Sam Libenson (left) and Noah Buford

The top-ranked students of the Kenwood Academy class of 2021 have endured a high school experience marked by the gravest international challenge since World War II and are looking forward to bright futures.

Valedictorian Sam Libenson of Hyde Park will matriculate at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this fall, and salutatorian Noah Buford of Chatham, who is also class president, will attend the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Both have gone to Kenwood, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., since 7th grade; Libenson went to Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School, 5235 S. Cornell Ave., before that, and Buford went to Murray Language Academy, 5335 S. Kenwood Ave. Both have been learning remotely since March 2020.

"Oddly, I feel like it's a bit normal at this point," Libenson said. "At the end of junior year, it was a shock. No one was prepared for it; school was kind of chaotic. But this year, it started weirdly, because it was a weird adjustment to going to high school. But I think, for me at least, it's been more normal and boring than any other year, just because you wake up and it's the same day every day."

Buford said the year has had its ups and downs, but at the end, she is looking at the positives. She has moved through the year on her own schedule. "It feels more like college to me," she said, "and I definitely have more free time. Aside from not having football games, basketball games and the 'normal' high school experience, I'd say virtual wasn't that bad."

The college aspect is something they know about from experience, having both taken classes at the University of Chicago through the school's College Bridge Program. Both maintained enrollment in their extracurricular activities: Libenson in debate, Best Buddies (a club for general and special education students interact and play games) and involvement with the Hyde Park School of Dance, 5650 S. Woodlawn Ave., with which he has danced ballet since he was a boy.

Buford kept playing on the volleyball team, which kept a winning record, led weekly FOCUS meetings, a community service club, and steered the student council through the pandemic.

"Last year, (the council) planned well for this, just because we have a group chat with most of the seniors, and it was easy for us to stay in communication and let them know what they needed to do and what they wanted from us," Buford said. The council ran Google Meet town halls with some frequency, albeit no grad nights, but they did plan small bonfire gatherings and the Final Walk event with the school administration, planned instead of prom this year.

They both made the decision to remain learning at home, once students were allowed back to the building in April, because it would be a bigger adjustment than it would be worth. With College Bridge, they both have a lot of free time, but in the building, they would be encumbered on a high school campus. At home, there was freedom.

Having visited a lot of East Coast schools, Buford knew she was "not going to be able to wake up and see snow every morning," ergo her planned move to LA. Moreover, USC has a minor in sports management and business she is interested in pairing with a possible major in statistics, for a potential career in data analytics in the sports industry, perhaps in management or as an agent.

"Math is my favorite subject. It just makes a lot of sense to me," Buford said. "It's objective. There's no question about it. Essays have never really been my thing, people trying to get me to explain things that I don't really know. I just think having that right answer and only one way to get it makes a lot of sense to me."

And she loves sports. Putting the two together would be "less of a job and more of a passion," she said. She is also interested in understanding people and considering a major in psychology, having taken Advanced Placement Psychology her sophomore year and really enjoyed it.

She is matriculating in the USC liberal arts college and looks forward to keeping her options open. "I was forced to know what I want to do, but I don't really know what I want to do," she said. "The whole college application process was a lot."

Buford visited USC, a private research university and member of the Pac-12 Conference with more than 20,000 undergraduates, located in South Los Angeles, as a sophomore. She appreciates the beauty of the Romanesque Revival campus and its relative integration into LA, which in turn she appreciates for its diversity.

"Even though I'm pretty sure USC only has a 5% Black population, when I was on campus and when I was watching videos, it definitely seemed like everybody was enjoying their time," she said. "I would feel like I would have my own little space, regardless of how big the other racial populations were. I just feel like I'd feel comfortable on campus."

And she wanted a big school. After six years at Kenwood, "I know everybody, and everybody knows me, and that actually feels overwhelming at times, because it just feels like everybody's watching and expecting something from me, especially being at the top of my class. I think being on a big campus will allow me to still strive for big things and do what I want but not feel the pressure of everyone expecting me to do those things."

Libenson is going to Harvard, the private Ivy League research university across the Charles River from Boston, "completely undecided" about what he wants to do for both a career and in terms of what he wants to study. The nation's oldest institution of higher education is today one of most well-rounded, and Libenson appreciated its "great education in a huge variety of subjects."

That said, he does have two key academic interests as it currently stands: physics, particularly as it relates to the cosmos and astrophysics, and ancient Near Eastern history. One of his biggest regrets is not taking Oriental Institute classes through the Bridge Program, but he is interested in delving into the origin of Abrahamic religions, among several other topics, at Harvard.

"I think it's important that I take my first few years of college to take as many different classes as possible in hugely diverse academic areas," he said. "And I think that Harvard excites me in that way specifically because of how important it is to the school that you take time to figure out what you want to do, if you want."

He knows he is interested in getting involved in the school's Jewish community, and he can maintain his involvement with debate, dance and Best Buddies there, too. He likes Harvard's "dark academia" vibes and River Houses. "This is not the reason you should pick a college, but I am excited about the architecture of the place as well," he said.

Both Libenson and Buford, lifelong Chicagoans, are happy to be continuing their lives in major metropolitan areas. Like Buford, Libenson wanted to attend school "in an environment where there are a lot of people around who don't go to the college — not for any particular reason, not because I think it's valuable to experience what life is in the city, because I don't think you probably get a terribly good impression of what it accurately is to live in Cambridge by living on a college campus."

"There's just something that's oddly cathartic about walking around and being in the vicinity of people you have absolutely no relationship to, and I'm not entirely sure why," he said. "It's just reassuring, I think."

Buford appreciates the pace of life in Chicago: "For me, it's just about always having something new to see, something new to do and someone new to speak to. Small towns kind of just scare me, the idea of everyone knowing your name, your family and everything about you is kind of just weird to me. So having space and just not being perceived the same way by everyone appeals to me."

Buford does not think she will remember COVID-19 as having "ruined" high school for her, but she does think the experience will never have ended like it should.

"I saw something online that was like 'since I didn't have all those significant events that everyone else had, it feels like I didn't finish this chapter in my life.' And even though we do get an in-person graduation and things like that, it's probably going to feel unfinished for me, just because I haven't seen my classmates in a really long time, except my close group of friends," she said. "It's going to be like we were online this whole year, and then we had this one ceremony, and it's all over. It's going to feel weird, but I think I'll have something to look back on."

Libenson, thinking in hindsight, is already in awe that regular "high school" lasted a mere two and one-half years.

"It just sounds intuitively much shorter than the four years that high school is supposed to be," he said. "I think I also feel similarly to Noah that there's a total lack of closure on this experience. In all honesty, I haven't hated the last year and a half of remote learning. I've been lucky enough to be in a pretty good mental health spot and am able to use the freedom of being at home to be less under pressure, but I do think it's a bit strange and not how it's supposed to be to have to think about the fact that real high school kind of ended on a random Thursday in the middle of March in our junior year."

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