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'Take Every Opportunity To Do Something Good:' Lessons Learned From Graduating During A Pandemic

A picture of African-American man in graduate cap and gown
Elijah Seay
Elijah Seay plans to attend the University of South Florida to study psychology

The coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close about two months before the end of the school year, stripping away many of the common high school rituals such as proms and graduation ceremonies. 

Some high school students even lost family members, like Elijah Seay, 18, who is graduating from Lennard High School in Ruskin.

As a dual enrolled student at Hillsborough Community College, Seay earned enough credits to complete his associate’s degree. 

“I was the president of the National Honor Society. I started on the football team, the varsity football team for all four years. I played track and field. I did some stuff with the theater production. I did a lot of volunteer work with Metropolitan Ministries and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

“I think the hardest thing for me is not being able to say goodbye to all of my friends and my teachers. On top of that, not being able to finish school the way that I wanted to, having to do it online. It was really hard at first, just not knowing if we would be able to graduate, not knowing when we would see each other again, that was really hard.

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“Unfortunately, last week, we had to bury one of my aunts, in Aiken, South Carolina. She was affected by it. I think she had it. They didn't say that it was due to the coronavirus. They said that it was pneumonia. But they went back, and they said that she had the organ failure and the fluid in and around the lungs and the heart. And so they said that it could have been complications from (COVID-19).

“We were really close and she was near and dear to my heart. And one of the things that we shared was making sweet potato pies together whenever I would go to South Carolina. So whenever I see a sweet potato pie, I always think of her.

“One of the things that many people -- if not all people -- take for granted is family and the time that we get to spend together. And since we're being forced to spend time together with our family, it's actually a great opportunity to fix some bonds or to reconnect some relationships and just talk, play games and hang out.

“I'm going to the University of South Florida. I will be majoring in psychology. Ever since I was in sixth grade, I've always wanted to be a counseling psychologist. Helping people talking through problems with people has always been one of my passions.

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“For me, optimism is having faith that things will turn out the way that they're supposed to be, and that there'll be a good lesson and a positive experience to come out of anything, whether it be a good or bad experience. And I've also gained a stronger faith. I've gotten closer to the God that I serve. And just having that relationship with Him, being able to talk to Him -- it's been a really good experience.

“I've learned that life is short, and that every opportunity that we have, you should always take to do something good. And that's what I've been trying to do with myself.

“When I go out to work, I make it my mission to try to smile at people. You can't see people through a mask but, but they can see your eyes so I hope that they can tell that I'm smiling.”

This story is produced in partnership with America Amplified, an initiative using community engagement to inform local journalism. It is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.