Meet 5 Utah graduates who finished high school amid the coronavirus pandemic

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ty Easton, a senior at Corner Canyon in Draper has faced a tough challenge, not only with the coronavirus but a battle with a rare form of cancer, fighting through to graduate this year and plans to attend BYU.

When Utah schools shut down this spring to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the year came to an abrupt end for many students — but more so for seniors.

Graduation ceremonies that they had been looking forward to were moved online and held from a distance. Spring seasons for sports were canceled. And plans for prom, one of the biggest rites of passage for teens, were scrapped.

The year that many see as the pinnacle of high school just kind of fizzled out while the world responded to the pandemic.

The Salt Lake Tribune talked to five seniors about what it meant to graduate during this time and their uncertainties now moving forward. Here are their stories.

The optimist who’s fighting cancer

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ty Easton, a senior at Corner Canyon in Draper has faced a tough challenge, not only with the coronavirus but a battle with a rare form of cancer, fighting through to graduate this year and plans to attend BYU.

Doctors found the first lump when Ty Easton was 11 years old.

It had been sitting on top of his right kidney, causing intense headaches and heart palpitations. So they removed it and, at least for a bit, Easton seemed fine.

Until two years later.

When Easton went to the hospital in 2015, the staff there found another 10 lumps. In 2017, they took out 40 or 50 more.

“Currently, I have tumors in my spine and my lungs, my kidneys, my abdomen, all over,” said Easton, now 18.

He’s been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that produces lumps called pheochromocytomas. Easton calls it “pheo,” for short. At first, doctors didn’t think he’d live another five years. But he’s fighting the odds and has graduated this spring from Corner Canyon High School in Draper.

“I’ve made it,” he said. “It’s a huge blessing that I’ve made it to graduation, a huge milestone.”

He starts radiation therapy soon, about the same time he’ll start classes at Brigham Young University, where he wants to study business. And he hopes in another five years, he’ll be cancer-free.

Like all high school seniors, the coronavirus has impacted his plans — putting him at higher risk of complications, delaying his therapy and likely meaning his first semester of college will be online. But, he said, he hopes it’s also given his peers a glimpse into his life philosophy: When something bad happens, including serious illness, the best way to respond is with positivity.

“A lot of people are distraught about how we didn’t have a graduation or senior sunset or senior prom. But we’ve still had an amazing year,” Easton said. “We can’t focus on the negatives.”

He was the student body president at Corner Canyon this year and led the school’s best charity drive on record, raising $100,000 for the Make-A-Wish foundation in Utah that grants “wishes” for kids with life-threatening illnesses. Easton didn’t choose the organization, but said he’s glad it lined up with his own battles. His “wish” to see South Africa was granted by the group when he was 15 and recovering from one of his first surgeries.

There are 20 other students in Canyons School District on the list to get a wish, too, and the money will go to them.

He pointed to that effort and the multiple athletics championships that the school won this year in a graduation speech that he recorded for Corner Canyon’s virtual ceremony. In it, he said: “Let’s not title this school year as the corona school year.”

To him, it was much more than that.

The immigrant who plans to be a doctor

(Photo Courtesy of Anota Siassia Soukimia) Pictured is Anota Siassia Soukimia in her graduation gown from West High School.

Anota Siassia Soukimia still doesn’t know why her sister died.

She’d been sick, throwing up and so weak she couldn’t stand. But when family took her to a hospital, the doctors there refused to see her.

They were in Congo, where Soukimia was born. There, she says, you have to pay upfront for any medical services. And her parents didn’t have enough money to get her sister inside.

They tried to scrounge up more from neighbors, but in the time it took, Soukimia’s sister collapsed. She was 29.

“I saw my sister die in front of me,” Soukimia recalled.

That was five years ago. Shortly after the tragedy, Soukimia’s family decided to immigrate to the United States. Her father hoped they’d find opportunities here, more safety and less loss. Soukimia wanted to go to school.

At 18, a little behind grade level, she enrolled at West High in Salt Lake City in 2018. She knew five languages, but none of them was English. And it was a challenge to get started.

She thought about dropping out. And the coronavirus hasn’t helped. It’s made it harder for her to get help with homework, harder to understand her teachers and harder to progress with learning English during her senior year.

“It’s been so, so difficult,” she said. “And I was so close to giving up. But I realized that even if something is difficult, you can still do it.”

In a way, too, the pandemic has also helped cement her dreams, she said. Watching the nurses and doctors fighting the virus has inspired her even more to pursue medicine. Already, she had planned to go back to Congo one day and open up her own hospital that would help any resident who needed it. Now, she wants to help her homeland fight infection.

“I just want to change the situation in my country,” she said.

She graduates from West High this week and is enrolled to take classes at Salt Lake Community College in the fall.

The athlete who will persevere

(Photo courtesy Jamika Nelson) Jamika Nelson, No. 24, played basketball at Monument Valley High School.

The running joke in Jamika Nelson’s family is that she doesn’t remember the first time she picked up a basketball — but everyone else does.

And it continues to be a big moment for them.

Nelson was little at the time, maybe 4 or 5 years old, and living on the Navajo Nation in the southeast corner of Utah. There, basketball is more than a pastime — it’s part of the culture.

Nelson’s mom played in college. So she was probably the most excited when her daughter picked it up. Her aunts and uncles kept repeating, too, “She has a gift. It’s a gift.” Nelson laughs when she thinks about it now, knowing she was just a toddler. But, she acknowledges: “I fell in love with it.”

The sport and that memory have also helped her get through a major loss.

In 2018, during the middle of the basketball season at her school, Monument Valley High, Nelson’s mom died suddenly. Nelson found her after coming home from practice one evening.

“It all collapsed on me,” she said. “I felt like, what’s the point? Should I just give up?”

She grieved with her family, trying to figure out what had happened and why. She spent a lot of time looking at photos of her mom. And she took some time away from school and the team.

And then — and this time she remembers — she picked up a basketball.

Shooting hoops helped her relax, somehow, and it reminded Nelson of her mom and how she used to love to play. “It’s something that eases my mind,” Nelson said.

The student-athlete became an all-state player this year as a senior — finishing her season just before the coronavirus pandemic hit. It’s impacted her area of the state and the Navajo Nation particularly hard.

Dealing with the hardships before, she said, has prepared her to handle this one, too. She knows she can persevere.

Now Nelson is graduating and going to SAGU American Indian College in Phoenix, where she’ll keep playing basketball.

She’s not sure what she wants to study yet, but she says whatever she does, she hopes she makes her mom proud.

The jokester who took his mom to prom

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nick Shirley, recent 2020 graduate from Farmington High School.

Nick Shirley could see the suit he was planning to wear to prom hanging up in his closet.

He had been looking forward to going to the dance with his friends, a sort of final hurrah for his senior year at Farmington High School. But now looking at the jacket and pants was a reminder of the year cut short by the coronavirus.

“It was definitely frustrating,” he said. “It’s just sad. I didn’t want to miss out on all of the rituals.”

And that’s when he decided not to.

Shirley planned to hold his own prom at his house instead — and he asked his mom, Brooke, to be his date. “She said, ‘Yes,’ obviously,” Shirley, 18, explained with a laugh.

He got his little sister involved, too, and she asked their dad to the dance. They held it the same day the prom would have been at the high school, April 11.

Shirley taped together some corsages out of white flowers he found in his yard. He blew up balloons, too, and hung a banner in the kitchen that said, “PROM 2020.” He also drove his date to a nice dinner at Chick-fil-A.

“It was pretty funny,” he said. “I’m happy we did it.”

It wasn’t the prom he imagined. After all, he danced for only about 15 minutes in his house.

But even with the pandemic, he said, Shirley still wants to make the best of things and not miss out. He plans to move to California now that he’s graduated and try to build a career making YouTube videos. The one from his prom got more than 1,000 views.

“Why am I so nervous?” he asks, jokingly, as he approaches the door to pick up his mom.

Shirley has been creating video blogs since he was a sophomore, when he thought of capturing his attempt to run a marathon without ever training. Since then, he’s crashed weddings and flown to New York (without telling his parents) and tried to go bowling in a grocery store. His page now has more than 6,000 subscribers.

“I’ve been pretty much hooked on it,” he said. “I think now is the time to pursue it.”

Even with the uncertainties ahead, he doesn’t plan to let anything stop him.

The dancer who stands by her family

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Leslie Jara Ortiz, a graduating senior at Granger High, in West Valley City on Tuesday, May 26, 2020.

Leslie Jara Ortiz’s mom and dad were the same age that she is now when they fled Mexico, crossed the border and made a new home in Utah.

Ortiz says their lives at age 18 couldn’t have been more different. She’s graduating now from Granger High in West Valley City. They were never able to finish school. She plans to pursue dance, her passion, in college. They’ve worked hard every day just to make ends meet.

“They came here with nothing,” Ortiz added. “Now I want to give my parents a name and finish their story.”

It adds a bit of pressure, but Ortiz said they immigrated to give her a better life, and she wants to make sure she does everything she can to seize it — for them and herself.

In high school, she was president of the club for students interested in health care. She was also historian of the science club, on the leadership council for scholars and a member of two business teams. She ran track and field, too, and took state in the competition for theater.

That’s on top of taking nearly all college-level and honors classes.

She found her biggest interest, though, when she signed up for the drill team as a freshman. Ortiz said she feels like she can express herself and her heritage through dance. She loves both modern expression and Mexican cultural performances.

The coronavirus ended that early for her this year — and she never got to have her senior dance night.

“I was really bummed out about that,” she said. “I looked forward to that more than graduation.”

But, like with everything, her family members have helped her through it. They sat and watched video of her routines on the night she was supposed to be honored, cheering like they would have from the front row of the auditorium.

And her mom and dad cried when she got accepted to the University of Utah to continue dancing.

She’s not sure how the pandemic might impact that this fall. But she says she learned from her parents how to adapt.

“Nothing can stop me now," she says, "because I know that I’ll have my family by my side.”