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Finishing high school is usually reason enough to celebrate. But after a tumultuous academic year full of cancelled opportunities, 2021 graduates see their COVID-19 vaccinations as another reason to get excited about the future

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Juaria Mohamed gets her jab in Toronto.Sarah Mortimer/The Globe and Mail

For the Class of 2021, graduation and vaccination are colliding. From coast to coast, kids have found special ways to mark both the end of their high-school years and protection against COVID-19 – from a formal “Swom” for a swim team in Kingston, where school boards have nixed formal events, to a 50-person bash in Vancouver, where life has largely returned to normal.

Beyond the excitement that comes with embarking on a new chapter, getting the jab also means a return to the small joys of teen life: playing sports, hanging with friends and getting driver’s licences (tests were largely put on hold during lockdown, a particular heartbreak in a year in which Olivia Rodrigo’s song Driver’s License became teen gospel).

“Honestly, I’m just looking forward to being around my friends without wearing a mask,” says 17-year-old Juaria Mohammed, who’s headed to York University in the fall. “It was a hard year, but I’m excited to move on to university and see what life has in store for me next.”

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Juaria Mohammed couldn't wait to get vaccinated so she could take her driver's test, get back on the soccer pitch and, most importantly, keep her family safe.

Juaria Mohammed, 17 (Toronto)

Juaria Mohammed’s love of soccer is genetic: Her dad played the beautiful game and shared his footie skills with his kids. “We would bond over that,” she says. But once COVID-19 hit, soccer disappeared from her life. “I missed going to games and practices, talking to my coaches and friends – the whole social aspect. It’s hard to create that feeling of socialness at home.”

Getting back on the pitch wasn’t the only reason she was excited to get her vaccine. Mohammed lives in an apartment with eight family members, including her immune-compromised father and her mother, who has been working outside the house throughout the pandemic. “It felt exciting, because I want to do anything I can to keep everyone in my family safe,” she says. “At the same time you’re on the way to a world without COVID-19.”

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C.W. Jefferys high school graduates Samantha Damille, 17, and Juaria Mohammed, 17, who met playing volleyball, say they're excited to return to playing sports with friends after a year in isolation in Toronto.

“I missed going to games and practices, talking to my coaches and friends – the whole social aspect. It’s hard to create that feeling of socialness at home.”

Juaria Mohammed
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Charlotte Sampson's prom dress had been hanging in her mom's closet since November. With grad events cancelled, she wore it to her first vaccination appointment instead, on June 15.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Charlotte Sampson, 18 (Halifax)

When Charlotte Sampson bought her prom dress back in November, it seemed possible, even probable, she’d have a chance to actually wear it to a dance. But prom was cancelled and graduation reduced to a five-minute walk across the stage to pick up her diploma, with five family members in the audience.

“It was really sad, because I’ve always looked forward to getting to wear a big dress and hang out with my friends,” she says. It was her mom who suggested she wear it to another once-in-a-lifetime experience: getting vaccinated. “It was sort of the event of the spring, and it was definitely something I was able to look forward to. And I was like … I might as well wear it somewhere!”

At the clinic, she saw people’s faces light up when she walked in wearing her shimmery gown and Converse sneakers. “I was focused so much on the dress that I didn’t even feel the needle going in,” she says. “It was a great distraction.”

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Charlotte Sampson's sister kept her shielded from the rain as they headed to the vaccine clinic in Halifax.

It was really sad because I’ve always looked forward to prom and looked forward to my senior year and getting to wear a big dress and hang out with my friends. … But when my mom gave me the idea to wear my dress to get my vaccine I was like, you know what?, I have this dress – I’ve had it since November – I might as well wear it somewhere!

Charlotte Sampson
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Western Canada High School cancelled official graduation celebrations, but Dundee Wang (in blue) and his cohort attended a private party in Canmore. 'There’s been a lot of backyard fires and get-togethers since there isn’t official events,' he says.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

Dundee Wang, 18 (Calgary)

This was not the senior year Dundee Wang was hoping for. “Kids in athletics had it the worse – not being able to do the thing they’ve been practising for years has been really tough,” says Wang, a member of the Team Alberta basketball squad and winner of the National 2020 Immigrant of Distinction Award for his work advocating for Asian and immigrant representation in sports (he moved to Canada from China when he was 5).

COVID-19 has put his chances of playing at the university level in jeopardy. “It’s going to be harder to be scouted and get a spot on a roster.”

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Western Canada High School 2021 graduate Dundee Wang puts on his graduation cap for photos during a pre-graduation celebration with his friends in Calgary.

But there is a bright spot: He and all his friends are vaccinated, so on top of a virtual graduation ceremony, their high school is allowing cohorts of 10 to gather at the school to collect their diplomas and take photos. “It’s nice we’re going to have our group to walk the stage with,” he says. “It was like, if everyone is getting [the jab], why wouldn’t you? It was a form of peer pressure I guess – good peer pressure.”

It’s tough to miss out on the last year, and it’s going to be harder to be scouted and get a spot on a roster.

Dundee Wang
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Elizabeth Lee, a Grade 12 student at Loyalist Collegiate & Vocational Institute in Kingston, reunites with her competitive swim team on Sydenham Lake.Sarah Mortimer/The Globe and Mail

Elizabeth Lee, 18 (Kingston)

Elizabeth Lee’s prepandemic life revolved around her high-school swim team. Then suddenly, the training, the meets, the camaraderie – it was all gone. “It was especially disappointing in Grade 12, because you have expectations for it to be a good year, with all these celebrations,” Lee says. The team had always planned to throw a prom-like party just for them, and with graduation events cancelled anyway, one of Lee’s mates came up with the idea for “Swom.” Recently, Lee and three teammates did a trial run at Sydenham Lake, north of Kingston.

Even this scaled-down event wouldn’t have been possible if the girls hadn’t received their vaccinations. “There were moments when knowing I was getting it gave me a sense of hope, but I think I’ve become a lot more cynical over the past couple of years,” Lee says. “I understand it’s not a guarantee that life will go back to normal.” That said, she’s excited to hang out with friends again and looking forward to a bigger version of Swom that includes the entire swim team once Ontario’s permitted gathering size increases. For that event, there will be makeup, decorations, food and, of course, swimming.

“Seeing people will be really nice, especially since we’re going away to university soon,” says Lee, who is heading to McGill University in the fall. “Saying goodbye to people you haven’t seen in a while.”

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After a year of mostly remote learning and no extracurriculars, members of the Loyalist Collegiate & Vocational Institute swim team reunited for 'Swom' at Annie Ingo's house on Sydenham Lake. From left to right: Marie Parent, Annie Ingo, Elizabeth Lee and Shana White. The group will throw a larger Swom later in the summer, when gathering restrictions loosen in Ontario.

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The Loyalist Collegiate swim team donned their swimsuits under their prom dresses for Swom at Annie Ingo's house on Sydenham Lake. From left to right: Marie Parent, Elizabeth Lee, Annie Ingo and Shane White, 17.

“There were moments when knowing I was getting it gave me a sense of hope, but I think I’ve become a lot more cynical over the past couple of years”

Elizabeth Lee
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Graduates of Langley Fine Arts School do their hair and makeup before being whisked away on a limousine bus to 'dry grad,' held each year in a surprise location. From closest to farthest: Brooke Turner, Carmen Mikkelsen, Sabrina Langset and Marlysse Dandurand.Alia Youssef/The Globe and Mail

Langley Fine Arts School

It was as good an enticement as any to get vaccinated against COVID-19. British Columbia’s pandemic restrictions stipulated events of up to 50 people could go ahead once 65 per cent of over-18s had been vaccinated with at least one dose. With B.C. on track to hit the target, parents of students graduating from the Langley Fine Arts School organized the school’s traditional “dry grad,” complete with red carpet and limousine buses, in a local backyard this past Friday.

“It took a really big toll on my mental health, not being able to hang out with friends and do grad activities,” Brooke Turner adds. “To be honest, I don’t think any of us would be here if we weren’t vaccinated and if we didn’t think about how it would benefit us.”

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Brooke Turner, 18, steps off a limousine bus to attend 'dry grad,' followed by classmate Carmen Mikkelsen.

Carmen Mikkelsen is just grateful for whatever they do get to experience at this point. At the beginning of the school year, everything was a big question mark, she says. “It was an ‘expect the worst, hope for the best’ situation. I think we are just really grateful for being able to celebrate together despite some hurdles.”

But the event is bittersweet for Rylie Downs. “It’ll be the last time I’ll have the chance to see most of the people in my class – I think that’s most important to me, other than actually graduating,” they say, adding they’re still a little cautious about COVID-19, even though most of their classmates have had their first jab. “We are all one cohort, so it’ll be as safe as possible. I’m excited and I’m cautious.”

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Marlysse Dandurand (left) and Brooke Turner make a splash on the red carpet.

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Langley school friends and classmates dance the day away. From left to right: Aivy Nguyen, Sophie Chevallier, Rylie Downs, Sally Sapinski, Jaylie Holmes and Meghan Datcu-Romano.

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