There is no doubt that the past school year has provided an interesting conclusion to the high school careers of this year’s batch of South Whidbey seniors.
The COVID-19 pandemic created an unforgettable and unprecedented backdrop as the close-knit group of students completed their final years of high school, but it did not prevent them from achieving — even with online classes, cancelled and delayed athletics, and the repercussions of isolation and social distancing.
This year, seven seniors at South Whidbey High School out of the 113 in the class of 2021 have earned the distinction of valedictorian.
The co-valedictorians, all with a perfect 4.0 GPA, will be taking the graduation stage at their high school this Saturday, June 12.
Here’s a look at South Whidbey’s Top 7 Seniors.
Besides the classroom, Murnane also excelled on the soccer field. She has been on the varsity girls team since her freshman year and qualified for the state championships twice.
The natural athlete also participated on the varsity track and field team as an underclassman. During her senior year, she went skiing every Wednesday because the students had the day off from in-person lessons.
In addition, the well-rounded student participated in jazz band and the National Honors Society for three years.
Her advice to underclassmen is not to be scared of joining clubs or a new sport.
“I would also tell them to try not to stress out too much about school work,” Murnane said. “I know I put a lot of pressure on myself to have perfect grades, and looking back on it, it was a lot of wasted energy to do that and an unnecessary amount of stress.”
She will be attending the University of Washington to study biology.
Math enthusiast and musician Zundel is looking to combine her interests with a dual degree in music and computer science, or applied math, at the University of Washington.
One of her proudest accomplishments was placing third in the state for Math Olympiad. The flute and saxophone player has also played at several prestigious jazz festivals and was a section leader during her senior year.
On top of that, Zundel swam for Kamiak High School’s varsity girls swim team during all four years of high school.
At the beginning of her senior year, Zundel said she felt sure that she would be having a Zoom graduation — but that isn’t the case, and she is thrilled.
She has missed, however, getting to sit with her friends during lunch. Remote learning was difficult for her at first, but the co-valedictorian was able to adjust and be successful.
She advises underclassmen not to take on too many activities at once.
Like many of her co-valedictorians, Graner will be headed across Puget Sound to the University of Washington, where she plans to major in molecular and cellular biology and, potentially, minor in creative writing.
But unlike her peers, Graner was part of a special research program at Everett Community College, called Ocean Research College Academy, or ORCA for short.
One of her proudest accomplishments was presenting her research on “spaciotemporal patterns of dissolved oxygen in the Snohomish River Estuary relative to water temperature and chlorophyll fluxes” at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research and at the UW’s Undergraduate Research Symposium.
She can’t recommend the ORCA program enough to underclassmen.
In addition, Graner has been playing the cello since fourth grade. She has played at the Whidbey Island Community Orchestra concerts and also at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts as part of a student quartet called the Empyrean Quartet.
Between cross country meets, piano lessons and volunteer work, Gandarias has had an undoubtedly busy high school career.
His proudest accomplishment, though, was founding the Washington Association of Blind Students. Several of the division’s active members lobbied Congress with the National Federation of the Blind.
Gandarias, who is legally blind himself, ran in cross country since the sixth grade with a sighted guide. He self-taught himself musical braille and has taken piano lessons for nine years.
He is also a volunteer at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland, where he has had many roles from greeter to usher to reader to music player.
Gandarias will attend Stanford University with the goal of majoring in physics and specifically studying quantum mechanics.
“Push yourself,” he advised. “If you aren’t stressed and straining, at least a little, then you aren’t going to achieve the best version of yourself. With that being said, always make time for family and friends, those are the most important people in your life, and never lose sight of that.”
Coffey was more than 5,000 miles away when the pandemic hit.
The adventurous student was studying abroad in Italy at the time, and was understandably sad when she had to return home.
Unlike many students, who may have grieved for their senior year, Coffey said she will remember most “the intense sense of freedom from the new school schedule and reuniting with old friends.”
In her spare time, Coffey has also trained and ridden eventing horses, something she has done for the past decade.
Come fall, she will be going to UC Santa Cruz to pursue a psychology degree.
“Do what you want, there is no point in doing things because someone else wants you to,” she advised. “Also, strive to be comfortable with who you are and what you are not.”
A highlight of Rodriguez’s senior year was being able to spend more time with her younger brother before leaving for college by homeschooling him.
Like most students, the thing she missed most about pre-pandemic life was after-school activities such as dances and sporting events.
She was part of the varsity girls cross country team all four years of her high school career. She considers making it to the state championships to be one of her biggest accomplishments.
Rodriguez also played tennis and was part of the Spanish and social justice clubs at the high school.
She will attend Stanford University in the fall and plans to study education and creative writing.
Similar to some of her co-valedictorians, Gmerek’s favorite memories of high school pertain to being a part of the cross country team. She attended the state championships all four years of high school.
“It’s so rewarding knowing that you wouldn’t be there if each teammate didn’t give it their all and push themselves throughout the season,” she said.
She fondly remembers the pre-COVID-19 tradition of lively car rides to the state conference that included blasting Christmas music and caroling on the ferry in matching pajamas.
Gmerek, who is bound for the University of Washington this fall, said the one thing she will remember the most about her senior year is not ever attending prom. Many students, like herself, found online learning to be a challenge, especially when paired with other struggles such as depression.