The Class of 2020 lost what many of us take for granted; the rites of passage that capped off everyone else’s high school journey were shut down for these students. No prom, no spring sports or activities, no graduation. Their final days of school are dissolving in virtual classes and uncertainty about whether they will be able to begin their first semester of college “in-person.”
We interviewed nine young men and women from our public high schools in northwest Bergen County and discovered strong spirits, resiliency, and much hope for the future. Celebrate them with us!
Ramapo High School
As a true RIH kid, Jessica Swenson lived in all three towns covered by the Ramapo-Indian Hills school district and attended Ramapo. She grew up in Wyckoff, later moved to Franklin Lakes, and now resides in Oakland. A true scholar-athlete, Jessica played three years of both basketball and golf, while being a member of the National Honor Society, World Language National Honor Society (Spanish), and serving as a Senior Ambassador for incoming freshman this year.
She was a member of the DECA club and was Vice President of Public Relations for NJ DECA. “I joined it as a freshman, and we made it to the state competition in my sophomore year,” says Jessica. “I met a lot of close friends through DECA and I really enjoy the competitiveness of it.”
Serving as the Senior Class President at Ramapo, Jessica also founded two clubs at the school, Girls Who Code and Love Letters. “I could never fit a computer science class into my schedule,” says Jessica, “so a friend and I decided we should just learn it ourselves. Girls Who Code is a national organization and there is curriculum available online.”
The Love Letters club focuses on creating cards and letters to brighten the holidays of seniors in area nursing homes, which are delivered to them along with their meals to brighten their days.
Jessica is attending Ohio State University in the fall as a marketing major but intends to follow a pre-med track with the goal of becoming a radiologist and running her own business.
When asked about how the COVID-19 situation upended her senior year, Jessica answers: “It’s upsetting, it’s not the way we wanted our senior year to end. But we try to put it in perspective, if it saves lives, it is better for us to stay home. Some of our parent organizations are working to get something together for us to celebrate over the summer or next fall. It’s important to have that closure.”
Waldwick High School
Jillian Reynolds will be attending Villanova in the fall and focus on a STEM education with a major in mechanical engineering and a possible biomedical minor. Jillian wants to pursue a career making and designing prosthetics.
She was thrilled to get into her number one school, and her acceptance was well-deserved. Jillian is president of the National Honor Society and secretary of the student council. She was a member of the Heroes and Cool Kids program which mentors elementary school children. “We talk to the kids about resilience, share stories about our own life lessons, and play games. It’s too bad we can’t have our last meeting this spring.” Jillian also puts her math acumen to good use by participating in the peer tutoring program on Tuesday mornings to help middle school students with math.
She has enjoyed a rewarding sports career; playing soccer throughout high school and participated in winter and spring track. When she moves on to Villanova, Jillian’s roommate will be a track rival from Park Ridge. “We met and became friends over the years at meets, and decided to room together at Villanova,” she says. Jillian plans to stay very active in college through intramurals and club sports.
“It’s sad to miss my senior track season. I’d rather be in school with my friends, but virtual learning is going as well as it could be. The teachers are understanding, and the workload is manageable. I’m grateful for their patience. The whole situation stinks but I’ve been able to handle it well. I’ve worked hard and wanted everything to end on a good note. But we are all going through this together.”
Ridgewood High School
Annabel Mendoza is the valedictorian of her senior class at Ridgewood High School. With educational interests in economics, math, and science, Annabel is president of the Finance Club which took second place last year in state competition.
She’s the co-president of Ridgewood’s math team, a member of the National Honor Society, and president of the French National Honor Society.
She shares her musical talents by playing the piano along with the music honors society, Tri-M, for residents at Van Dyke nursing home. Through Project Interact, she volunteers at local community events including Ridgewood’s holiday tree lighting and Haunted Harvest.
One more thing…this young woman can take care of herself. A student of Tae Kwon Do for over ten years, Annabel is a third-degree black belt and will be testing for her fourth-degree belt this summer.
She was invited to participate in the Governor's School, a three-week program at Drew University taking science classes and doing neuroscience research. “I’ve always liked math and science, and my involvement in the Finance Club has developed my interest in that subject as well,” says Annabel.
Annabel will attend the University of Chicago in the fall and plans to major in economics or neuroscience. “I chose that school because of its strong focus on academics…and I like Chicago,” she says.
“The COVID-19 situation was disappointing at first--everyone was looking forward to ending our senior year together. Our teachers and faculty in Ridgewood have done a good job making sure everyone is engaged with their education. I feel prepared for my upcoming AP tests. I’m lucky to be in a town with such a strong virtual education environment.”
Mahwah High School
Michael Hurtado is the president of his senior class at Mahwah High School. He is an active member of the student government and has been very involved in planning fundraisers, events, talent shows, and prom…which, as we know, didn’t happen.
“We are trying to brainstorm ways to bring back the senior rites of passage that we’ve all lost. We will see if anything is possible,” says Michael, “it will be difficult to make everyone happy.”
Michael volunteers with MEVO cleanups. “People take trash, clothes, refrigerators, and cars and abandon them in the woods. We break it all apart and haul it away,” he says. He works as a waiter at Legends in Midland Park and is also a lifeguard.
As the catcher on Mahwah high school’s baseball team, Michael notes, “we had our first practice on the last day of school—and that was it. I’m hoping to play on a club team in college.” He belongs to the Young Politicians Club and the Coding Club. His favorite subject is computer science and he will major in it with a focus on cybersecurity when he attends Stevens Institute of Technology this fall.
“I was put into computer science accidentally in ninth grade. I was doing poorly, so midway through the year, I had a pep talk with my teacher. She told me that computer science teaches you how to think, and it’s a great path for college. I began to apply myself and once it clicked, I loved it!”
Michael has been the recipient of various scholastic and advisory council awards throughout his student career. Capping it all off during the COVID-19 pandemic was disheartening. “I stayed up so many nights this year, in order to prepare for and enjoy all the exciting things going on at school--Acceptance Day, Senior Picnic, etc. It’s hard to have that ripped away. It was difficult. But it’s a small sacrifice in the scheme of things. There are so many people dying, it puts everything into perspective.”
Northern Highlands High School
Serena Huang knows her numbers. As valedictorian at Northern Highlands and a member of the National Honor Society, she has an affinity for mathematics and economics. She was a vital member of the DECA Club and the Fed Challenge. Serena also participates in the American Mathematics Competition.
Her wide array of interests includes her position as Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, The Highland Fling. “I really enjoy getting to meet a lot of people by interviewing them and writing about them,” says Serena.
This senior’s musical talents extend from the flute to the piano. “Marching band was a great experience. I remember being a freshman in the flute section and the upperclassmen were so helpful to me. I was happy to be able to pay that forward to the underclassmen this year,” says Serena. She also competes on the school’s fencing team. “I went in knowing nothing about fencing, and it was a fun thing to learn. It also taught me lessons about losing and not getting discouraged,” she says. Serena is also the treasurer of the LEO Club, providing various services to the community.
Serena will be attending the University of Pennsylvania and hopes to major in mathematical economics.
Outside of school, Serena was a Girl Scout Ambassador and received the Gold Award this year. Her project was comprised of designing a nutrition program for kids. She also volunteered as a cashier with the All is Well Foundation shop in Wyckoff.
“When we found out that the rest of the school year would be canceled, it hit hard,” she says. “My friends and I call each other and do a lot of baking! We exchange notes and baked goods to keep connected in this unfortunate situation. My classmates are connecting virtually now.”
Indian Hills High School
Elijah Kupferberg is the valedictorian at Indian Hills High School and participates in Debate Club, DECA, and Stock Market Club. His academic awards include being a National Merit Scholar, NJ SEAL (Spanish Literacy) Certification, and a Financial Literacy Award. He has an AP Scholar Designation in US History, Physics, and English.
He would have been the captain of his varsity tennis team at Indian Hills this year, but the season never even began due to COVID. “When they canceled school the first two weeks, I thought it would probably get worse--if it’s not safe now, I don’t think we can go back in two weeks,” said Elijah. “But I never imagined being out the rest of the school year.”
As he finishes his AP testing online, Elijah says the school’s technology has been working fine, although virtual schoolwork is a little tedious. “I have to put in the time and prepare for the AP tests and it’s a little difficult to stay motivated,” he says.
Eli will be attending Vanderbilt University in the fall, majoring in Human and Organizational Development. “it combines economics, psychology, and sociology programs and can be applied to many different corporate career paths,” he said.
When life is “normal,” Eli likes to spend time at the gym and with friends. He has volunteered with Pony Power in Mahwah and Project Love, a tennis program; both serving individuals with special needs.
“When the COVID pandemic first hit, I didn’t see my friends at all. For the past few weeks, we have at least been able to see each other social distancing. We also text and play Xbox together.” Eli and his fellow students are hoping there may be a graduation ceremony in July or August. “It’s disappointing, but my teachers, administrators, and the state have done a good job. It is what it is.”
Glen Rock High School
As the president of the student council, Lauren has been involved in planning school events including homecoming, pep rallies, school-wide projects, and fundraisers.
She is also the president of the Key Club, which also organizes community-based service projects and encourages students to volunteer.
Besides being on the school’s tennis team, she also enjoys spring track and is a member of the DECA club. “DECA is a great opportunity to participate in a business-prompt competition. You gain experience interacting with professional adults, and even begin to build your wardrobe of professional business outfits,” she says.
This member of the National Honor Society and the Spanish National Honor Society will be attending the University of Michigan in the fall and is interested in communications, media, and business. “I’m a people-person,” she says, “I like to be creative.”
Lauren has been working with the principal and other seniors about what they can do for a virtual graduation with hopes of a “live” one later in the summer if social distancing is lifted. They are also looking into a homecoming event in the fall. “To me, missing graduation is worse than missing prom. Our graduation tradition is a “Grad Ball” when the parents completely transform the gym with a different theme each year. It’s really a cool thing that the parents do,” she says.
The Class of 2020 was born during the country’s 9/11 crisis, so they have some pre-existing resiliency. When the COVID situation struck, Lauren and her friends had to work through their feelings. “I was really upset because we worked so hard the two years building up to graduation. You plan for the future, and when you aren’t sure how things are going to play out, it’s kind of scary. The community is really doing a great job trying to give seniors their moment, but it’s still difficult. We just want this to work out in the best way it possibly can.”
Midland Park High School
Theresa Olson is this year’s valedictorian at Midland Park High School. In addition to playing varsity basketball and softball, she also plays the tuba in the marching band and concert band and has served as drum major as well.
Theresa has been involved with an organization called TEEEM which works with third world countries and impoverished areas of the US to help improve education and economics in the area. “We were just getting it started,” she says. “We had meetings every couple of months with other schools and were planning some fundraisers that got canceled due to COVID.”
Outside of school, Theresa volunteers with church and other organizations, most of which are centered around providing food for area shelters and families that are food insecure. Volunteering with Meals that Heal, entails delivering food to a shelter in Haledon and sitting down to share the meal with the people whom they are serving. “It’s very interesting because they get up and share their stories. Many are happy and good-spirited in their situation. It’s eye-opening and makes you appreciate what you have.”
Theresa will be attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the fall, majoring in Chemical Engineering.
It’s helpful to be able to look forward to college after a challenging spring with COVID-19. “It was crushing,” she says. “Especially being seniors; these were supposed to be our last couple of months together with our classmates. It’s upsetting to not go back to school and see my friends. We understand why we’re doing it--we don’t want to risk anyone’s health--but we lost out on our events. I will miss graduation the most…being on the field with my classmates.”
Ramsey High School
Track and field, soccer, basketball, and lacrosse…Caroline Schwanewede has had a distinguished sports career at Ramsey High School. As the salutatorian of her senior class, sports have always been a big part of Caroline’s life.
She’s a member of the National Honor Society and the World Language Honor Society for French and participates on the debate team and in math and science leagues. These experiences will serve her well when she goes on to the University of Virginia with an interest in either pre-law or pre-med.
Caroline was selected to attend the Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership (HOBY) seminar and participated in a service trip to southern Tanzania with 13 of her Ramsey classmates last summer. “The trip was focused on student-driven leadership and teamwork. We built a teacher’s home for an elementary school in Tanzania, and it was an amazing experience. You really get to see how privileged we are,” she says.
Caroline tutors students and has volunteered with the Challenger Soccer program which empowers children with disabilities to participate in sports. She also provides soccer instruction for kids on her own.
“My high school experience has changed me as a person, she says. “Going into my senior year of soccer, I thought we were going to have a great year--but we lost our first three games. As captains, we had to bring the team together. By the end of the season, we won sectionals. I learned that things don’t always come easy, but we saw the rewards of communication and hard work.”
That lesson extended into Caroline’s experience as a senior in high school during the pandemic. “When COVID first hit, I was hopeful that we would get back to school. I am still optimistic that we will get some type of graduation. It doesn’t help to be negative. I’d rather be positive in the present than negative worrying about the future.”