At last, the Class of 2021 gets together — for graduation

Sierra Vista Principal Vince Pratt fist bumps a graduate
Sierra Vista Principal Vince Pratt fist-bumps graduate Nicholas Andrade as he accepts his diploma.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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The Class of 2021 — as they gather for hastily organized graduation ceremonies on the cusp of California’s full reopening — are emerging six feet apart into the sunlight of football fields, plazas and stadiums in caps, gowns and masks after a year of pandemic isolation, robbed of so many milestones of American high school life.

Except graduation. They eked out this one tradition.

They have managed to get accepted to college, overcome Fs, deal with trauma, navigate the rules of drive-through socializing. Some lost a loved one, made a new friend. For many, the final act of their upended high school education was the first in-person gathering of their entire class since March 2020.

Jesus Medina embraces  Jade Magallanes at the Sierra Vista  AVID awards banquet.
Jesus Medina embraces his friend and classmate Jade Magallanes at the Sierra Vista High AVID awards banquet. AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) students are taught college preparatory skills and strategies, usually beginning freshman year.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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None of the graduation ceremony restrictions — the limited number of guests, spaced-out chairs, mask-covered smiles — could stop the exultation of a senior class forged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The scene appeared pretty normal recently at Sierra Vista High School in Baldwin Park: Dozens of chairs, six feet apart, filled the field. Family members, as many as 10 for each student, carried signs and flowers and assembled in clusters in the bleachers. One woman held up a blown-up image of a student’s face. They cheered when their senior’s name was called.

Johnny Sen, wearing a graduation cap and gown, holds a crying child.
Johnny Sen is elated to graduate from Sierra Vista High. His nephew, Levi, seems to feel otherwise.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Then, the most hopeful sign of all: Dressed in red and black gowns, the Class of 2021 just couldn’t resist. They broke pandemic protocols, clumped together in groups at the end of the ceremony and hugged one another.

Here are some of their senior year stories in which math, English and science seemed to be the least of the lessons learned.

Sierra Vista High senior Eduardo Martinez and others crowd into a party bus
Sierra Vista High senior Eduardo Martinez and others crowd into a party bus headed to Redondo Beach for a pre-prom bash.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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Johnny Sen, Sierra Vista High

Johnny Sen’s high school years revolved around sports — volleyball, wrestling, football, cheerleading. More than anything, he needed to keep learning and moving.

The pandemic brought everything to a halt. When his sports lifeline was abruptly cut, Johnny struggled to adapt to the sedentary routine of online classes. He tried to drum up motivation, but in a double whammy he was still recovering from a junior year football injury, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Still, he kept up with daily physical therapy. As he began senior year — school closed, football season on hold — he fought to stay focused. He would turn in assignments and listen to lessons, but the material was hard to grasp.

Johnny Sen sits on the team bus after a win over Cerritos High.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In November, his mother, who had survived cancer, was hospitalized with COVID-like symptoms and slipped into a coma. Johnny got a 3 a.m. call that she had only hours left and raced to the hospital to say goodbye.

His friends surrounded him in the months ahead.

At last, the Class of 2021 gathers together — for graduation

“I wasn’t doing any work; I was failing,” he said. “It was pretty bad for me.”

For a time he thought he might not be able to graduate: He had Fs in economics and statistics. But his buddies urged him to improve, he said, so that they could all “walk” at graduation.

Johnny Sen practices catching fellow senior Breanna Razo during cheer practice.
Johnny Sen practices catching fellow senior Breanna Razo during cheer practice.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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They tutored him on homework assignments; one friend once showed up at his home at 6 a.m. to make sure he turned in work on time. Johnny turned Fs into Ds and continued rehabilitation for his injury, still hoping he could make a team.

When football began this spring, Johnny braced his leg and joined his teammates. Recently, he got his mother’s name, Nhanh, tattooed across his forearm.

“Johnny was a quiet leader. He didn’t realize it,” said former head football coach Sergio M. Villaseñor. “By his actions and how he elevated himself, it gravitated to a lot of the younger players.”

Johnny Sen celebrates a win over Cerritos High.
Johnny Sen celebrates a win over Cerritos High. The Sierra Vista seniors managed to play four games.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Johnny intends to go to Rio Hondo College to stay close to family, get a job and help support his grandmother, who became ill with COVID-19 but recovered. He wants to save money for a car and eventually live on his own.

His senior year amid the pandemic showed him that friends and family members had his back: “Even when you’re on your own, there’s someone there for you.”

Jade Magallanes embraces a pillow featuring a photo of her dog Buddy, who died two years ago.
Jade Magallanes embraces a pillow featuring a photo of her dog Buddy, who died two years ago.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Jade Magallanes, Sierra Vista High

Jade Magallanes found distance learning made seeking help more difficult. She struggled to find resources. The week before winter break, on top of meeting deadlines for college applications, she had to prep for three tests and finish applying for financial aid. She said she often stopped eating when she became anxious and overcome by stress and tears.

“I don’t think I would take it back, though,” Jade said, “because I appreciate what I went through.”

Her perseverance paid off. Jade graduated from Sierra Vista High School with the grades she wanted and learned how to get through moments when stress took a toll on her physical health. Her mother, Jefel Santos, taught her how to “just breathe.”

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Jade Magallanes and her boyfriend, Jose Gonzalez, arrive at Sierra Vista for prom.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Jade said she learned how to cope by eating comfort food dinners, pasta and chicken, spending time outdoors and roller skating with her mom. Usually, “just breathe” translated into pulling away from her textbooks — a skill she will take to UC Merced in the fall.

In the midst of a lonely year, Jade found a friend in neighbor and fellow senior Jesus Medina. Unable to see their other friends during the pandemic, the two bonded, separated only by a wall that she often hopped.

“It just evolved into something very beautiful,” Jade said.

Jade’s mother, Santos, was tearful watching her daughter graduate and at last receive closure. “This is probably the best thing that we could share, seeing her walk,” Santos said.

Jade Magallanes joins hundreds of  seniors for graduation  at Sierra Vista High.
Jade Magallanes joins hundreds of other seniors for graduation ceremonies at Sierra Vista High.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Khadijat Solebo, George Washington Prep

In 2017, Khadijat Solebo and her family left their home country of Nigeria for Los Angeles, ultimately settling in Compton.

Khadijat Solebo is a George Washington Prep High School graduating senior.
Khadijat Solebo, senior class president at George Washington Prep High School, is headed to UCLA in the fall. She plans to study biomedicine.
(Bilikis Solebo)

As immigrants, she saw how hard her parents worked to give her and her siblings a better future. Her mother lost her job due to the pandemic, and her father, a security guard, continues to search for stable work.

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Khadijat worked hard too. She has always envisioned herself going into the medical field to help underserved communities.

Despite the online setting, Khadijat, the senior class president, also worked with her classmates to put on virtual events, like spirit week and homecoming, to give them a spark of hope, even if it just meant dancing over Zoom.

At last, the Class of 2021 gathers together — for graduation

“Before, I didn’t really enjoy school and I didn’t appreciate going to classes,” Khadijat said. When schools reopened, she did not return to campus out of concern for her family’s safety and instead finished school remotely. “But now that I can’t do those things, I see the importance of them and how much I enjoy doing them.”

Like other schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Washington Prep did not host an in-person prom or other senior events.

But as graduation day approached and California neared full reopening, Khadijat said she had enough of the virtual experience. Her class deserved a real graduation. She pleaded for help from her school counselor, Cindy Contreras-Mostajo. They pushed for an in-person event that could be held safely outdoors.

On Friday, the school hosted two ceremonies on the football field. Khadijat took to the podium as class salutatorian.

“With diligence, consistency, resilience, focus and prayer, we can do it,” she told her classmates. “I know we can.”

She is headed to UCLA in the fall, where she said she will study biomedicine, with hopes of attending medical school.

Joaquin Gonzalez, Garfield High

At a certain point in the pandemic, separated from friends, Joaquin Gonzalez turned inward and focused on accepting who he is. Once, he shaved his hair off completely just because it was a look he had always wanted to try — no longer worried about what others thought of him.

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“Once you let go of that, you’re able to grow. … Suddenly you don’t see anything that needs fixing,” Joaquin said, reflecting on the solitude of the pandemic. “You just give yourself the time you need.”

Joaquin Gonzalez, center, with his friends on graduation day at Garfield Senior High School.
(Elizabeth Lugo)

But the months were difficult, and more than once he burst into tears, unsettled by the loneliness. He knew that he needed time to work on his mental health and find ways to reach out to others. When coursework and side jobs felt overwhelming, he stopped to take time for himself.

“We all had this idea that even though we’re at home, we need to be 100% [productive] as how we were at work or how we were at school,” Joaquin said. “And that’s just not always the case.”

Still, Joaquin could not abandon his passion to advocate for community resources and change, especially as he saw the toll of the pandemic in his neighborhood and felt moved by the summer of racial reckoning. He got involved with students pushing to defund school police at Los Angeles Unified schools. He worked for RootDown L.A., a group that promotes healthy food in communities of color.

At last, the Class of 2021 gathers together — for graduation

While his grades before senior year weren’t the best, Joaquin said that with the help of advisors at InnerCity Struggle, an Eastside advocacy organization, he stayed on track — and was accepted to UC Riverside. He also is a recipient of the Jordan Brand Wings Scholars Program, a full-tuition award.

Joaquin rose to become a leader in the InnerCity organization, at times giving presentations or speaking at school board meetings, actions “inspiring to see,” said Steven Ortega, a youth organizer with the group.

Joaquin said he will continue advocating for communities of color and take on activism roles at UC Riverside, where he plans to study environmental science and one day bring back his expertise to his hometown.

When he was younger, he said, he had teachers who labeled him as troubled and unwilling to learn. To walk at graduation, he said, is meaningful because he has proved them wrong.