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Students learn final high school lessons
Seniors reflect on their past, toward future
Diana Vela will graduate from Gainesville High School and plans to attend the University of North Georgia. - photo by SAVANNAH KING

Andrew Smith

School: North Hall High School

College: U.S. Air Force Academy

Major: Undecided

For more information: To see Andrew Smith's story, visit this year’s issue of A Turn of the Tassle

Harrison Summerour

School: Riverside Military Academy

College: U.S. Air Force Academy

Major: Aeronautical engineering

Diana Vela

School: Gainesville High School

College: University of North Georgia

Major: Medicine

After a year of uncertainty, local high school seniors are seeing their futures a bit more clearly.

The school year began with the usual apprehensions, like remembering locker combinations and class schedules. Preparing for college the following year created a few additional tensions during senior year.

The Times followed local students through their senior year to see how their choices impacted their futures.

Diana Vela

For Gainesville High School senior Diana Vela, graduating high school all but guaranteed. Going to college was not.

So, Vela did everything to make attending college a possibility. The18-year-old maintained good grades throughout high school and stayed busy with extra-curricular activities. She also established the Gainesville HOPE chapter, Hispanic Organization Promoting Education, in her junior year after learning about the organization at a conference. She served as club president this year.

However, her immigration status created a challenge for her higher education ambition.

Vela was born in Mexico and moved to Georgia 14 years ago. Two years ago, she filed for the deferred action for childhood arrivals program, a temporary measure allowing young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the county as children to attain a Social Security number, driver’s license and a job. And she got it.

Vela then applied to several colleges and for scholarships. She said she was relieved to be accepted into and offered scholarships to attend two area colleges. She decided to attend the University of North Georgia in Gainesville and study medicine.

“I want to go into pediatric oncology, but I also have an interest in business and have become very interested in nonprofits this year,” Vela said. “I want to start seeing if there is any way I can start a nonprofit organization that’s a clinic for children with cancer and disabilities in third-world countries for families who can’t afford to pay. That will be a goal of mine. I’ll be majoring in medicine but minoring in business so I can start seeing how I can connect all that together.”

Vela said she didn’t expect to go to college so close to home but feels grateful for the opportunity to remain near her family.

She said she also feels fortunate to have been able to grow as a person during the last year.

“I’ve learned to be my own person,” Vela said. “I’m stepping out into the real world. And even though I’ll have loved ones to help and guide me, it’s not the same. It’s more about learning how to stand for myself and being responsible for your actions. I’ve learned a lot by doing things wrong and reflecting on it.”

Harrison Summerour

Riverside Military Academy senior Harrison Summerour had a difficult decision to make after being accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“I found out in November that I’d gotten into the Naval Academy, but I was holding out for Air Force,” Summerour said.

Two months later, the 18-year-old heard he was accepted into the Air Force Academy.

“I was really excited because my granddad was in the Air Force, and I know how he loved his experience in the Air Force flying,” he said. “And that’s what I want to do, too.”

Cadet Lt. Col. Summerour said he’s known for a long time he wanted a career in the military; it’s what led him to attend Riverside four years ago.

His experiences at the school have equipped him with the leadership skills he intends to use in his career. His training has included serving as battalion commander for the school year and being in charge of the school’s more than 450 students under the leadership of faculty.

Summerour was recently promoted from the rank of lieutenant colonel to colonel because of his outstanding leadership, a distinction only earned every few decades, according to school officials.

“I think its important to take every opportunity to better yourself,” Summerour said. “Some things may be more appealing than others, but I think you can learn from everything you do. I think it’s important to try to find leadership positions and things like that where you can further develop your skills.”

Summerour will fly out to Colorado to begin classes at the Air Force Academy this summer. He intends to major in aeronautical engineering and become a pilot.

Summerour said he’s also looking forward to studying alongside people with a common goal of excellence.

“Part of the draw for me for the Air Force Academy is the values they advertise: honor, integrity and character,” Summerour said. “These are things that I think a lot of people don’t appreciate, and it doesn’t mean much because they are (such) overused words. But I think putting myself in the environment where people do care about those things and where it matters to everybody there will be good.”

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