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Senior letters project helps students share frustration, disappointment

Young Scholars Program initiative puts high school students’ loss into words

“Getting my senior year stolen away from me broke me. The hardest part is not what I am feeling, but not being able to express my feelings without being judged.”

“I wish it did not end so soon. I was really looking forward to finishing the year off in school, not at home. The COVID-19 ruined the great times we could have.”

“I’m doing well, just a bit disappointed. Although I know that it’s necessary and I want everyone to be safe, there is a selfish part of me that grieves my senior year.”

Ohio seniors have put pen to paper to lament the loss of traditions, celebrations and the conclusions of the final months of their high school career. Their thoughts, often raw, angry and emotional, are now on display at a website built by The Ohio State University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Dear Senior Year is a project created through the university’s Young Scholars Program. Program leaders asked members of the 2020 graduating class to write a letter to their senior year.

Cianna Agosto, a senior at McKinley Senior High School in Canton, was the author of one of the letters.

“I had a lot of stuff planned with my friends. I miss seeing people every day,” said Agosto, a Young Scholar since eighth grade. “And my teachers, I miss seeing them. I made really good connections with them. I think the thing I miss the most is the traditions that go in to the end of the year, and how much bonding and closure you get at the end of the year.”

Young Scholars program coordinator Lisa Gissendaner came up with the senior letter idea in April as she was checking in with the scholars she supports in the Canton area.

“I just wanted to know how they were feeling and if they could share their thoughts with me,” she said. “I immediately got a response back from one of my scholars, and she had written about two paragraphs and it just stunned me. I wasn’t really expecting a quick return like that but it really kind of made me sad.”

“I really do trust Ms. G, so I just laid it all out. I was very open with how I was feeling because I know I can trust her,” Agosto said. “I was really open to the idea and I don’t mind sharing. There’s nothing wrong with being disappointed about how things ended up.”

Gissendaner said students appreciated that someone was asking how they were feeling as stay-at-home orders kept them isolated from their friends and community. The writing project became cathartic for some of the students.

“It made perfect sense to have all the seniors write a letter to their senior year. But we did not anticipate that type of response,” said Chila Thomas, executive director of the Young Scholars Program. “But to read it and to see it in writing, personally, I can only get to get through two or three at a time and I’m crying because they’re so sentimental. You’re reading through a lot of loss.”

The openness and vulnerability in the students’ letters is the result of the close relationships built in the Young Scholars Program. The program serves academically talented first-generation college students from economically challenged backgrounds who live in nine of the largest urban school districts in Ohio.

“When you think about the Young Scholars, many of these students attend some of the most vulnerable school systems in the state of Ohio, and arguably in the United States. So there’s a lot of fragility that you find in their lives,” said Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer James L. Moore III. “What we’re trying to do and what we’ve always done is to be a bridge to help people work through these emotions, while remaining steadfast in their focus and matriculating to The Ohio State University.”

The writing project helps inform program leaders about the mindset of the students before they begin their college coursework. They know this abrupt end to such an important moment of these students’ lives will have a long-term impact.

“I think that this initiative helped our university pay attention to what’s going on with the students before they enroll at Ohio State,” Thomas said. “This is a brief insight, it’s small, but it’s enough, especially when you think about who the Young Scholars students are. They’re first generation. Many of the students come from modest homes. But I don’t think that they are the only ones who are having those sentiments.”

Gissendaner agreed: “For our scholars, just being able to contact them, as we’re doing on a weekly basis, provides a lot of encouragement and stability for them right now at this time.”

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