Loss, healing, resistance, hope: 5 recent grads reflect on a turbulent year | #students | #parents

Isabella Ortiz, 18

Virtual learning led to many students feeling isolated. The School District of Philadelphia saw a surge in mental health issues among teens.

Isabella Ortiz, a senior at Central High School from Center City, spent the whole year learning online, as most Philadelphia students in higher grades did.

“It felt like I was pretty alone doing school,” said Ortiz.

She’s off to the University of Pittsburgh and hopes to have a more “normal” year in college, though she’s feeling unprepared. After a year of going to school in her bedroom, she’s concerned about her social skills.

“I haven’t really had to talk to people, make new friends, work in groups, stuff like that,” said Ortiz. “So I’m nervous, feeling like you don’t really know how to interact in a social world again.”

Isabella Ortiz spent much of her senior year of high school in her bedroom. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Many students participated in protests for racial justice. In Philadelphia, there were calls for schools to deal with racism head-on. Local organizations called for police-free schools and Juntos started a campaign to train teachers in handling encounters with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. 

Ortiz was in the streets, but she also found a space of reflection in the virtual classroom.

Ortiz, who is Hispanic and white, had conversations in class about racism in the United States. She felt like she had a solid foundation because of a class on African American history and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It was really helpful to have that background,” said Ortiz.

She also learned about her own family’s experiences with racism. She heard stories that she hadn’t heard before.

As she was preparing for college, her father, Luis, told her about his college experience. Luis immigrated from Puerto Rico when he was 18 to attend Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. At the time, it was a small and predominantly white school. He was one of very few students of color.

In his first year, a group of students targeted him, pushing him down the stairs because he is Latino, according to Isabella. Thankfully, her father didn’t suffer from any major physical injuries, but the experience stuck with him, and he passed the story down to Isabella to offer advice. It’s changed how Ortiz wants to move through the world.

“It showed me that these people are everywhere,” she said, “and I need to be careful and I need to look out for people around me as well, who are minorities.”

Isabella Ortiz, a 2021 graduate of Central High School, poses with her father, Luis Ortiz. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Sarah Zhang, 18

Sarah Zhang, a senior at Central Bucks East High School in Doylestown, has been an organizer for social justice ever since the 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. She organized her school’s walk-out in solidarity with Parkland.

She felt a renewed sense of urgency after the murder of George Floyd, and after the killing of six Asian Americans in Atlanta in March.

After the Atlanta mass shooting, Zhang finally processed the anti-Asian microaggressions she faced in elementary school. She started to speak out at rallies about her experiences as a Chinese American student.

She even started her own organization called Youth 4 Unity. Much of the work involved holding “uncomfortable conversations,” said Zhang, on racial inequality in her predominantly white town.

Sarah Zhang (yellow shirt) and Youth 4 Unity at a protest. (Provided by Sarah Zhang)

“So, ok, white supremacy is obviously deeply rooted. So what can we do as individuals to combat it?” said Zhang. “And a lot of that did come down to un-educating ourselves on a lot of what we’ve been taught.”

Zhang campaigned for a more diverse school curriculum. She and the students she works with want English classes to teach more books written by and about people of color, and a less Eurocentric teaching of world history.

They received pushback from community members and their school board, and they didn’t see much concrete change this year, she said.

“That was really frustrating to me as a student going through the district,” said Zhang, “and knowing that this district had underrepresented me and other minorities.”

As she prepares to leave the state for college, she hopes current students in Bucks County will continue the fight for racial justice.

“Each of their voices are so unique and so powerful,” said Zhang. “We need them to fight against the injustice that we see in our own community.”

Sarah Zhang, 18, is a senior at Central Bucks East High School in Doylestown. (Provided by Salrah Zhang)

Zhang is headed to University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill next year.

She’s already in touch with other incoming first-year students, and has ideas for events at UNC.

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