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Graduating seniors in Nevada county weigh financial, academic concerns for college

Victoria Penate
Staff Writer

By the numbers

As of June 5

Number of COVID-19 cases: 49

Number tested: 3,346

Number in western county: 12

Number in eastern county: 37

Number of active cases: 6

Number of recoveries: 42

Number of deaths: 1

Learn more at http://www.theunion.com/coronavirus

Volunteering has helped shape Natalie Hays’ goals.

A member of the class of 2020 at Ghidotti Early College High School, Hays has volunteered and interned for the Nevada County Library, at the Grass Valley and Madelyn Helling branches.

“We’re capable of so much positive change,” said Hays, who plans to attend UC Davis to study political science in the fall.

“Something that made me really passionate about politics was working with kids and being able to teach them the importance of reading and a good education,” said Hays.

During her time at Ghidotti, she got a head start in her college-level studies, earning associate degrees with honors in natural science, social and behavioral science, and liberal arts.

Hays said one of the most difficult things about finishing high school in the midst of COVID-19 was not being able to say the goodbyes she had imagined, unable to hug the teachers and professors who had helped her so much along the way. However, she is determined to look on the bright side.

“What I’m trying to do is find the best in the situation and just say that I’m so immensely grateful that we even got something,” said Hays. “And I know that our generation and my classmates are only going to come out stronger from this.”

Hayes is one of many graduating seniors across Nevada County navigating a changed world.

For Sidd Sharma, science education at Ghidotti sparked an interest he intends to pursue as a career. Sharma will begin studying cellular and molecular biology at Chico State in the fall, hoping to ultimately attend medical school.

He credits his freshman year science teacher, Tom Kirwan, with pushing him academically in a way that prepared him for his upcoming studies.

“It kind of made me hit a brick wall, and then I really started to learn how to study and be a better student, which helped me in the long run,” said Sharma.

In lab classes offered by Sierra College, he also gained hands-on experience performing dissections and learning up close about human and animal biology, helping to solidify his interest in studying medicine one day.

“It took me a while to adjust to the college classes and weekly schedule, but once I figured out my learning style, I just kept moving forward,” said Sharma.


“It just hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Maggie Pruett, a member of the newest class of graduates of Nevada Union High School.

Pruett will be moving to San Luis Obispo in January, where she plans to begin studying engineering at Cuesta College.

She recalled one of her most motivational high school experiences as being a teacher’s assistant for history teacher Ken Buck. “He made me feel so smart and special,” said Pruett, adding that he encouraged her to contribute in class, start conversations, and actively engage with the material.

From athletics — softball, diving, track, and soccer — to multiple advanced placement classes, she took many opportunities in high school to pursue not only academic learning experiences but new ways of thinking about her future.

Pruett was just returning to Nevada Union following recovery from a concussion in March, and was weeks behind on schoolwork when the school transitioned to a distance learning model. She worked hard to catch up as both coursework and preparation for AP exams were complicated by their new, virtual formats.

“I totally commend the AP teachers and students equally for being able to show comprehension of a year of learning in 45 minutes,” she said. “We made it work.”


“I was really touched by everybody because they never gave up on me,” said Alexis Atencil, a member of Silver Springs High School’s class of 2020. She praised the school’s small size for fostering the one-on-on attention that allowed her to connect with her teachers.

Atencil credits her math teacher, Shawn Silva, in particular with helping her succeed in a subject she had previously struggled in. “He was just really good at explaining everything, and helped my motivation go up toward math,” she said.

In reference to moving on from high school, she said, “I’m sad but also very excited to start a new journey in life, do new things, and start a career.” Atencil plans to go to Paul Mitchell Beauty School next year to become a cosmetologist.

One of the highlights of her time at Silver Springs was completing a senior portfolio, a multi-part project designed around learning more about her chosen career path, including the financial structures, working conditions, and history of cosmetology.

“I’m proud of just graduating in general because I came a really, really long way from my sophomore year to my senior year, and I felt that my senior portfolio showed that,” said Atencil.

Angelina Dominguez, a 2020 graduate of Silver Springs, echoed the sentiment that the school’s faculty and community provided essential support. “I honestly think, if it weren’t for this school, I wouldn’t be graduating,” she said.

Dominguez recounted that she was previously having a difficult time while attending school in Sacramento before coming to attend Silver Springs for the last six months of her senior year. After arriving holding only 80 of the required 200 units to graduate, she completed the remaining 120 within those last six months.

“All the staff and all the teachers — if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would be where I am,” said Dominguez. She shared that, after finding math particularly difficult, she progressed through her coursework at Silver Springs to the point of consistently scoring A’s on her math tests.

“Before I came to this school, I had never even thought about going to college. It was this school that introduced me to the idea,” said Dominguez. She will begin attending Sierra College in August.


“Time moved so weirdly the past couple months. It doesn’t really feel like it’s done,” said Morgan Ham, reflecting on her experience as she graduates with Bear River High School’s class of 2020.

She will be attending Sierra College in the fall, where she will pursue an associate degree in communication, hoping to transfer to a four-year university afterward and major in agricultural communication.

“I’ve been immersed in the agricultural world. I live on a farm, so combining my love for agriculture and not only journalism but all communication, I found my perfect major,” said Ham.

Ham said that her favorite experience at Bear River was her involvement in the school’s journalism program. She was an editor at the Bear River “Current” for three years.

“I think it’s helped me experience things that not a lot of high schoolers get to experience, like being able to go to the courthouse and cover issues that affect our school legally, or pursuing other news stories,” said Ham.

She said one of the highlights of her high school experience was creating a team with her sister and two close friends to compete in California’s first-ever Future Farmers of America agricultural communication competition.

“We threw ourselves into it without knowing anything, and we actually took second place in the state last year,” said Ham.


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Victoria Penate is a staff writer with The Union.

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