There’s no end of things that can divide us – race, sexual orientation, technology, to name a few.
But some of the South Sound’s most outstanding high school graduates this year believe their generation will close a few of those gaps.
“Sometimes you can feel cynical about the situation,” said Danielle Burch, who’s graduating from Washington High School in Parkland with a long list of accolades. “But I think there’s a lot of hope.”
Danielle is one of a dozen outstanding graduates who make up the 2012 News Tribune All-Star Graduates. Profiles: Meet this year's All-Star Graduates.
We asked a team of community members to choose this year’s standouts. They were selected from among 98 students nominated by 36 public and private high schools in Pierce and South King counties.
The 12 were chosen based on their records of academic achievement (taken together, their average GPA is 3.91 with many heavy Advanced Placement course loads and other rigorous classes), plus school and community involvement, leadership, special talents and in several cases overcoming adversity.
Their career goals reflect a focus on service to others and an interest in the wider world. Their backgrounds range from a Korean and an African immigrant to several students of mixed race.
Danielle is white but attends a school where the majority of her classmates are students of color, in a school district (Franklin Pierce) where 54 percent of students are nonwhite. She said most of her friends are of a different race from her.
“If you look at the differences, just from our parents’ generation to our own – for a lot of us, having a diverse classroom is no big deal,” she said.
“If it can get that much better in one generation, I think we’re hopeful for the future.”
The All Stars are graduating from 12 schools, as far north as Federal Way, east to Bonney Lake and west to Gig Harbor. But when they gathered at The News Tribune earlier this month for a panel discussion, several discovered connections.
A few had attended school together in the past, while others shared music teachers, had faced off at academic competitions or had mutual friends.
Hans Ostrom, professor of African-American studies and English at the University of Puget Sound, led the group in a discussion about several potentially divisive issues. He first asked about racial diversity and whether students experienced tensions because of it.
When most of the All-Stars said race wasn’t a big deal at their schools, the conversation turned to other traits that can divide.
Savannah Burr is a mixed-race student with black and white parentage at largely white Orting High School.
“I don’t really experience any kind of tension or anything like that,” she said. “It’s pretty good.”
Anelisse Peterson is another mixed-race student on a predominantly white campus, Peninsula High School. She describes her heritage as Japanese, Caucasian and East Indian.
She said students at her school don’t see racial divisions as a big issue.
“Most of my friends are white,” Anelisse said. “We don’t really pay that much regard to race. I guess we’re a pretty laid-back school in that respect.”
Thomas Yabroff lives in Gig Harbor but graduated this month from Bellarmine Preparatory School, a Catholic high school in Tacoma. He said the student body is more racially diverse now than it had been in past years, thanks to efforts by school administrators to open a diversity office and offer financial aid. Thomas is white and has grown up in mostly white neighborhoods.
“Coming to Bellarmine was the most diversity I had seen,” he said. “Most of my friendships grew out of academic relationships. Our honors classes tend to be pretty diverse.”
Annmarie Foltz is a product of Tacoma’s Wilson High School. She was born in Sierra Leone in Africa, but was adopted by a Tacoma family. She says it can sometimes be difficult being in the minority in her school, with a black student population of about 14 percent.
“In my classes, I’m usually the only one, or one of one or two,” she said. “Never three or more.”
Laurel Garrett is graduating from Tacoma’s School of the Arts in downtown Tacoma, where the student body is largely white. Laurel, who is also white, says SOTA students are more divided by artistic groupings than any other factor.
“I think what makes it different is the collaborations that happen across artistic boundaries,” she said. “I don’t see a racial divide. It’s more divided artistically – you cross those boundaries with performing arts and visual arts collaborating.”
Andrew Cunningham also is graduating from a predominantly white school, Bonney Lake High School.
“We wish we had more diversity,” he said. He said when new minority students come to school, “it’s like, everybody wants to be their friend. They kind of get more attention because they are different.”
Tony Stedge of Rogers High School said he recently came across an interesting post on Facebook. Two pictures compared sign-toting segregationists from years past with present-day protesters objecting to gay marriage.
Danielle Burch said her racially diverse school has more issues with homophobia than racism. She believes her generation will have to work as hard to solve that problem as previous generations did to bridge racial barriers.
Danielle said her school has a Gay-Straight Alliance club. She said that when there’s no official recognition of gay students on campus, students seem more tolerant.
“But when you have a club like GSA, it brings out the people that are violently against it,” she said.
Jennifer Anderson, from Emerald Ridge High School in Puyallup, said she sees signs that schools are evolving.
“In my school we have gay pride day,” she said. “Our schools are pushing more towards being more diverse and accepting. I feel like it’s more accepting now than in my parents’ generation.”
Laurel said SOTA is a “really liberal place” where students accept their peers regardless of sexual orientation.
“I think that’s because we’re so open about it,” added Chris Saechao of Thomas Jefferson High School in the Federal Way School District. “We’re like, ‘Do whatever you want.’ ”
Chris believes some of his generation’s tolerance stems from access to instant communication. The world is literally at their fingertips.
But he also believes technology has made people impersonal.
“People text all the time, and never call,” Chris said. “I feel that’s kind of how our generation doesn’t network with other people. I feel that the way life is supposed to be, is that you should actually talk to people.”
Austin Rodgers of Curtis High School agrees.
“People want to forge relationships, where you have that personal touch,” he said. “When you have the impersonal ability of Facebook or some kind of social network, it detracts from the ability to forge those personal relationships and create lasting bonds.”
INTO THE FUTURE
Where do these All Stars see themselves 10 years from now?
“I am going to be saving the world, teaching music, as well as trying to figure out how to make existing buildings more energy efficient,” Tony said.
Sarah Sadlier of Charles Wright Academy hopes to have doctoral degrees in history and in biology.
“I’m pretty much going to live in the world of academia,” said Sarah, who has already published some academic work in the field of history.
Chris, who wants to pursue a career in medicine, predicts: “I’ll be in debt.” He said his undergraduate work is paid for, but he’s not sure how he’ll make it through medical school and residency.
Ostrom asked students about their hopes and fears for the future.
Chris said he believes that if we’re not careful, “the racial divide could lead to a civil war.” He points to the Trayvon Martin case as an example of the nation’s unresolved racial tensions.
But Austin said that even though divisions persist, he’s more optimistic.
“Society evolves based on what it’s learned, the traits it acquires throughout history,” he said. “I think we are headed in the right direction.”