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Business, science and film futures: Flagstaff’s public charter grads to study for diverse careers
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Business, science and film futures: Flagstaff’s public charter grads to study for diverse careers

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The graduating class of 2020 may be known as the one that had longstanding school traditions sidelined by COVID-19, but even the coronavirus has not stopped this year’s graduates from Flagstaff’s public charter schools from wrapping up high school with a successful experience and hope for the future.

Emma Liu: Basis

Attending school in Flagstaff was not quite the way Emma Liu, 18, expected it would be.

Although Liu was born in Flagstaff, her parents soon returned home to Taipei, Taiwan, where Liu lived until she had completed eighth grade. At age 14, though, she moved back to Flagstaff, following her older brother’s footsteps, to live with her aunt and attend Basis Flagstaff.

“I thought high school would be like ‘High School Musical,’” Liu said. “That was the only thing I’d watched about American high school when I was in Taiwan.”

So when she saw Basis’ half-lockers, instead of the full-sized lockers seen in the movies, Liu was initially a bit disappointed, she explained with a laugh.

Minor differences in school culture also came as a surprise. Despite what she had heard about American high schools being easy because their days were shorter than in Taiwan, she realized they had the same number of classes but shorter breaks. She also quickly discovered that students rotated classrooms instead of teachers and classroom interactions were more open.

“In Taiwan, they’re usually afraid to raise hands or ask questions, like teachers will somehow shame you on that, but here nobody’s afraid of getting a wrong answer or asking a stupid question, which is really good -- it helps people to learn a lot,” said Liu, who, once she overcame her own nerves, got much more involved throughout campus. She helped form a club for students to learn Korean and for two years both participated in student council and acted as the swim team manager.

Though Liu repeated eighth grade upon her arrival to strengthen her English, she is now graduating from Basis with an honors diploma and will be attending the University of Arizona in the fall to begin taking business classes. She plans to either study marketing or accounting, with the hopes of eventually using these skills in the fashion or entertainment industry, most likely within the United States.

“I wish I could go back home but I feel like there’s definitely going to be more opportunity here to pursue my dream,” Liu said, describing her longtime interest in fashion. “When I have done something great, when I have the ability to, I might go back to Taiwan and stay with my mom.”

Despite her love for the air and open sky in Flagstaff, Liu said she still prefers big cities and now that she has experienced living in America from Flagstaff, she feels ready to move to a larger city.

“By moving here I’ve gained a lot of experience on how to be an independent, responsible human. I’ve started to do my own laundry and do everything I can. I can’t just ask somebody else to do it,” Liu said. “I’ve learned that I can’t just rely on someone every time I need it, in difficulties, and I am definitely thankful for having the opportunity to come here and study and learn different cultures.”

Basis Flagstaff is planning to host an in-person graduation reception either late this summer or during winter break. The school held a virtual graduation ceremony May 16, featuring a commencement speech by Lowell Observatory historian Kevin Schindler, a valedictorian address, a video of the seniors’ baby photos and a presentation highlighting each senior’s accomplishments and future plans. To protect student privacy, the video was not shared publicly.

Claire Gibson: NPA

It’s no surprise that Lowell Observatory’s youngest educator, Flagstaff local Claire Gibson, 18, will be attending Northern Arizona University to study both physics and astronomy.

But unlike some of her coworkers, it’s not research that the Northland Preparatory Academy graduate finds most appealing about studying these fields.

“I really want to work in communications somehow,” Gibson said. “I want to be a part of trying to explain science to people who want to get into science because that’s something that’s really important to having future generations that are just as excited as we are now to be able to continue some of this type of research, not just in astronomy, but in any science-based field.”

Sharing science with the community has been Gibson’s favorite part of the job since she began as a Lowell volunteer a year ago.

“You can just see on their faces they’re enthralled when we talk about supernovas or galaxies. When they come up and ask questions or ask where we learned about this and what resources the regular public can get into, being able to facilitate that learning and bridge that gap between science and the community is something that I value so much and my job allows me to do that every single day that I’m there,” Gibson said.

One day a few months ago, as she was walking into work, she received the phone call that changed the course of her college career: she had been named a Flinn Scholar. This merit scholarship, awarded by the Flinn Foundation in Phoenix, covers the full cost of tuition, mandatory fees, housing and meals at Arizona’s public universities. She is one of two local high school seniors to win the award this year.

“I started crying. I was so happy,” Gibson said. “A lot of work went into that, not just for the application, but for all the things that I talked about in my application. That’s years of work and years of support from my teachers and family and friends. Not having to worry about paying for college is something that so many people dream about. To be able to have that and not worry about it and really focus on my studies, I’m really excited.”

Prior to devoting more of her time to science education at Lowell, Gibson was actively involved in NPA wrestling, as one of just a few female participants on the co-ed team. Although she had no experience with wrestling beforehand, after watching a meet, she wanted in. The sport was much more difficult than she expected, Gibson explained, but she later made the varsity team and competed in the inaugural Arizona girls wrestling state tournament.

NPA held a drive-in graduation ceremony on Thursday to recognize its class of 2020. Families parked at in alphabetical order and were able to listen to speeches broadcast over a few local radio stations and Zoom. School staff, wearing masks, passed diplomas to graduating students through car windows. Gibson described the setting like a drive-in movie: different than expected, but still a good experience.

Reflecting on finishing her high school career from home, Gibson said, “I definitely learned more about how I motivate myself to get work done. At home, there’s so many distractions, whether it be family, technology or just wanting to be outside. To gain that motivation for pure self-interest was definitely a learning experience for the better, I would say.”

Gabby Neilson: FALA

Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy’s 2019-20 valedictorian, Gabby Neilson, 17, caught the film bug at age 11, when she wanted nothing more career-wise than to be an actor.

When she was cast in an independent western film while she was living in Tucson, and shortly after, when her family moved to Flagstaff, she realized her preferred spot on the crew was elsewhere.

“I just loved watching the director direct and the energy on the set of all these people working together, trying to create something. And then when I came to FALA they had a film class, so I started taking that and I shifted from wanting to act to wanting to direct,” she said.

In addition to performing with the school’s advanced acting class, she also acted as the student media team’s executive producer, leading the group to create more than 50 videos for the year that ranged from reporting on the youth climate strike in September to comedy sketches and live streams once social distancing measures were established.

“I really like being in control and I really liked being able to learn leadership tactics. That’s one of the parts of FALA — Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy — so there’s lots of opportunities to learn how to become a leader who doesn’t just tell people what to do, but really creates a space where everyone feels safe sharing and creating. That’s when you get the best projects,” Neilson said. “I just liked being able to be the facilitator of that project-making and make sure it’s a group effort and a collaborative work.”

In the fall, Neilson will be attending NAU to study creative media and film. She also hopes to complete a minor in environmental communication, another passion developed at FALA, through its environmental coalition.

She hopes her time at NAU will help her discover how she can blend the two subjects together.

“The thing that I like about both of them that I think could be combined has nothing to do with the content of them, but the communities that are with them,” Neilson said. “With environmentalism, there are just so many kind, amazing, compassionate people who are constantly working toward a better future. And whenever you are making a film you are working with all of the people in the film to create something together.”

As student council president this year, Neilson helped to plan a virtual prom held last week for FALA students, one of many events canceled this spring with the closures of schools and the transition to remote learning. FALA will host a drive-up graduation ceremony Saturday at Fort Tuthill to award seniors their diplomas. It also held a virtual senior recognition and awards ceremony this week, the video for which is available on the school’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

“I think now, after thinking that we were not going to have anything at all, that what we do get to have is really special and really important, even if it’s completely different than what we would have thought three or four months ago,” Neilson said.

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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