The top-ranked students of Kenwood Academy's class of 2022 endured a massive rupture to their high school careers when the pandemic struck in the midst of their sophomore year. Braving the isolation of a year and a half of mostly-virtual learning, they returned to school full-time in September and are looking forward to bright futures.
Valedictorian A'maree Waddell is headed to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, which has one of the nation's top aviation programs. She plans on joining the school’s Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and appreciates its fairly diverse student body.
"Diversity was important for me because of the field I want to go into. I know that it's white male-dominated," Waddell said. "I wanted to go somewhere where I could get accustomed to what the real world would be like instead of just being the only Black girl in the room."
Waddell has wanted to be a pilot since she was a preteen and her family flew to Walt Disney World. She likes speed. Math is her favorite school subject because "there's always a right answer," she said. "Nobody can tell you your answer is wrong if it's not wrong."
The military is just the start of her aviation career; like many Air Force veterans, Waddell wants to retire from the service and become a commercial pilot.
Waddell, who lives in Auburn Gresham, said her favorite part of her high school experience has been the opportunities Kenwood Academy has provided. She played softball for the Broncos, got involved in the Alliance Française de Chicago, works at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Protein Bar & Kitchen, braids hair and formed her own business club called Kenwood's Got Business.
Uniquely among top Kenwood students, Waddell did not begin her Kenwood career at the middle school Academic Center. She matriculated through Kenwood's magnet program.
Salutatorian Ariel McGee is going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge to study biomedical engineering in the hopes of becoming a biomedical researcher. She was in Kenwood's biomedical sciences program from 8th grade through her junior year, where she developed a deep interest in epigenetics and drug delivery.
"There are a lot of cells that are caused by gene expression and gene transcription, so if you can find a way to expose the genome to specific chemical taggers or to lessen the exposure, then you could help treat a lot of illnesses," said McGee.
Research is ongoing in these areas and McGee wants to contribute to it. "I just like learning how things work and why they work," she said. "Biology's my favorite science, just because I like learning how all the things work together. If one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong, and everything shuts down."
McGee, who lives in Avalon Park, said the Kenwood's people have been her favorite part of her school experience. Her junior year was hard: she got depressed as the pandemic continued from 2020 into 2021, but she said she learned things about herself during quarantine, and she took up crochet and portraiture.
She is not concerned about cold New England winters and in fact was not interested in Southern or California schools because of their climates: "I always say you can put on a jacket, but once you're hot, there's not much you can do."
Third-ranked student Adam Achebe, who lives in Pill Hill, is going to Stanford University, on the San Francisco Peninsula, to study computer science. "It seemed like a crazy vibe," he said of a recent campus visit. "I met a lot of cool people. Everyone's super intelligent, of course. Sometimes you don't really realize it when you're just talking to someone. But you just talk about your interests, and everyone's super passionate and super smart. And people are from all around the world."
Lockdown and quarantines "definitely hurt a lot of people, but it was one of the best things to happen to me" he said. "At first, I was like everybody else. I was just at home watching TV, but then I realized that I had time to work on the projects that I didn't typically have time to because of school.
"I still did my school work, of course — it was a lot less. But I got to work on web development," he said. "I just became so motivated. I'd never been so motivated as during that stretch of time."
Blockchain is a public ledger that records cryptocurrency — such as Bitcoin — transactions in encrypted digital records across a network of several computers. Achebe never got an offer with the startup, and a conversation with a Stanford Graduate School of Business student has encouraged him to not lock himself in too early.
"There's just so many opportunities in the Bay Area," he said. Achebe was interested in Stanford because of its reputation for producing entrepreneurial alumni, though they and the local start-up scene are not terribly diverse. "I don't see why I couldn't do that, too," he said. "I know it's not a totally level playing field. It's not completely fair. People walk in with connections, but I think I could walk in there and build something incredible for myself."
Class President Sydney Weaver is going to the University of Miami, where she plans to run track (she's a short-sprinter on Kenwood's team) and relish not having to deal with winter for the next four years. The school gave her a full-tuition scholarship.
She wants to study economics and minor in marketing. At Kenwood, she did two research papers on the misrepresentation of African American women in the media and is particularly interested in how they are depicted in athletics advertising.
Uniforms are over-sexualized, Weaver said: women in track outfits are wearing crop tops and 3-inch shorts while men wear full jerseys and 7-inch shorts. "They don't help females perform at all, especially because most Black women, because of our body shape, our thighs chafe," she said. "It's geared towards the male gaze rather than athletic performance."
She did another business-oriented research paper on misrepresentation and cultural appropriation, how different images of Black women impact how other Black women feel. "Inclusion and respect: if you're showing Black culture but not Black people, that's not very respectful to the culture," Weaver said.
Weaver, who lives in Woodlawn, said she is proudest of her administration's "open listening" over their senior year. When one of their senior dress-up days had to be canceled last month, they worked with the school's leadership to plan a make-up, with a theme the students suggested. The year's winter assembly was supposed to be all-virtual after having been canceled the past two years, and she lobbied the leadership to allow them to gather in the auditorium one last time.
"We truly have a voice here," Weaver. "The student council is a liaison between the students and the admin, and they've truly listened to us."
Principal Karen Calloway said the students' success in college admissions came about from "things that they've done in high school to not just help themselves but to help other people."
"They really have been a highlight and example for our students, and the only wish I had for them is that they were here for another year, because we lost two years with them," she said. "They were the class who came in with me when I took the job, so they were very special to me. Oftentimes people say to me, 'Ms. Calloway, you say that about all your classes.' I say, 'Yeah, all my classes are special, but 2022 really is a special year.”