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HARLINGEN — They faced many unique challenges.
COVID hijacked their freshman year, forcing the 2023 graduates of Harlingen High School South to retreat into their enclaves of safety while continuing classes online. They couldn’t see their friends; they felt isolated from the world; and an invisible threat to their health lurked everywhere.
But still — they have thrived.
And Saturday night at Boggus Stadium the graduating Hawks walked the stage in their caps and gowns and accepted their diplomas.
“We have finally arrived at the night you have all been waiting for,” said Valedictorian Kendra Hernandez.
“I admit our journey was not what we were expecting,” she continued, “but it was the most realistic experience yet.”
Graduating seniors said Thursday before graduation they had mixed feelings about concluding this phase of their lives.
Alek Araguz, 18, called it “bittersweet.”
“I am happy that I am finally done with school,” Alek said. “I am also very sad that I am going to be leaving my hometown and my community that I am so used to.”
The radical transformation of education during the pandemic presented him and his classmates with obstacles they had to quickly overcome.
“We were doing paper, and as soon as COVID hit we had to learn how to learn online,” he said. “It was a huge adjustment.”
While they all found ways to turn the challenges of COVID to their advantage, many also conceded their academics and social skills suffered.
“I think change is really important, but it set me back with the math,” said Abigail Aguirre, 18.
She’s set to study architecture at Texas A&M University – College Station after high school, but studying for the school’s math placement exam was a bit intimidating.
“I have learned things that I actually should have learned in my freshman and sophomore years,” she said.
However, Abigail began her life with a good foundation.
“I would like to give a shout out to my grandmother,” she said with a warm smile.
“She’s from Mexico and education was really important to her,” Abigail continued. “When I was three years old, she taught me to tie my shoelaces and spell my name and count from one to 50. I owe her a lot.”
Iliana Flores, 18, has been attending school since age three and she’s ready to move on to greater things.
“Getting to walk on that stage means being able to prove to myself that I made it,” she said.
And as is the case with so many, she too feels to this day the effects of COVID.
“Being in lockdown in my youth with no social communication took its toll,” Iliana said. “Being with my family, being able to talk to them, being able to explain my feelings helped.”
Coming out of lockdown, she healed from the pain of those dark days by joining the school’s cheer team and making some new genuine friends.
And now she looks forward to studying biology and pre-dental at the University of Texas in Houston.
To see more, view Brownsville Herald photojournalist Denise Cathey’s full photo gallery here: