Top graduates reflect on high school

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

A year ago, school districts across the nation struggled to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of a worldwide pandemic .

The 2021-2022 school year presented a more usual atmosphere as students were able to return to in-person learning, providing some relief for students, parents and teachers alike, and closed out a successful year for the Class of 2022.

Some area students have reached above and beyond, rising to the top of their classes as valedictorian and salutatorian, and will be honored during their school’s respective graduation ceremonies.

Green Forest

At Green Forest High School, graduation ceremonies are scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday, May 13, and valedictorian Debora Reyes and salutatorian Tess Long are both excited about representing their class.

Debora Reyes

“It feels amazing,” said Long, 18. “I didn’t expect it. I didn’t plan for it. The only thing I planned for was high honors. I planned that in my eighth-grade year, so I doubled up on science my freshman year so I could start on [Advanced Placement] classes my sophomore year. I was only planning for high honors, but I’m really happy I’m salutatorian.”

Tess Long

Reyes, on the other hand, set her sights on the top spot and worked to achieve her goal.

“In eighth grade, I had been sitting in band and I remember seeing a valedictorian giving their speech,” said Reyes, 17, “and I went to my mom and was like, ‘Mom, that’s going to be me.’ She was like, ‘You know what? Just try your hardest. I’m going to be proud of you nonetheless.’ ”

For Reyes, a first-generation American and second-oldest among six siblings, achieving that goal carried some added significance.

“My parents are immigrants and they came to the U.S. with nothing,” Reyes said. “They gave me everything, and this meant a lot to me because I can honor my parents in a way. Obviously, they couldn’t finish their schooling, and in a way, this is me telling my parents, ‘I’m your legacy.’

Reyes, the daughter of Jose and Blanca Reyes, pastors of Templo Emanuel in Green Forest, said there’s even another layer to her achievement, citing her heritage and gender, and the way it might influence younger generations.

“It means a lot that I’m a Hispanic woman going up there and saying, ‘We can do it, too,’ ” said Reyes, who plans to attend University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and study financial management and accounting. “I don’t know if this is seen a lot, but it has happened to me — some people have been a little racist and they’re like, ‘Oh, but you’re a woman. You can’t do this.’ In a way, it’s kind of like I’m proving to others that I can. And not just me, but that others can.

“We were given so little, but we can go beyond that and make a difference.”

Long, the youngest of Tammy and Kelly Long’s two daughters, plans to attend North Arkansas College and study nursing. She said being able to return to a more normal school atmosphere was a big relief.

“It was so much better,” Long said. “This was actually a normal year and I’m glad. I feel bad for the seniors before me because they had — it wasn’t a terrible senior year, but it had a lot of hardships with it. This year was a whole lot better than the last year. Last year was really confusing, especially when it came to certain subjects. It was difficult.”

Long offered a bit of advice for underclassmen and younger students.

“Figure out what really drives you,” Long said. “Just focus on a subject that you think is interesting and really dive into that subject because you’ll find there’s even more subjects in that one subject that you can specialize in and you’ll end up loving it. And that’s what’s going to give you your motivation.”

Berryville

At Berryville High School, where graduation is set for 3 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at Bobcat Stadium, the top students are Samuel Ball and Eden Wilson.

Samuel Ball

Ball, 18, the oldest of three children of Benjamin and Lori Ball, said he’s proud of his accomplishment.

Eden Wilson

“It’s a pretty big deal,” Ball said. “I’ve been wanting since probably the beginning of last year, and I set my schedule up this year to have enough AP classes to get it because I knew it would come down to that, not just getting A’s in the regular classes. I’m proud of myself for being able to keep up with it and get it. It’s a pretty big accomplishment for me.”

Ball said he got bit of a late start on his goal of being valedictorian, and gave a lot of credit to his parents for motivating him in his studies.

“I’ve always been motivated by my parents to get good grades,” Ball said, “and after 10th grade, I knew I was in the running for it.”

Ball said weathering the pandemic protocols during his junior year didn’t really get in the way of his pursuit of the top spot in his class. In fact, he said, in some cases, they made it easier.

“For me, it wasn’t too bad because I stayed in-person,” Ball said. “It actually made it easier, kind of, because other people weren’t here and there’s less people here. The only real big difference for me was, I had one class where I was by myself, so that made it a little bit harder in that class, and then just wearing masks, but it wasn’t too bad for me.”

Ball said despite his hard work in the classroom, he still tries to have a little fun.

“It’s more about making sure I get my work done first,” Ball said. “Not necessarily first all the time. Used to, I was more like that, but as long as I get my work done, I do whatever I want.”

What’s next, said Ball — a winner of the John Patrick Bishop Memorial Scholarship from the Carroll County Community Foundation — are plans to attend Mississippi State University, where he plans to study aerospace engineering

Wilson, who also was honored as Berryville’s 2021 football Homecoming Queen, took a different approach toward reaching the top of her class.

“I’m honestly surprised about it,” Wilson said. “I’m excited because it means that a lot of the hard work I put in school and the blood, sweat and tears has paid off. I feel good. I’m happy and a little nervous at the same time because it means I have to give a speech and all that.”

Wilson said she set her sights on the top spot quite early.

“It’s something that I’ve always been trying to do ever since I was little, even in intermediate and middle school,” Wilson said. “It’s always been something that I’ve tried to maintain for myself and it’s something that I always thought was important. Keeping my grades up and doing what I can to get to those opportunities has always been something that I’ve been working toward.”

That kind of goal-oriented approach has served Wilson well in the classroom.

“High school can seem kind of pointless for some people,” Wilson said, “but I feel like, for me, I am definitely always working toward a goal. Now that this goal is accomplished, my next goal will be college and then professional opportunities.”

Wilson, the daughter of Scott and Bekah Wilson, plans to attend the Honors College at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where she will study theater.

Eureka Springs

The top two graduates who will represent their class during the Eureka Springs High School graduation ceremony at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 21 at Highlander Gym are no surprise.

Mackenzie Loudermilk

“It’s always been a running joke that it would be us,” Jacob Eastburn, the school’s salutatorian, said about himself and classmate Mackenzie Loudermilk, the valedictorian. “It was just a matter of who would end up on top.”

Jacob Eastburn

Loudermilk, 18, went into her final semester with a 4.16 GPA and will attend the University of Arkansas’ Walton College of Business after winning the prestigious Hagan Scholarship.

“This has been my goal since before high school,” Loudermilk said of becoming the top graduate in her class. “When I was in eighth grade, I told myself that I was going to get that.”

Loudermilk, the daughter of James and Shelley Loudermilk, said she cherishes the role of being her class valedictorian and looks forward to sharing a lighthearted message to her classmates at graduation.

“I know everyone in our class has worked really hard through high school and definitely in my speech I’m going to recognize every single one of my classmates,” Loudermilk said. “Graduating high school is a huge accomplishment.”

Eastburn, the son of Matt and Nancy Eastburn, entered his final semester with a 4.1 GPA and will attend Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where he will study for his bachelor of science degree in aviation. He plans to be a commercial airline pilot.

“This feels really good,” Eastburn said of being the salutatorian of his class. “I really didn’t think this would happen. I just tried to do as good as I could and as it got closer to the end of my senior year, I realized I was in the running for this.

“It certainly wasn’t easy, especially this year taking a bunch of college classes. It’s nice to be done and have it all under my belt.”

Eastburn said he’s good friends with Loudermilk, and in fact, most of the senior class has grown up together. That makes this honor even that much more special, he said.

“A lot of these [classmates] I grew up with and have been friends with since kindergarten,” he said. “So that makes this really rewarding, really amazing to stand in front of them and talk in front of them and just share this moment.”

Carroll County News reporter Rick Harvey contributed to this article. His email is RHarvey@cherryroad.com.

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