Shawnee valedictorian and salutatorian embrace class achievements

Students want graduates to acknowledge COVID-year accomplishments.

As the Class of 2021 at Shawnee High School gets ready for new beginnings, its members should look back at the year and pat themselves on the back for dealing with a pandemic in senior year, according to the school’s two top students.

“For me and most of my peers, the biggest challenge was losing that connection,” said Mackenzie Kelleher, Shawnee’s valedictorian. “I miss those in person connections with our classmates and teachers, and just missing the little moments that would happen in a class that would make your day. Those were some of the best parts of school.” 

Shawnee students adapted to a virtual learning environment and self-managed their work at home. For Kelleher and Shawnee salutatorian Brooke Hinkle, maintaining AP and honor courses to remain at the top of their class meant teaching themselves material and hours of studying.    

Kelleher took those advanced classes throughout high school. By the time she finished her sophomore year, she had received an academic award and was notified she was ranked No. 1 in her class, and Kelleher wanted to maintain that status during her last two years. But because of COVID, she went into her senior year taking the AP courses from home, devising a plan to comprehend the material virtually. 

“When we were learning virtually, I had to make my own schedule and study a lot more for things,” Kelleher noted. “Sometimes it’s difficult for people to want to speak up online and ask a question; it’s a little more awkward for kids to want to participate, so you definitely have to do a lot more on your own.” 

The key to success for Kelleher was staying organized and self-motivated. She had two goals in the beginning of senior year: being valedictorian and getting into her dream school, the University of Notre Dame, where she’ll study neuroscience following a premedical track.

As for Hinkle, she didn’t mind being at home, because it gave her more time to create her own schedule and study when she wanted to, versus sitting in a classroom at school, she said.

“I had all of my work, my computer, my materials, everything in one spot,” Hinkle explained. “I didn’t have to worry about going to school and coming back. I  adapted pretty well to having to work from home. I’m self-driven in that way, so I felt like being at home was giving me more flexibility.”

Although taking AP physics and environmental science courses virtually was not easy for Hinkle, she hopes extensive hours of studying have prepared her for the college experience. Her scheduling skills enabled her to create a plan where the morning was dedicated to classes and the afternoon to homework or studying.

“I basically have a whole office area of my house dedicated to me getting my school work done,” Hinkle said. “I have a written agenda where each day I’ll write out what assignments I have for each class, and depending on the day, I’ll set a time where I’ll write down a list and I’ll say, ‘This is my schedule for the day.’”

Hinkle will attend Cornell University in the fall to study environmental engineering, a field where her passion for math and science will incorporate real world applications, the student added. 

While remaining at the top of the class, Kelleher and Hinkle are involved in a variety of extracurricular activities. Kelleher played for the Shawnee basketball and soccer teams and Hinkle was a part of Shawnee’s theater department. Both recall those experiences as one of their favorite memories of high school

“Having our soccer season during this pandemic has made us all better players, and people in general,” Kelleher remembered. “We really all came to practice every day knowing that it could be our last practice or it could be our last game.”

The past few months for students, especially seniors, brought with them a sense of normalcy. Teachers at Shawnee have worked extensively to provide student activities for the senior class, something the class of 2020 didn’t get.

“Just everything we had to go through at the beginning of the year, it makes it that much more special now to be all together again, and I think it’s taught us to not take anything for granted,” Kelleher offered. “Our teachers have been putting so much effort into making the end of the year so special for us.”

Hinkle hopes Class of 2021 graduates reward and empower themselves for an unconventional senior year.

“We had to grow up faster than we would have if we didn’t have this experience,” she said. “We had to learn how to manage our own time, which usually, school wouldn’t be as independent. It’s empowering that we were able to get that done and achieve all of that.”

Shawnee graduates will celebrate their achievements with a ceremony on Friday, June 18, at 6 p.m.