Detroit high school senior Vanessa Ybarra
Detroit high school senior Vanessa Ybarra

Michigan students are handling pivotal life changes during a pandemic. This is high school senior Vanessa Ybarra’s story.

Welcome to our 3-part series highlighting how Michigan students are handling pivotal life changes during a pandemic. This is what it’s like to come of age during the coronavirus.

MICHIGAN — “Mexicanos, al grito de guerra, el acero aprestad y el bridón; Y retiemble en sus centros la tierra, al sonoro rugir del cañón.”

Vanessa Ybarra, a senior at Western International High School in southwest Detroit, would have belted out those lyrics of the Mexican National Anthem during her graduation ceremony in May.

“Mexicans, when the war cry is heard, have sword and bridle ready; Let the earth’s foundations tremble at the loud cannon’s roar.”

To Ybarra, the translated 166-year-old lyrics represent something meaningful and relevant to today’s COVID-19 crisis that everyone can relate to.

“The anthem is talking about how we all need to come together and stand proudly before our flag as a group,” Ybarra said, adding that she sang the Mexican National Anthem at last year’s graduation and will miss not being able to sing it during her final school year.

Ybarra’s multicultural school is situated in southwest Detroit, where Latinos make up about 50 percent of the population. 

PART 1: Coming of Age in a Pandemic: What Do You Do When You Graduate College Into An Economic Freefall?

The Dystopian Graduate

Ybarra loves to sing and uses music as an outlet to express her emotions, and she was going to sing in the school talent show a final time. She also wanted to sing at the senior pinning ceremony. Singing is one of the constants in her life, especially when her last year at high school was turned on its head. 

Ybarra was ready for her day to come. She was looking forward to donning her cap and gown with the rest of her Class of 2020 and walk across the stage to the roar of the cheering crowd. Now, none of those things will happen except for her receiving her diploma at a later date.

“It just really doesn’t feel real; almost like an altered state of reality,” Ybarra said. “There’s supposed to be little guarantees (in the world) and now that (graduation) is not anymore it doesn’t feel real. When something of this magnitude happens a lot of people don’t know what to expect.” 

She said that she is also sad about not being able to do a “lot of stuff leading up to” her graduation.

“A lot of days were supposed to be filled with good memories,” she said. “Graduation rehearsal was always fun for my friends in higher grades (I wanted to experience that too). The excitement of getting ready to transition to a new chapter in our lives is not here anymore and it feels weird.”

School’s Out

Ybarra learned, like much of the rest of the country’s nearly 56 million students last month that schools would be closing for the remainder of the academic year.

“We had heard rumors about it but nothing definite until later on,” she said. “A lot of us tried to keep a positive and optimistic outlook on everything.”

Ybarra said that with school being out, “the worst part” about it is that nothing stood out of the ordinary on her last day.

“It was just a normal day; nobody paid attention to what was happening,” she said of her last day at school on Thursday, March 12. 

The next day was supposed to be special. On Friday, March 13, Ybarra planned to attend a school dance. That date was significant because it was going to be a “313” dance, numbers that mark the month and the day, and matches the city of Detroit’s area code. Ybarra and several others in her art class made a four-foot tall replica of the iconic Joe Louis fist displayed downton – the replica was going to be a highlight of the dance. “I’ve been working on that for the longest time and it was finally starting to come together, and all it needed was to be cut and painted.”

The Show Must Go On

Judith Stahl, assistant director of College Counseling at Detroit Country Day School in Beverly Hills said that the biggest advice she would give to high school seniors now would be to see the positives of their lives and to be excited about their futures.  

“In my college planning meetings I often share how a path to college and career is no longer linear as it was a few generations ago,” Stahl said in an email.  “The path of the current student weaves and bobs but in the end, with determination and commitment, all students may achieve their aspired goals. They have to be prepared to take a bend in the road to continue down their chosen path but it can be done.  And they can do this.”

Singing a New Song

Ybarra is a glass half-full kind of person. She said that the Mexican National Anthem reminds her that better days are here, despite all the troubles, and still to come, which she looks for in the little things.

“It seems like people are showing off their humanity a lot more,” she said of times when she went grocery shopping with her mother and people were helpful and talkative with them and others. “I think after we go through (this) it’s going to open our eyes again. After major tragedies there is always like a big resurgence and (boost in) morality … that reset button. I think our era is that reset button. To remind people we’re all human beings and going here though this together.”