how they might not return to school.
"None of us really listened, but then next thing you know, our spring break is two weeks longer and then we weren't even going back to school," Ladriere said. "It really hurt that I didn't get to walk through the hallways one last time to take in all the little details of how it felt to be with everybody... I was devastated, honestly."
She remembered hearing about how the final quarter of senior year was to be the best, with celebrations like Prom, senior sunrise, Pueblo High School's specialty Fiesta de los Guerreros.
"I didn't get to go to lunch one last time or be in the courtyard with my friends after school one last time—I didn't even know that would be something I thought about," Ladriere said. "Most of the lasts were taken away, and there was nothing I could do about it. That's what hit me the most."
Nevertheless, she's looking forward to moving across the country to work and learn with other inspiring women.
"The application process is done," Ladriere said. "I got accepted, and it feels amazing to be done with the anxious waiting part of it."
—Jeff GardnerCanyon del Oro’s Kaitlyn Hsu
While she may be Canyon del Oro High School's valedictorian, Kaitlyn Hsu likes to shine a light on her fellow Dorados, who she says are passionate individuals and ready to do what they feel is right.
"Yes, I am No. 1 in my class, but I've come to know this year that there are so many people that I see that are working so hard and studying and trying their best," she said. "It's hard for me to just say I'm No. 1 when I see so many other people that work hard, too... I think for me to be able to have this title is a representation for all the other hard work that I see around me. I'm so excited about it, and really honored and humbled."
Her humility aside, it's Hsu's own hard work that put her at the top of her class. She said it was never a goal she had in mind; she always wanted to have high grades and do her best in school, and that just meant getting all As.
Over the course of her four years at CDO, Hsu participated in a variety of extracurricular activities and programs, including the Be Kind and chemistry clubs, golf and the school's Asian American Cultural Society, which she co-founded. The society met twice a month and hosted presentations about different cultures, played games tied to various traditions and sampled traditional foods from different countries.
Hsu said she's driven to be so involved around the high school because of her yearning for a strong sense of community. One of her biggest satisfactions in life is bringing dissimilar groups of people together, and sees that happening in her different academic and social pursuits.
"People like to stick to what they like and keep to themselves and their own groups, and I think that a lot of people don't realize that even though somebody isn't exactly like you, there's a lot you can either learn from them or just bond with them over," she said. "I have so many different friends that are all from these different groups and these different backgrounds but I find different ways to bond with them. I want to share that and help other people realize that fact."
While that may seem a heavy workload for any student, Hsu was also an International Baccalaureate scholar for two years, and a member of the school's Odyssey of the Mind team for three years.
International Baccalaureate is a globally minded program that focuses on incorporating all traditional classes together into one cohesive learning experience. She said IB taught her to be a more critical thinker and to better reflect on her personal experiences.
"You may be learning about the Vietnam War in history, but you may be also reading a literature piece from someone fighting during the war," Hsu said. "I've always noticed that collective, inclusive learning helps some of those concepts stick into my head a little better. It takes an approach that's not always about memorizing and it's more about understanding multiple perspectives of a certain event or any certain topic."
Hsu said the program forms a unique and unbreakable bond among its members—something closely resembling a family. She said some of her fondest high school memories come from working with her IB cohort, stressing over exams, staying up late to work on important papers or projects and persevering through academic adversity.
Art has been a passion of Hsu's since she could hold a pencil. She started off drawing and painting as a hobby, though she recently began experimenting with digital mediums and finding new ways to make her art more accessible (and profitable). Since moving to a computer, Hsu designed shirts and pins for the Odyssey team, and designs cards. She imagines art will always be a useful tool no matter where her career takes her.
Hsu's high school journey included more than academic challenges. Her mother was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at the end of freshman year, leaving Hsu to assist in caring for her younger sisters while her mother stayed in the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix.
The experience taught her what it means to be a good student, daughter and provider.
"When I look back on it, and my mom is doing much better now, I think that experience taught me a whole lot more than what it means to be a good student, but how to balance life and having things that are obviously important for you and your education but also remembering to dedicate time to family and the people that are most important and close to you."
Hsu's mother, Kay Blackburn, said her daughter is the kind of person who dedicates 110 percent of herself to any and everything she does.
"As her mom, I am biased, but we think the world of her," Blackburn said. "She's accomplished so many things and maintained a humility that's very impressive. She's overcome a lot of adversity in her high school years, so we know that regardless of her situation or what she's faced with, she's going to be successful. We're extremely proud of her for the person that she is in addition to the accomplishments she's achieved at such a young age."
With a diploma in hand, Hsu heads off to the University of Arizona in the fall where she will enroll in the Eller College of Management's undergraduate program. She plans on studying business, with an eye on marketing and a master's degree.
Even though the end of her high school success story may be darkened by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hsu is still excited to participate in the school's modified graduation activities. Small groups of students are graduating together in front of limited attendees. The procession will be filmed and aired on television.
Although she won't address her classmates like her valedictorian predecessors, Hsu still wants to deliver a supportive message to the rest of the class of 2020.
"In life, we all face adversity and adversity means different things for different people, but ultimately, struggling through all that adversity and all the challenges is what makes us more resilient," she said. "In life there will be times that things are trying to get you down, and we're a generation that is totally equipped to fight that and really seek to overcome."