For the nearly 50,000 Utah students graduating from high school this spring, earning their diplomas came with a lot of late nights doing homework and English essays cranked out on deadline and way too many tests — but no blueprint for what to do next.
Nearly 70 percent of the nation’s high school Class of 2018 enrolled in college by fall, according to federal statistics. But for those in the Class of 2019 who don’t, the options are much broader than that.
Should a student take a gap year? Should she go on a mission for her faith? Should he get a certificate instead?
The Salt Lake Tribune talked to five graduates who are taking different paths after high school. Among them is a refugee who wants to help others get an education, an engineer who’s planning to go straight to work and a traveler who’s going to take a year off.
Here are their stories.
From East High to community college — the athlete who changed his plans after a brain tumor
Sioeli Lea’aetoa Jr. was tossing around a football with his teammates when he started seeing dots.
He thought maybe some dust had fallen into his eyes from the rafters above the gym. Or maybe it was just that the lights were a little too bright.
But they didn’t go away when he blinked.
A few days later, the left side of Lea’aetoa’s body seemed to be not working quite right. He was dragging his leg a bit at practice. He couldn’t grip anything with his hand. The spots still blurred his vision. And it was getting worse.
“That’s when it really caught my attention. I was scared,” he said. So Lea’aetoa decided to tell his older sister, whom he was living with at the time, and she took him to a doctor.
Their family physician couldn’t initially see that anything was wrong. Lea’aetoa probably just needed an eye exam or some rest from football workouts, he thought, ordering a CAT scan just to check things out.
When the results came back, though, the doctor saw a tumor the size of a softball at the back of Lea’aetoa’s brain. If they removed it, Lea’aetoa would probably never see again. If they didn’t, he would probably die in less than a year.
“It can’t wait any longer,” the doctor told him in the summer of 2017.
Now, two years later and after two surgeries, Lea’aetoa is graduating from East High School. He chokes up talking about it. “It’s something that I still wouldn’t believe.”
Lea’aetoa, 18, finished the course load for two years of high school in one so he could walk across the stage with his classmates. He learned Braille to complete some of the work but has slowly started getting his vision back. Through physical therapy, he’s regained the muscle in his body.
He dreamed of playing football in the NFL. Because of the surgeries, he won’t be able to. Instead, Lea’aetoa is excited to go to Salt Lake Community College and study sports medicine to help heal athletes going through health issues like he faced.
“I’m just grateful to be on this journey,” he said. “I am blessed to get a second chance at life.”
From West High to a gap year — the globe-trotter who’s taking a break from school
Anna Penner signed up for everything she could at West High School.
She has worked on the yearbook team since she was a freshman. She was captain of the mountain bike club as a senior. She did an exchange program to Barcelona during her sophomore year. She’s been an active member of the Model United Nations. She’s rallied for school safety. And in between, she took just about every Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate class that was offered.
“I just got really burned out,” said the 18-year-old Penner.
So instead of going to college next, she’s going to take a year off. It’s part of a growing — and sometimes expensive — trend among high school graduates called “a gap year.”
When she gets back, she’ll attend Amherst College in Massachusetts in fall 2020, deferring her acceptance there. But during her time off, Penner plans to travel, to figure out what she wants to study and to live on her own and “see the world for myself.”
“I’ve had a really rigorous workload for all of high school. The idea of going straight to school again after that just seemed like a lot,” she said. “I want to go to school to learn. I don’t want to go to school just because I have to.”
Penner will start with three months in New Zealand to catch up with some family friends there and backpack around. Then she’s got a gig as an au pair in Italy taking care of a 7-year-old boy. After that, her parents are visiting her for a ski trip in the Alps. Then, well, she’s not sure.
“I’m just leaving it open from there,” she said. “Maybe I’ll travel to South America. Maybe I’ll volunteer for a nonprofit in New York.”
Penner said she got the idea to do a gap year after her exchange experience in Barcelona. She loved exploring the country and learning a new language. When she talked to older friends of hers who were freshmen in college this year, the plan was cemented.
To her, they sounded stressed out and uncertain of what they were doing.
She realized: “I need a little bit more time to figure out what I care about.”
From AMES charter high school to the state’s university — the refugee who helped a Congolese girl get an education
When she was just a baby, Sylviane Bahati’s parents wrapped her up in blankets one night — careful to cover her face as she slept — and carried her with them as they fled their home in Congo.
As the pop-pop-pop of gunfire sounded in the distance, they crossed the border and registered at a refugee camp in neighboring Uganda. They stayed there for three years before moving to the United States. They were afraid of the civil war in their country and the destruction; they wanted their daughter to have a better life.
Bahati started first grade in Utah, where the family resettled, not knowing any English. Last month, she graduated from the Academy of Math, Engineering and Science, a top-ranked charter high school in Murray, with the highest honors.
“I had opportunities because of my education,” the 17-year-old said. "For girls in my country, that’s not the case. Girls are told to stay home and prevented from going to school largely because of the cost.”
To pay it back, Bahati decided that before she got her diploma, she would try to fundraise enough money for a girl in Congo to go to high school. And she did.
Bahati started a GoFundMe account and collected $2,397 in three weeks. She connected with a Congolese girl who currently lives in the same refugee camp where she stayed, and that student will have enough funds to complete all three years of high school.
“For the longest time, I didn’t think that it was actually possible,” Bahati said after celebrating the fundraiser with a fashion show.
This fall, she will be going to the University of Utah with a full-ride scholarship to study computer engineering or business. She wanted to stay in the state to be with her family, noting: “It’s my home and my parents are here.” But her goal is to help more students in her native country go to school.
From Hunter High to a job — the engineer who’s ready to work
Growing up, Ashton Austin loved to play with Legos and Lincoln Logs and any scraps of material that his dad would bring home from his job in construction.
He would build toy houses and plastic bridges and wooden skyscrapers and sometimes miniature airplanes. Now, he’s planning to create those for real — but this time with fiberglass and carbon fiber. And they’ll definitely be big enough for an actual person.
Austin, who graduated from Hunter High School last week, will take his diploma and go straight to work.
“I’ve always been interested in engineering and building stuff with my hands,” he said. “I want to go work because it’s pretty much what I can do already. If I went to school, I’d be getting the same job after four years and lots of debt.”
Austin, who is 17, has to wait a few months until he turns 18 to apply at the Utah companies where he hopes to work with parts for different airplanes: Boeing, Albany Engineered Composites or Hexcel Corp.
As a sophomore, he took his first engineering class at the Granite Technical Institute. He loved it — and took two more years of composites after that. He finished his senior year with an internship at Hexcel and earned a trade certificate at the school.
That technical path was designed precisely for students who want to get a job after high school.
“I talked to a kid who graduated last year and works at Hexcel now,” Austin said. “Now he’s about to buy his own house at 19. That’s where I want to be.”
From Skyline High to a prestigious out-of-state school — the activist who wants to use her voice
Asha Pruitt grew up fearing a school shooting.
Since elementary school, she has crawled under her desk during regular drills. She’s hidden in a dark corner of the classroom. She’s studied where the exits were.
It became a routine.
Pruitt went to class in the years after the deadly shooting at Columbine High School. And her education was largely marked by subsequent attacks. She was in first grade when a man opened fire at Virginia Tech and killed 32 people. She was in seventh grade when a former student killed 20 first graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary. And she was in 11th grade when a gunman killed 17 at a Florida high school.
After that February 2018 tragedy, students nationwide formed a youth movement calling for gun reform and school safety. This year, Pruitt led the Utah group of March for Our Lives as its executive director. She said she grew up in fear but didn’t want to keep living in it — and didn’t want other students to, either.
“I really, really loved working with young activists,” she said. “This issue is so important to our generation.”
In addition to her work on school safety, the 18-year-old also formed the first chapter of Period Inc. in Utah. The group raised money and held donation drives for pads and tampons for impoverished women.
Next year, the Skyline High School graduate will be going to the University of California, Berkeley — a hotbed for student activism and protests. She said it’s important for her to be able to continue her advocacy work there and is considering a major in global studies.
“I always sort of knew that I wanted to go out of state,” she said. “I’m going to have so many opportunities at a big school.”