HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION

Graduation Stories: Seniors across Leander ISD pause to look back before looking ahead

Leander ISD's six high schools will hold graduation ceremonies Friday and Saturday

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By Saturday night, thousands of high school seniors will have graduated from their respective high schools. Students from many other area schools have already walked across the stage and received their diplomas.

For Leander ISD students, though, that process begins Friday morning, as seniors from Tom Glenn, Cedar Park, Vandegrift, Leander, Rouse and Vista Ridge High Schools will walk across the stage and take a big step toward the rest of their lives. 

The final months of high school mark the culmination of many years of work, but also the end of a momentous journey. Each student's journey is unique. Several graduating seniors spoke about their experiences throughout high school, the coming graduation and their plans for the future.

“I want to change the world”

Team by team they were invited into a room filled with insects. The 25 perfectly preserved specimens were aligned neatly by staff members inside the room. Outside, Aurod Ounsinegad, 17, and his four teammates nervously waited to be invited in.

Once his team was finally let inside hours later, their task was clear: identify each insect and its various aspects without any information except the specimens themselves.

With only 90 seconds to examine each speciment, the students had to work quickly.

"I was zoned into that one bug and tuned out everything around me,” said Ounsinegad, a senior from Vandegrift High School who will graduate on June 1.

Ounsinegad and his teammates were participating in a statewide entomology competition for high school students created by the Future Farmers of America, a youth organization that aims to promote agricultural education.

The event, hosted at Texas Tech University in Lubbock on April 27, had the goal of educating high school students to apply fundamental concepts in entomology, the scientific study of insects.

Ounsinegad’s time in high school was weaved throughout with entomology and his participation with the FFA. He joined his entomology team when he began high school four years ago and quickly became the team leader.

“I’ve always had a love for nature, animals, and insects,” he said. “As the years went on, and as we went from competition to competition, we became more and more confident, and I was able to become more of a leader for the team.”

And for Ousinegad’s final year of high school, he not only participated in the April competition and other FFA activities, but he also juggled applications for college, his classes, homework and a job as a cashier for HEB.

“It felt really weird to have all of these new things on my plate,” Ousinegad said.

To manage the workload, Ousinegad carefully scheduled out his tasks using a planner.

All that work would eventually pay off, however. For college, Ounsinegad was accepted into six of the seven he applied for and chose to attend Tarleton State University. He said that he plans to major in Animal Sciences and added that his career field will likely involve the study of infectious diseases.

But Ounsinegad dreams for his future extend much further than microbiology.

“I know this is cheesy in a sense, but I want to change the world. Whether it’s through finding a new cure for something, or just doing something where I know that I impacted the world in some way and made a difference in my own way,” he said.

Once Ounsinegad and his team had finished their identifying, and after completing a written test, the results were announced, Ounsinegad placed seventh out of 250 individual participants and his team placed 14th out of 60 teams.

“I finally did what I first hoped that I would do since the first day that I joined the team,” Ounsinegad said.

An Ambition to Secure Information

Chris Oliver, a computer science instructor at Cedar Park High School, was Jack Davies' favorite teacher. So, when an online form was unveiled around two months ago that allowed students at the school to vote for the best teacher, Davies and his friends knew exactly who they wanted to win.

But for Davies, 18, who is graduating from Cedar Park High School on Friday, Oliver’s rank needed a boost in order to win. Davies got to work creating a botnet, a series of computers controlled remotely to perform certain tasks. In this case, the task was to vote for Oliver enough times to shoot his name to the top to the list.

It worked. Oliver’s name climbed to the top of the list.

“When we saw that teacher shot from 120th to first place in the span of around 20 seconds, that was ostensibly the proudest moment of my high school career,” said Davies.

But Davies’ interest is not in breaching cyber defenses, he would rather erect them. His goal is to work in cybersecurity for a company that “has their heart in the right place.”

“One of my biggest morals is that if you have something and you don’t intend it to be given out, it should never be given out,” Davies said. “So, keeping things that are yours, yours, is super important to me,” he said.

In pursuit of that moral code in an occupation, Davies used his time in high school pursuing computer science classes. For his final year, Davies only applied to one college: Texas Tech University. Learning that he was accepted to the only school he wanted to attend felt incredible, he said.

“It was great knowing that that dream didn’t die and that I would be up there having fun,” he said.

Davies, who describes himself as introverted, plans to have a quiet dinner with his family to celebrate his graduation.

Currently, Davies is deciding between pursuing a major in computer engineering or computer science but said his decision rests on which will better enable his pursuit of a cybersecurity career.

“When I go and look at the balance between people who are doing that to keep things secure and the people who are stealing things, it’s just way too off balance,” Davies said.

A Crisis of Future

In late 2018, when Kita Rao was applying for colleges to prepare for her final months in high school and her next steps, she began to have a crisis.

“I figured out the hard way that submitting college applications is a very emotional time, you have to reflect on your life so far,” said Rao, a senior at Vista Ridge High School who will graduate Saturday in Leander ISD's final 2019 graduation ceremony.

Rao, 18, had always loved music and singing, but most of her time was being used to pursue her planned medical career. She had already become a third-degree black belt in taekwondo, and has been a member of the choir at Vista Ridge High School. But that winter, when a singing competition she participated in didn’t pan out the way she wanted, she had a realization.

“It dawned on me that I wouldn’t be able to do that and pursue medicine, that I wouldn’t be able to put in as much time into music as I wanted to,” Rao said. “I struggled with that.”

After toiling over the decision of what her future would look like, she discussed her struggle with her mother.

“She helped me see what it was I really liked about music,” Rao said.  “It helps me wind down and escape stress and if music becomes my stress and if it becomes my job then I completely lose that passion.”

Rao ultimately concluded that she would fully pursue her medical career, while still pursing music as a hobby.

After that decision Rao continued through her final months in high school with a clearer vision for her future.

In the fall, Rao, who currently works a lifeguard at Twin Lakes Family YMCA, will attend Texas A&M University and plans to go to medical school.

She completed her final choir show as a student last week. While she sang during the show, she began to reflect on her high school life.

“I realized that I was so lucky to have enjoyed high school and I was so lucky to be surrounded by friends and be able to sing with them,” Rao said. “I had a really good high school experience.”

“I thrive under pressure”

During her last year in high school, Bailey Kerns almost never got a break.

Every morning, Kerns, the team captain of the Rouse High School Royals Varsity Dance Team, would spend hours leading her team’s practice sessions. In April, when the team was preparing for their year-end show, Saturday’s sessions would run for eight hours. Dress rehearsal day would run even longer.

But Kerns wasn’t only part of the varsity team, she also participated as the dance captain of Rouse’s 2019 performance of Bring it On: The Musical. Here and there she would compete on the Rouse University Interscholastic League academics team and was a secretary for the Rouse chapter of the National Honor Society.

Kerns, who will graduate on Saturday, did all of this while still going to class, doing homework and managing the regimen of high school life.

“It was definitely tough, but it also kept me going because I’m a person that works best with a schedule and a routine,” Kerns said.

“So, as tough as it was, it was a very positive experience for me because I feel like I thrive under pressure,” she said.

After high school, Kerns plans to attend Kilgore College — a community college in East Texas — and eventually transfer to Texas Christian University to earn a bachelor’s in strategic communications.

Kerns said her dream is to become a public relations officer for productions like Broadway shows and musicals.

But now that high school is ending, the responsibilities of the past have begun to fade for the time being.

“Everything has been completed, so I no longer have as many responsibilities as I had. Everything is a lot more relaxed and chilled out,” Kerns said. “It’s definitely been a transition learning how to take that free time to relax.”

A Gold Trophy

For 18 months, starting in her junior year, Kaley Jones needed to experience something new every week.

The program was part of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, a rigorous educational program aimed at helping students enter higher education. Jones, 18, a senior at Leander High School, was a participant in the IB program.

Students were ranked on a list based on how many new experiences they accrued over the 18-month period. Those who ranked highest received a gold trophy.

“Initially it was very overwhelming,” Jones said. Being part of multiple clubs, however, allowed Jones to find a swath of new experiences.

“You just find little aspects of your life and ask, ‘how can I reflect on this to make myself a better person’ or ‘how can I reflect on this to make a new experience out of it?'” she said.

After taking part in volunteer initiatives like helping the homeless and creating a health and exercise club with friends at school, Jones had amassed enough experiences and ultimately received a gold trophy on April 3.

“I was so excited,” Jones, who will graduate Saturday afternoon, said. “Being able to get that gold trophy made me feel, not just proud to be a part of my community but made me feel really good because it’s something that I’m supposed to do.”

When Jones looks back at the experiential program, she noticed how much it’s helped her grow.

“Being able to allow myself to be pushed out of my box that I’ve been in has finally made me want to do things, to want to workout, to want to create something that I never thought I would have the chance or the time to do,” Jones said.

In the past year in high school, Jones was also hired for two jobs: working for the Leander ISD as the technical director for the scoreboard crew, which entails working with stadium cameras and changing the scoreboard when needed, and as a math tutor. Jones was also a member of seven different high school clubs.

Jones plans to attend the University of North Texas and to pursue a degree in criminal justice.

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The full list of Leander ISD's candidates for graduation, by high school, can be found here: http://hillcountrynews.com/stories/candidates-for-graduation,80256

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