This was a senior year that Berkeley High’s graduating class never expected.

With lost proms and lost friendships, the year has been replete with challenges and few causes for celebration. “It feels like I graduated last March,” one student told Berkeleyside.

But as difficult as attending senior year on Zoom has been, many students pushed back against the idea that this was just a lost year: students used the year to reflect on their paths, carving new roads for their future. Five seniors shared their experiences of a senior year online. Here are their stories:

Desiree Solis, 17

Desiree Solis poses for a photo at Berkeley High School on May 27, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Desiree Solis at Berkeley High School on May 27, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

As the world ground to a halt and her classes moved online, Desiree Solis poured herself into helping others, her own way of coping with the difficult circumstances.

“I think part of the reason why I don’t feel like I lost something [is] because I’ve made myself so busy to the point where I can’t be sad about not having a normal senior year,” Solis said.

“There have been some really dark times for me.”

Solis founded the United Cultural Coalition, a group that brings together leaders of cultural groups throughout the high school, and the Multicultural Student Association, where Solis said she learned to listen to others’ stories and feel comfortable sharing her own. She became an ambassador for Global Glimpse, a program that provides community service opportunities for students in countries all around the world, recruiting other high school students to get involved. She also became an advisor to a new student group called the Anti-Racism Club, which aims to improve outcomes like graduation rates and grades for students of color on campus.

That’s not to say the year has been easy. “There have been some really dark times for me,” said Solis, who struggled with her mental health this year.

After a car crash in her freshman year, Solis said she has been on a journey of self-love, paying attention to her own emotional well-being. The pandemic inspired her to commit her career to improve access to mental health for people with low income and those in the Filipino and Asian communities.

“I want to advocate for people in my community who don’t really have adequate resources, especially for mental health,” said Solis, who is working on a website that aims to destigmatize mental health.

Next year, Solis will be majoring in cognitive science at UC Merced, and she eventually hopes to become a mental health practitioner or a pediatrician.

Shayla Avery, 17

Shayla Avery at San Pablo Park, the site of the first protest she organized, in Berkeley on June 1, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Shayla Avery in San Pablo Park, the site of the first protest she organized in Berkeley, on June 2, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Shayla Avery never planned to become an activist. “I wasn’t the one to be holding the microphone or leading the march,” she said.

But last June, after the murder of George Floyd, Avery found herself at the helm of a series of protests in Berkeley against police brutality and racial injustice. The last year passed in a flurry as Avery grew as an advocate and organizer. Recently, she taught middle schoolers about lesser-known leaders in African American history.

“I have become way more comfortable with going out and doing interviews.”

As a result of the last year, “I have become way more comfortable with going out and doing interviews or going out on a panel and letting my guard down,” Avery said.

Avery entered high school as a private and reserved ninth grader. When her dad died, she didn’t tell any of her teachers, who didn’t know why her grades were suddenly slipping. Over time, through her involvement in Bridge, a college preparation program at Berkeley High that serves primarily Black and Latino students, and Destiny Arts, an Oakland dance center, she became more open with those around her. At Destiny Arts, Avery was inspired by activists and artists who worked to bring about social change through dance and poetry.

Now, Avery, who will be attending UCLA in the fall, where she will major in World Cultures, plans to continue on her activist trajectory and “fight for justice all around the world.”

“I want to do way more,” Avery said. “This isn’t the end at all.”

Ibrahim Humran, 17

Ibrahim Humran in Jacket Stadium on May 28, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

When schools shut in March, Ibrahim Humran started working up to 30 hours a week at his family’s convenience store in San Francisco, manning the cash register. Service at the store was pretty spotty and attending class on Zoom wasn’t always possible, making it a challenge to keep with schoolwork.

“I wasn’t just doing school, I was also working.”

“This year, for me at least, was very hard. Because I wasn’t just doing school, I was also working,” Humran said.

Humran first started working at the store when he 11 years old, stocking shelves and taking out the trash. He said he spent most of his middle and high school years horsing around.

“I was a troubled kid. I didn’t care about school. I always thought to myself, ‘Even if I drop out, I’ll just work in the store.'”

But the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that. It took working at the store full time for him to realize that’s not what he wanted to do. So for the first time, he started to take school seriously. With the help of teachers at RISE, an academic enrichment and support program for about 100 students, Humran passed all his classes while juggling his job. Now that school is over, Humran can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Humran is still not sure what his path will be, but he’s going to Berkeley City College in the fall with a new sense of purpose.

“I just want to help people. There’s so many people going through horrible things,” said Humran, whose family has been impacted by the Yemeni Civil War, with bombs dropping near their home. “I need to help them. … I need to do good by them.”

Ayush Shrestha, 18

Ayush Shrestha poses for a photo at Willard Park in Berkeley, CA on May 28, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Ayush Shrestha in Willard Park on May 28, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Ayush Shrestha will be the first to admit that the year has been a “really odd one.”

“I’m the type of guy to look at the silver lining, but I mean, it’s kind of hard to do that when this whole year, all you can really say is you learned how to calculate the volume of a cone and prove it in calculus,” Shrestha quipped. “I kind of want to refund.”

Jokes aside, Shrestha said the pandemic provided him with a chance to reflect on his priorities and identify interests beyond schoolwork. “I think COVID helped me filter out what I cared about what I didn’t care about.”

Shrestha went into freshman year wanting “to be the best at math, the best at science, the best at everything.” He devoted all his time to schoolwork and took pride in being able to tutor his peers, even those that were older than him. “He was a freshman tutoring seniors,” said Adrianna Beti, executive director at RISE, where Shrestha tutored students in math. In 2018, he was awarded the Mayor’s Award for Leadership for all the time he voluntarily devoted to tutoring his peers after school.

“I think COVID helped me filter out what I cared about what I didn’t care about.”

“I took too much pride in being a scholar that I struggled to make friends,” Shrestha admitted. Over time, the classmates that he tutored became his friends and Shrestha started to value the relationships he formed with students from different backgrounds than his own. “I think that taught me to just look at people as people,” Shrestha said. “If they came from a different culture, I wouldn’t really approach it any differently than I do someone else.”

During the pandemic, Shrestha realized he still wanted to do well in school, but he also wanted to play guitar and keep in closer touch with his good friends. He regretted not joining the wrestling team and wished he’d spent more time learning about the culture and languages of Nepal, where he was born.

Those are lessons Shrestha plans to take with him to UC Davis, where he plans to major in human development and possibly attend medical school later. He also plans to leave his job at CVS, which he picked up to help his family when his mom lost her job, and start tutoring again, which Shrestha described as his passion.

Ahniesty Fite, 18

Berkeley High School senior Ahniesty Fite poses for a portrait at the grade school she attended, Malcolm X Elementary, in Berkeley, CA on June 2, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Berkeley High School senior Ahniesty Fite at the elementary school she attended, Malcolm X, on June 2, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

On Friday, Ahniesty Fite became a third-generation graduate of Berkeley High. Fite’s grandmother, now 99, was the first in her family to graduate from BHS, followed by Fite’s mother, godmother, and cousin.

“I’m generation after generation after generation who went to Berkeley High,” Fite said.

Like her mother, Fite was also part of the Black Student Union, where she helped plan events for the Black community and participated in college trips. “Being around Black community just makes me feel good,” Fite said, adding that she hopes to join the Black Student Union at Xavier University in Louisiana.

“I had plans [for prom] — what I was going to wear, how I was going to look, who I was going with.”

But Fite’s senior year has had none of the quintessential experiences that her family told her about: no senior trip, no spirit week, no prom. Fite had been looking forward to those things since she was a freshman.

“I feel like how every other student feels. I lost so much experience,” said Fite, who joined the leadership team that plans prom and even started picking out venues last spring. “I had plans — what I was going to wear, how I was going to look, who I was going with.”

For what she lost, Fite said she gained independence, especially the ability to juggle multiple responsibilities at once. Over the summer, Fite held down a virtual internship at Bayer and a job at the same time. That independence will serve Fite well when she moves across the country for college.

“Of course I’m scared. I’ve never been away from my family. But you have to make some some sacrifices. … I’m going to be away from my family, but I’m going to a good school that has the best program that I need for what I want to be pursuing later on in my life,” said Fite, who plans to work in medicine to “support the health of Black mothers and their babies.”

There’s one tradition that Fite gets to preserve: in-person graduation, where she will be receiving the Black Scholars Award for her high GPA. “The in-person graduation, for a parent or a grandparent, is something they’re going to remember for years,” Fite said.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...