It’s been a senior year like no other for Chicago’s Class of 2020. They witnessed an 11-day teachers strike, a pandemic that closed schools, and protests in response to police brutality against Black people.

The 18 seniors you’ll meet below haven’t just persevered through uncertain times: They’ve managed to top their classes despite a stream of interruptions. Undaunted, they’re looking to the future, with plans to attend colleges, such as Cornell University, Northwestern University, Boston University, and Western Illinois University. They dream of becoming doctors, engineers, educators, politicians, lawyers, and more.

Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson calls them “beacons of hope.”

“While each one of our graduating seniors has a unique story, the Class of 2020 is bound by the extraordinary circumstances they encountered and overcame during their senior year,” said Jackson. “We’re extremely proud of what they have accomplished.”

Scroll down to hear from the students — in their words — about what inspires them and what advice they’d leave for fellow students.

Responses from students have been edited for length and clarity.

What moment in your education stands out to you?

Samantha Guiragossian (Courtesey of Samantha Guiragossian)

Samantha Guiragossian
Graduate of Taft High School, plans to attend Drake University in the fall
“In the International Baccalaureate program, we had to do a 4,000-word extended essay. I remember all the support I received to complete it. Three separate teachers would sit down with me and let me ask them question after question. My friends and I all helped each other with rewrites, proof readings and sending jokes just to keep our spirits up. Even my parents, who had no idea what this paper really was, sat down and read 17 pages just to give me peace of mind. I’ve never felt so uplifted. It taught me how to persevere and how it is okay to ask other people for help.”

Diana Valerio (Courtesey of Diana Valerio)

Diana Valerio

Graduate of Carver Military Academy, plans to attend DePaul University in the fall.

“I still struggled in my dual credit math class, I tried to receive as much help on it and spent most of my time studying for that class. Now I know that even when I struggle and feel like giving up, it is just a bump in the road that I can overcome it.”

Kaylee Morato

Graduate of Foreman College and Career Academy, will attend Columbia College Chicago this fall.

“When I was in middle school I told myself I had to be valedictorian in high school. I was tired of always feeling as if I were less than just based on a bunch of test scores. Although I felt average, I never realized how important a role teachers played until I almost had a panic attack because there was an upcoming math test. I’ve always struggled with math and I told my teacher about how much I struggled with the subject. I assured her that I was most likely going to fail because of my past experiences. When it came time to take the test, my teacher went up to my desk as she was walking by the students, monitoring them, and she handed me a note. It said something along the lines of, ‘Good luck, I know you can do this! Don’t stress out :)’. Those simple words and a teacher reaching out to encourage me almost made me cry.”

Who helped you become the valedictorian for your high school? How did they help you?

Godsgift Chukwudi (Courtesey of Godsgift Chukwudi)

Godsgift Chukwudi

Chicago Math and Science Academy, will attend Northwestern University in the fall.

My parents are always there to make sure that I am working and studying as well as getting the proper rest I need for school. My teachers are always there to give me feedback on all my work, and are the ones who ultimately taught me most of everything I know — all their lessons and explanations paid off.

Jamisha Murdock, left, and a friend. (Courtesey of Jamisha Murdock)

Jamisha Murdock

Al Raby High School, will attend Western Illinois University in the fall.

“Tiwanda Parker, who is a staff member at Al Raby High School, has helped me. She never gave up on me and she was always there when I needed advice. My mom helped me become valedictorian for my high school because she made sure I got up early for school every morning. She even motivated me when she was in the hospital for brain surgery.”

Iyania Golliday (Courtesey of Iyania Golliday)

Iyania Golliday

Morgan Park High School, will attend Howard University in the fall.

“Mrs. Sara Harton has been my math teacher all four years of high school, and she has never hesitated to push me to be my best. Mrs. Harton has always known my potential, and has led me to work towards it. I’ve learned many lessons and techniques from her that have helped me do even better in my classes than I’ve done in previous years. She’s helped me with not only math, but life in general.

Ja’Quise Green (Courtesy of Ja’Quise Green)

Ja’Quise Green

Graduate of Corliss High School, will attend Trinity College in the fall.

“My grandmother has played a huge part in my success in becoming valedictorian. She has always made sure I had everything I needed and more. She also made sure I was involved in many programs to keep me busy.”

Cathleen Ramirez (Courtesy of Cathleen Ramirez)

Cathleen Ramirez

Graduate of Prosser Career Academy, will attend Dominican University in the fall.

“A person that has helped me become valedictorian is my English teacher Mr. Matthew Lemoyne. I had the opportunity to be in his English class for two years, Lemoyne showed how much he cared about our well-being. He helped me academically and emotionally; he constantly checked up on us and made sure we were on track. He also always made his classroom feel like a safe environment for anyone to express themselves freely. Mr. Lemoyne definitely helped me become valedictorian because his class had such a positive effect on my mental health. His class never failed to keep me motivated and made me feel like I was ready to tackle anything.”

What advice do you have for your fellow students?

Michael Quan

Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, undecided.

"Try to focus on being the best person and student that you can possibly be without it affecting your mental health. Once you are able to break away from the mindset that you have to be better than everyone, your life gets easier. This is what I wish I knew going into high school."

Oscar Anthony Rivas

Curie Metropolitan High School, plans to attend Cornell University in the fall.

"Never become discouraged when circumstances seem difficult. Some days are more demanding than others, but that shouldn't be a reason to give up. Becoming successful is a long process that includes a lot of ups and downs. But as long as you stick to achieving your ultimate objective — no matter the obstacles — you will be successful. My International Baccalaureate coordinator would always say that "hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." Working hard should always be the mindset."

Dejah Cobbs

Legal Prep Charter Academy, undecided.

"Just live life and have no regrets. Everything happens for a reason and the outcome can either be a lesson or a blessing."

Ulrika Brameus

Amundsen High School, plans to attend Boston University in the fall.

"Turn your 'can'ts' into 'cans' and dreams into plans."

James Nnabuihe

Austin College and Career Academy, Undecided.

"If you are ever feeling like you're not good enough to overcome a challenge, you should look back at the achievements that you have already made and recognize that you are no pushover when it comes to adversity. We all know that high school is a cesspool of social awkwardness, high expectations, and improvement by failure — just how hard it is to live in that cesspool. If you have endured four years of that, then you have the resilience to do far more than you can imagine. Even those who have not graduated should feel some semblance of confidence that they have made it through one year of these troubles."

Abby Burt

Ogden International High School, plans to attend Northwestern University in the fall.

"Don't wait for things to fall in your lap. When you actively look for opportunities, you will find them. And when you find them, take it. The value of the experiences you have will last a lifetime."

Stephanie Maynez

Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, plans to attend Davidson College in the fall.

"Be proud of even your smallest accomplishments. Nothing in life comes easy, so regardless of where you are or what you have done, don't be so hard on yourself. Things can only get better from here, so continue to work hard and stay optimistic for the future."

Ashley Rogers

Golder College Prep, plans to attend Vanderbilt University in the fall.

"Always use your voice because it is your greatest weapon."

Rolando Mendez

Baker College Prep, plans to attend University of Southern California in the fall.

"Never give up. Life will always throw curveballs when you least expect them. These are the moments in which you show who you really are and you may feel weak, but owe it to yourself to be the conquerer that you are."