Photo credits: Office of the President

The COVID-19 pandemic has nearly consumed and impacted all areas of Palauan lives, directing most of the attention to health and economy. Although education is a priority, the planning and preparation has been focused on school re-opening and health protocols. During all of this, little attention has been given to the young Palauan graduates, the high honor students, the brightest of Palauan students that graduated high schools, colleges, and universities this 2020.
This is the class that nearly did not graduate and even some were not able to graduate.
An award ceremony to focus attention on these students was held last Wednesday sponsored by President Tommy E. Remengesau. The event was to recognize exceptional students from all the schools, honor and recognize them for their achievements and efforts throughout the year. This is an annual event but this year is an unusual year that has changed a lot for the 2020 graduates. The impact was clearly expressed by good representation of students attending the awarding ceremony.
Loneliness, isolation and frustrations. For many of the students, both loneliness and isolation became a companion in these last 6 months. Some more so than others. Ms. Kristin Sugiyama, Palau High School graduate, who went to Japan to train for the Olympics representing Palau, missed her graduation and had to face loneliness and isolation in a foreign country, and continue to face the same as she struggled to make her way back home, through months of being stranded in Guam and going through 14 days of quarantine. Her articulate depiction of her circumstances and her struggle to overcome was powerful. She described the impact the loneliness and isolation had on her mental health during the process. President Remengesau said he could not even begin to imagine the sadness, the challenges and frustrations Ms. Sugiyama went through.
Others students echoed the loneliness forced upon them and learning to deal with it as well as managing school through remote learning but most echoed the need to have personal interaction of friends, family and other people.
Adjusting to abrupt change. All of the students have to quickly adopt and adjust to the changes that took place with very little time to prepare. Examples provided by Kato Remeliik and Kebekol Yano, both of Xavier High School, who were given less than a week notice to leave Chuuk to Palau before border closure. Both said they were not prepared, were unable to bid farewell to friends and had to graduate with Mindzenty High School, unable to return to their school to graduate.
Changing future plans at last minute. Many if not all of the graduates had to put their plans on hold, change them entirely or adopt a wait and see stance. For Jaden Ngesechemong Remoket of Bethania-Emmaus High School, a planned long weekend off became an entire end of school in a day’s time. Her plan to attend a university of her dreams that she had worked hard for, changed overnight due to the pandemic. For many of the high school graduates, the colleges they had applied and got accepted to, they are not able to go to now and are making temporary plans while waiting for situation to change.
Uncertainty. The sense of uncertainty, of what is going to happen to school plans, where will they be in the fall, next year, this is echoed by most of these honor students, especially those that graduated high school. With no regular flights out and with lockdowns in various States as well as increasing number of COVID cases in the US where most of the students have planned to go, lot of them are uncertain of their immediate future.
The students recognized included college and university students. 13 different colleges and universities were represented. College students count 12 with AA degrees, 20 with bachelors and 10 with master degrees. Some of those with AA degrees and with Bachelors have plans to further their education and those as well are put on hold for the moment.
One uniting theme. Overcome this COVId-19 pandemic challenges, overcome their own struggles and challenges and aim for their goals and come back home to improve their country.
President Remengesau acknowledged the students’ achievements as well as the unique year this is for the graduating students. “This will go down in our history as the year that almost saw no graduation for the education system.”
“Everyone of you students really should be proud for your patience and your commitment, for seeing it through to finish this school year of 2020.
“Indeed, Ms. Sugiyama represent the strength needed in all of us to get through this,” expressed President Remengesau in his address to the honor students.
He urged and encouraged students to overcome their challenges, to continue to reach for their educational goals and come back home to improve and lead their country. (By: L.N. Reklai)

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