Wake County high school grads turn their tassels armed with resilience from the pandemic

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Friday night brought the first of twenty-one Wake County High School graduations at the Raleigh Convention Center over the next six days. There was plenty of excitement tonight from young people about what's next for them and for some, it was about just how much the pandemic may have changed their path.

In the crush of moms, dad, cousins and graduates from Sanderson High School, they looked back on the long, strange trip from sophomore year when their world was turned upside down by COVID-19 to right now as graduating seniors on the biggest night of their young lives.

"It's definitely been weird. A lot of change," said graduate James Marshall.

"I am very excited," 17-year-old graduate Herbert Neal said.

But that jubilation came with plenty of frustration, enduring months of remote learning. And like so many others, Neal wasn't connecting.

"It was hard for me to just focus in class and get my work done in general. I was failing all my classes. When I came back to school, I was able to focus more and do better in school," Neal said.

Ke'Asia Bethea's grades took a bad turn in 2020. But she put on her cap and gown tonight with a new sense of self; of what she's capable of.

"The virtual learning was actually very hard for me," Bethea said. "The pandemic taught me a little bit about myself. How to become more comfortable with myself; to work myself a little bit harder."

There seemed to be a sense of pandemic resilience in the grads. Graduate Emily Gard said she's headed to art school in the fall, majoring in fashion design. A career she decided on within the past two years when COVID taught her just how fleeting life is.

"I got to realize that there's no time to not be yourself," Gard said. "You may as well just be your actual self and hang out with the people you want to, not put up a fake front. Because there's just not time for it."

Wake County graduations continue through next Thursday. The Sanderson commencement happened at the same time as a concert at nearby Red Hat Amphitheater. Tonight, was a big test of traffic and parking, but despite the flood of cars and people, it seemed to hold up.
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