Their senior year was cut short and their high school graduations were drive-through experiences, surrounded by teachers, staff and volunteers all wearing masks.
But after graduating from Guilford County Schools, look at what they’ll do with their lives. They’ll carry with them lessons about discipline and duty, dedication and responsibility.
And there’s a lot of love in there, too.
They all have stories, these 5,600 graduates from Guilford County Schools. Here are eight.
Chris Seu wants to be an endocrinologist.
That’s a doctor who diagnoses and treats hormone problems and the complications that arise from them.
As an endocrinologist, Chris wants to help people with medical conditions that can make them anxious, even heartbroken. Chris knows. An endocrinologist helped him during one of those most emotional moments of his young life.
Chris is now on the other side of that emotional moment. He’s a transgender teenager, a young Korean American who graduated second in his class of 31 at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts in High Point and will attend UNC-Chapel Hill this fall to major in biology.
He will have surgery this summer to help complete his transition. For the first time in his life, he feels comfortable with who he is.
At Penn-Griffin, Chris discovered his artistic talent through his guitar and his innate leadership through the clubs and organizations he joined.
As a freshman, he was president of student government, and as a sophomore, he was vice president. He went on to become vice president of the school’s Unity Club, which brings awareness to lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual and transgender issues on campus.
In his own quiet way, teachers say Chris has inspired both students and staff.
They also inspired him. That includes his parents.
“Without their support, it would not have meant anything,” he says. “I could’ve started everything at 18 and not needed my parents’ permission. But with my family and my friends saying, ‘I’m OK with you’ made me feel accepted, understood and loved.”
Kelis Johnson still hears her grandmother.
She’ll be doing something, such as feeding the homeless and the hungry near downtown Greensboro, and she’ll hear in her ears the voice of her grandmother, Mary Ann Townes, saying “Keep going, Baby. You’re smarter than I ever was.”
Kelis called her Sis. She went no further than the eighth grade.
Kelis graduated from the Early Middle College at GTCC-Jamestown, and she’s headed this fall to N.C. State to study biology and Africana Studies.
Her interest in majoring in Africana Studies comes straight from All Beautiful, the nonprofit she started as an eighth-grader. She began All Beautiful to empower and support young women, particularly women of color.
But her interest in biology comes from what has happened in her family.
She got tired of losing family members. Like Sis.
“I know there have been other doctors who have tried to help the African American community, and they may have thought, ‘Oh, this is too tough,’ especially when they run into a group of people who are stuck in their ways and not going to the doctor.
“Well, I want to be that doctor who could change that stigma of going to the doctor,” Kelis says. “I want to make it better for all African Americans. You know, it all starts with one.”
Ask Ryan Garber about his family, and he’ll talk about his twin, Isaac.
“I’m a whopping five minutes older than him,” Ryan says.
Are you close?
“Close would be an understatement,” Ryan responds.
Isaac and Ryan have gone to the same school throughout their lives. When they were young, their parents dressed them in coordinating colors. If you saw one, you saw the other.
But they are as different as night and day.
Ryan has the grades. He’s valedictorian this year at High Point Central High School, and he’s heading to UNC-Chapel Hill this fall to major in business, finance or economics. He’s also a patriotic teenager who will join the Naval ROTC program at the university.
Isaac has Down syndrome. It’s a genetic disorder that delays physical growth, changes facial features and brings about mild to moderate intellectual disability.
Isaac can’t communicate well. So, Ryan communicates for him. He stands up for him, too.
One time, when Ryan was 8, a new family moved into their High Point neighborhood, and the new kids on the block thought Isaac was, as Ryan says, “weird.” They were rude. Ryan, at 8 years old, talked to them about his brother.
“He’s taught me to accept others no matter what they look like or sound like,” Ryan says. “That’s driven me throughout my years. Accepting and loving someone for who they are.”
Spandan Goel spent four Wednesday nights feeding the hungry and the homeless at the Greensboro Urban Ministry.
She went with her mom and other members of the Indian Association of the Triad. There, Spandan saw the faces of the ones she collected food for at Guilford County’s Service-Learning Leadership Camp.
So, when she came to STEM Early College at N.C. A&T, she helped start a food drive and initiated hunger awareness activities for freshmen and sophomores.
She called the project Hunger Hurts. She spoke to faculty members. She also stood and spoke in front of nearly a half-dozen classes as she collected food donations for the local chapter of the nonprofit known as A Simple Gesture.
Over the span of two years, both the STEM Early College and the Early College at Guilford collected 7,305 pounds of food. During those two years. STEM students donated 2,622 pounds of food.
She shed her fear of public speaking, and she gained more empathy. Moreover, she understand the need to act.
“We’re not some Third World country,” says Spandan, who will attend Duke University this fall. “This is my own community, and it made me realize the difference between me and them. I don’t have to worry about my next meal or food insecurity. But there are people who do, and I have the opportunity to help people and create change.
“So, it wasn’t about me getting (service) hours. It was about me learning.”
Dekwan Lawless is going to Paris this fall to study the business side of fashion — and he’s received nearly a full ride from the school.
In September, he’ll leave for Paris and start his four years at Parson Paris, the European branch of New York City’s Parson School of Design at The New School.
In Paris, he’ll study strategic design and management. He’ll dive into what he has come to love.
The Middle College at N.C. A&T helped him get there. They made him study hard and go after scholarships. Dekwan graduated sixth in his senior class of 33, and he has received $132,000 in scholarships over four years to attend Parson Paris.
“The Middle College made me see school for what it wasn’t,” he says. “Everyone makes out school to be so hard. But they (the Middle College) made it easy just by helping kids understand that if you’re smart enough to listen, they’ll help you.”
Haley Hmiel goes by a few names.
Her parents call her “Hay Hay,” and her teammates at Southwest Guilford High School call her “Hales.” Then, if you ask her about her last name, she’ll say, “It’s ha-MEAL, like Happy Meal.”
For the past four years, she’s played catcher and first base for the girls softball team at Southwest, and along the way, she became the team’s leader.
She has played for various travel teams, and she has played in summer tournaments as far away as California. But her real work unfolded far from the crowds.
She practiced for an hour twice a week for five years, on the field behind Southwest, with her softball mentor. She called her Judy. They worked on catching and hitting, until day turned to night.
That hard work has paid off. Haley has received nearly a full scholarship to play softball at Queens University in Charlotte. She also received four other scholarships, and combined with what she received from Queens, they will cover all her college expenses.
“I’ve reaped what I’ve sowed,” says Haley, who will study nursing at Queens. “For five straight summers, I had missed all those sleepovers with friends and all those birthday parties I would’ve loved to have gone to. But I couldn’t. I was playing in tournaments halfway across the country.
“But the scholarship I received from Queens has made it worth it,” she says. “It’s just gratifying to know that my work will pay for college — and also help my parents out financially.”
Aaron Spruill wants to own a dump truck company.
That’s a dream of his after graduating from Northwest Guilford High School. He already owns his own landscaping company, and he knows his way around any engine. Aaron grew up around tractors and skid-steer loaders, and he can run most anything, from a bulldozer to a backhoe.
His grandfather and uncle taught him everything he knows.
“I wasn’t raised under a tree,” Aaron says. “I’ve got good common sense.”
Aaron was raised by his grandparents. They raised his half-brother, Logan, too. Logan was 10 years younger than Aaron. Like many brothers, they picked on one another. But Aaron did look after his brother in all kind of ways. That’s why he misses him.
Logan died in January 2019. He was autistic, and he had a habit of running off. He ran off one day, and he was found a 20-minute walk away through the woods. He had somehow fallen into a pond and drowned. He died two weeks after turning 7.
Aaron is working on his next move of owning a dump truck company. When he does, he knows who will be looking out for him.
“He’s in a good place now, and he doesn’t have those problems, and he’s happy,” Aaron says. “He’s watching everybody down here. And he’s watching over me. I want to make him proud.”
Jack Craig excelled at Weaver Academy for the Performing & Visual Arts and Advanced Technology.
He formed the school’s math club, tutored students in math and started the school’s Asian Student Association with four other students.
He was the vice president of the school’s Spanish club and president of the Weaver Ambassadors, the tour guides of the school. Whenever Jack would give tours or talk to anyone about Weaver, he would talk about America.
“Weaver is the perfect representation of what I feel America is known for,” Jack says. “America is a melting pot of idealism, culture and personality, and it works perfectly in a small environment like Weaver.
“We all get to prosper and grow, and Weaver has helped me grow,” he says. “It exposed me to so many different types of people and helped me connect and learn how to study effectively, manage my time and accept any sort of challenge very well.”
Jack knows challenges. He was adopted from China at age 5 by Daniel and Shelli Craig, a husband and wife from Greensboro.
Today, Jack has a scar about 5 inches long at the top of his neck from his surgery to treat his spina bifida. Jack is fine. When he was born, he had a hole in his neck that would have required medical attention to heal properly.
But that wasn’t available to him. Instead, an elderly couple who took care of him wrapped his neck with palm leaves for three years. The palm leaves were packed with herbs.
“I think it’s a miracle honestly,” Jack says. “It made me realize to be thankful for my life. It could have very easily gone a different path.”