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Saying goodbye to Snowmass seniors

On May 30 in the Buttermilk Ski Area parking lot, 138 seniors celebrated the end of their Aspen High School educations.

And while the ceremony definitely wasn’t traditional, it was just as memorable for many graduates, families and AHS faculty who have arguably grown closer than before due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Throughout high school with the support of teachers, courses and experiences, we were able to start creating our own paths and become individuals within our class. … But no matter where we ventured along the way, we were always united by being a part of the class of 2020 and we all ended in the same place: here in the Buttermilk parking lot,” said Katarina “Kat” Goralka, co-salutatorian at the Aspen High School graduation ceremony May 30.

“Although we are receiving an atypical ending to our high school careers, these last two-and-a-half months did not take away the friendships, memories, accomplishments and sense of community we have built.”

Goralka — a multi-sport athlete and active Model U.N. Club and Health Club member who plans to attend University of Michigan this fall — is one of 36 seniors from Snowmass Village who graduated from AHS last weekend.

For Goralka, while the class of 2020 is a pretty close group as a whole, the seniors from Snowmass have somewhat of a different connection and bond through living in the village.

“I would say Snowmass Village seems like more of a tight-knit community and it provided us with a unique thing that we shared,” Goralka said of the seniors from Snowmass.

From lacrosse, volleyball and basketball to volunteering at the local hospital through her work with the school health club, Goralka said high school was definitely a lot more mellow than she thought it would be and allowed her to try a lot of new things.

When the COVID-19 crisis started in March, Goralka said she felt a lot of support from the Snowmass community, with people empathizing with her about not being able to finish out her senior year in-person when she’d run into them around town. Goralka has lived in Snowmass since she was in kindergarten and said it has been a great, family-oriented community to live in.

“Snowmass Village is an awesome community. It’s been really cool to grow up here,” Goralka said.

Tharyn Mulberry, a Snowmass resident and principal of Aspen High School, said he’s been able to watch seniors like Goralka make positive impacts on the village community over the past four years and has enjoyed running into them on regular basis outside of school.

“It’s been really fun interacting with the Snowmass kids all of the time and watching them prepare for all of the great places they plan to go,” Mulberry said. “I really think the Snowmass seniors have set an example for the younger kids here on what they can be and how well they can integrate into the community.”

Charlie Laube, a Snowmass resident and head of AHS’ college counseling team, expressed similar thoughts to Mulberry.

Laube said he’s also interacted with Snowmass seniors outside of school, especially at the ski area, and has been impressed with their positivity, perseverance and passion for engaging with nature.

“I’ve definitely made some really strong connections with these seniors,” Laube said. “With 138 individuals you have 138 unique stories, some of which are heart-wrenching. There are some students in this community who have endured more emotional frustrations than any student their age should have to, yet they persevered and worked hard to find that silver lining.”

Laube and Mulberry expressed how proud and inspired they have been by the class of 2020’s ability to keep morale, support and connection among their peers strong during the COVID-19 crisis.

Mulberry said the class has been extremely active in attending school events over the years, taking on advanced coursework and trying things that pushes them outside of their comfort zones — qualities he feels will take them far in the future.

“This is just a great class and one of the kindest, most generous groups,” Mulberry said. “I wish them all the best with whatever they end up going into and can’t wait to see many of them around the village this summer.”

Hailey Higdon and Julia Higdon, identical twins, are also AHS Class of 2020 graduates who were raised in Snowmass Village.

Like Mulberry, both Higdon sisters said they feel their class is really supportive of each other and that there’s always someone to talk to and listen if you need them.

The sisters said that they feel the COVID-19 crisis helped bring their class closer together and was easier to get through since the teens had each other and their mom, who is a nurse.

“It definitely helped having each other there day to day … and what helped me stay positive is the fact that there are so many bigger issues going on,” Hailey said. “Putting things into perspective made me realize we have everything that we need so we need to be grateful.”

Both Higdons work at the Treehouse, play golf, figure skate, ski for fun, have a lot of the same friends, similar personalities and consider themselves “really close.”

But this fall, Hailey plans to attend University of Colorado Boulder and Julia is going to Chapman University in California. It will be the first time the girls have really ever lived a part.

“It’s definitely nerve-wracking because we’ve never been away from each other for more than a few weeks, but I think we’re both excited to individualize and make new friends,” Julia said.

When asked what advice the Higdons have for under classmen as they finish out their high school careers, the sisters said the younger students shouldn’t worry about what other people think, should do what they love no matter what and take advantage of all the opportunities Aspen High School has to offer.

Goralka echoed many of the Higdons’ sentiments, encouraging younger students to hold onto the little things.

“I’d say take it all in because especially like the class of 2020, we kind of had a brutal wake up call. At least I did,” Goralka said. “I didn’t appreciate a lot of the everyday things until we couldn’t do them anymore. So appreciate all of those moments; go to the games, go to the dances, and find the outlets outside of school that you love.”

mvincent@aspentimes.com


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