Basalt valedictorian reflects on year altered by pandemic
Mari Elliott prepares to head to Yale
Mari Elliott earned the distinction of being valedictorian of Basalt High School’s class of 2021 in what was a very tumultuous year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The academic year started with online classes and ends Saturday with an action packed day featuring in-person graduation, prom and an overnight gathering for Project Graduation. In between there were more ups and downs then a skier hitting the bumps on Bell Mountain.
“It changed a lot,” Elliott said of the pandemic’s effects. “It was very odd ending junior year on a random day in March (2020) and I still don’t feel like we were going into senior year because we never finished out junior year.”
Once classes resumed in-person this year, it required an adjustment by many students after being out of school and stuck at home for an extended time.
“For a lot of people is was very isolating,” Elliott said. “It was very difficult, at least for me, to get back into school after quarantining for so many months.”
There was a homecoming week but not a traditional homecoming game. Basketball players had to compete while wearing masks. Prom, something many seniors look forward to, couldn’t be staged as it usually is but will be salvaged Saturday evening. So does the class of 2021 feel ripped off by COVID?
“When we were first online and didn’t get a first day of school and all that, it really felt like we were getting screwed as a class,” Elliott said. But all in all, “it’s not too bad.”
The pandemic altered how students approached higher education. Elliott planned to spend spring break of her junior year visiting college campuses with her parents, Diana and Brad Elliott. COVID put the kibosh on the plan.
“I didn’t visit a single one, so I made my decisions based entirely off of virtual tours and what I found online.” Elliott said. “It all changed really from those virtual tours. My list from junior year of the colleges I was going to put into compared to where I put into was very different.”
The process didn’t hinder her. Mari was accepted by Yale University, the Ivy League school with a 6 percent acceptance rate. She hadn’t considered Yale before last summer.
“I took a happiness class through them during quarantine,” Elliott said. “A friend convinced me to take it with her. I enjoyed it and at the time, I did it so I could say I took a class from Yale. Then, as I did that, I looked into the school more.”
She liked what she learned, particularly the small size and encouragement to take classes from any major. She is one of the first, if not the first, Basalt High School student to attend Yale.
Elliott took all the Advanced Placement classes that she could while at BHS, and they provided a flavor for college-level courses. In addition to excelling at academics she was on the softball and tennis teams, student council for one year, National Honor Society and numerous clubs, including Key Club for four years. She also acted in school plays. She said she particularly enjoyed community projects through Key Club, such as ringing the bell for the Salvation Army during the Christmas fundraising drive.
Basalt schools have battled a stigma over the years of not being up to snuff with other schools in the valley. Some Basalt-area families have decided to send their kids elsewhere while others have rolled up their sleeves and worked to improve the public education system. There has been widespread support, for example, for approving property tax hikes for school improvements.
Elliott said she believes Basalt public schools prepared her well for higher education. The graduating class is about 110 students.
“I think there is still that stigma (of inferiority) just from what I experienced,” she said. “I know our class had 150 kids going in. A bunch of them went to Glenwood for better opportunities and of course there are always a lot of people who specifically get a place in Aspen so they can go to school there. And I think it’s fair. Those schools have more classes and such, but I think probably any school is what you make of it.
“I think with the internet and everything that we have today the opportunities are out there,” she continued. “I think that’s even been shown with the last few valedictorians that have come out of here.”
One recent valedictorian from BHS attended Harvard and another went to Columbia.
“I think seeing them do that is also what made me think, ’OK, there’s a chance. I can put in for it,’” she said.
Elliott said she has enjoyed her experiences growing up in Basalt and living in a “cool valley,” but she’s excited to broaden her horizons and experience life elsewhere.
A group of 19 local, high school students have been busy sharing a little bit more than the usual “What did you do this summer?” stories to start the new school year.
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