Their years as high school students and graduation are now a thing of the past for 848 students across the Lincoln County Schools District. Due to inclement weather, all four graduations were held inside, which meant some family members or friends had to watch the graduation ceremonies on closed circuit screens.
These graduating seniors are now going in different directions. An average of 37 percent are planning to attend four-year colleges, 43 percent will be attending a community, technical, trade, business or nursing school, 5 percent are joining the military and 14.5 percent are planning to stop formal education and enter the workforce. The students received combined scholarship revenues of almost $19 million.
While they all donned their caps and gowns and arrived, some just barely on time, to take that last walk through the halls of their respective high schools, their stories, successes and dreams are as different as they are.
Some graduated at the top of their classes, like Lincolnton High School senior Ashlyn Rhyne, who was the class salutatorian. Throughout her high school years, Rhyne was very active in athletics. She competed in cross-country, track and basketball in her freshman and sophomore years. During her junior and senior years, she played tennis and stayed with basketball. She’ll be attending North Carolina University at Chapel Hill with an undetermined plan of study at this time.
“I want to do something where I’ll have a positive impact on others and make a difference,” she said. “Because it’s so diverse, Lincolnton High School has prepared me for the real world. I believe I’ll be able to connect with and communicate well with anybody now.”
Rhyne said that she will miss Lincolnton because it’s been like a family to her but she knows she can come back at any time.
Getting through high school can be a struggle on its own. So many students, like Alejandro “Alex” Gutierrez-Ochoa, managed to not only work through challenges in his personal life but also to exceed academically. Graduating in the top 10 of his class, Gutierrez-Ochoa plans on attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study computer science. His parents are from Mexico and he’s lived in Lincolnton his entire life.
“Lincolnton’s our little home,” he said. “For the most part, all of our family is here. They’ve always raised me to have an open mind to everything and to be a happy person and enjoy life. They told me of the things that they’ve gone through and they want me to learn from it, build upon it and make this world a better place.”
Gutierrez-Ochoa and his family have been separated from the patriarch of the family for almost a year after he traveled to Mexico last August to fix some immigration paperwork and wasn’t able to return.
“It’s been tough, not only on me but my whole family,” he said. “We had to sell our house and all of our of cars. My mother is torn between whether to be with my father or with her children. We have to stay strong and have a positive outlook on it.”
The students and staff at Lincolnton High School have been a big support network for Gutierrez-Ochoa.
“They all have my back and that’s what I love about Lincolnton,” he said. “It’s such a tight community and everybody has each other’s back.”
Through scholarships and grants, Gutierrez-Ochoa has an almost full ride for his schooling. He’s the first of his family to attend college. His father had to drop out of school in the sixth grade so he could work and provide for his family.
West Lincoln High School graduates Regan Mitchem and McKenna Houser are the class valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively. The end of their time at West Lincoln was bittersweet and emotional for both girls.
Both are planning to attend North Carolina State University. Mitchem will be studying animal science and Houser is enrolled in exploratory studies. She’s been thinking about architectural design or potentially film studies as majors.
“I don’t think there’s anything like West Lincoln, honestly,” Houser said. “We’re a small class, but that makes us closer. We have such a supportive community. I don’t know where I’d be without the people here.”
Houser’s older brother, who also graduated from West Lincoln, is her role model.
“I’ve watched him complete so many things in his life,” she said. “I look up to him and I want to follow in his footsteps.”
Mitchem has an agricultural background and is known as the girl who shows cattle. She hopes to go on to become a veterinarian working at first with small animals. Her mother owns a veterinarian hospital in Vale. Mitchem wants to also obtain a master’s degree in reproductive science.
“There’s a lot of demand for embryo transfers, artificial insemination and invitro fertilization,” she said. “We’ve been doing a lot of that on our farm and I find it really interesting.”
Both girls have great memories of their time at West Lincoln High School. Some of the highlights include the annual tractor parade during homecoming and spirit week.
“Now we have to take what we’ve learned here and build on it to become successful individuals,” Mitchem said.
North Lincoln High School graduate Allison Files earned the Levine Scholarship for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. As part of the college’s summer study programs, she’ll be backpacking in Wyoming for 25 days. In the fall, she’ll be studying mechanical engineering with a concentration in biomedical engineering.
“I’m considering a future in building prosthetics,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do something to help others. I love math and science so I thought that would be a good way to go.”
Graduating in the top 10 of her class, Files earned her Girl Scout Gold Award in her junior year by making IV pole “lily pads” for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital’s affiliate hospital in Charlotte. These lily pads are hand-painted wooden attachments for IV poles that children can sit on.
“I’ve been blessed with so many opportunities at North Lincoln,” she said. “I’ve been given the chance to explore my interests. It’s been a lot of work but it’s paid off in the end.”
Also a graduate from North Lincoln High School, William “Stowe” Rankin was co-valedictorian for his class with Jordan Cody. Rankin will be attending North Carolina State University to study financial mathematics. He hopes to become a financial engineer.
“My uncle always told me that education is the great equalizer,” Rankin said. “If you go to school and get educated and work hard, it doesn’t matter what your situation is, race, gender or social status. We’ve been able to achieve that at North Lincoln, all while having a pretty good time.”
Austin Davis entered into East Lincoln High School at an extreme disadvantage. Due do many relocations throughout much of his high school years, which resulted in numerous absences from school, he was behind in credits. He started his senior year with the number of credits a 10th grader would have. Through APEX Credit Recovery, he caught up with the rest of his class. Normally, students are only able to do two classes through APEX but Davis did seven.
“A spark hit me and I wanted to graduate in 2019,” he said. “That’s the class I was supposed to graduate with. I want to get life started and go to college.”
Some students, like East Lincoln High School graduate Riley Stockman, will not be going to college. Instead, she’ll be traveling to Australia to do a work abroad program.
“As a kid, I was obsessed with marine biology but when I grew up I realized I didn’t really like science,” she said. “I was still interested in the great barrier reef in Australia so the country seems interesting to me.”
Fluent in several different languages, Stockman hopes to be a translator when she returns to the United States.