As the class of 2021 said goodbye to their school days and nerves began to build in the lead up to the start of their final VCE exams next week, many reflected on how they managed to get through two years of lockdowns to this point.
The year 12 students of 2020 had it tough dealing with the newly arrived COVID pandemic disrupting their final year of studies, but this year's graduating class have seen the pandemic severely interrupt both of their VCE years.
While they have missed many milestones and social events, they believe they will carry some of the non-academic lessons learned - like resilience, perseverence, creativity and cohesion - will serve them well in to the future.
For Casey Dodd and Madeleine Palmer from Loreto College, this year has been about connection.
"Obviously this year has been really tough. We've had a lot more disruption than last year but school has done a really good job of just adapting and making sure we all stay connected in other ways ... and our year level has definitely become tighter," Casey said.
"It has certainly taught us a lot about flexibility and creativity ... as well as resilience."
Maddie said while missing some key school events over the past year had been disappointing, it had offered a chance to do different things.
"We just adapt to the circumstances. I feel like COVID is something we are going to have to learn to live with our whole lives, so we just have to learn to adjust. Missing events that would have happened otherwise is sad but because of COVID our school, our whole community, is learning sometimes we just need to to do things differently," Maddie said.
While Casey hopes to study physiotherapy at ACU next year, Maddie has applied to music theatre courses across Australia.
Damascus College students Maya Tolliday and Shaun Leonard are looking forward to exams but sad to bade farewell to their school days.
"Learning from home has definitely been a challenge but it has also built my confidence and my communication ... making sure I communicate with others in my class and my teachers.
"But the number one thing I have learned from this experience is the importance of reaching out to others including family members who might live in Melbourne and reaching out to friends. School is not only important for learning, but also the social aspect," Maya said.
But the biggest challenge has been to make time for herself.
"I found myself always doing study or school, so the challenge for me was to find time for myself go for a walk or spend time with my family."
For Shaun, watching the impact teachers have on students - whether in the classroom or over the past two years maintaining connection with them online - has shaped what he hopes for the future.
"I've learned how important it is to stay connected ... and to reach out to others for support especially subject teachers . Where the workload is very heavy in year 12 it's important to reach out to teachers if you need help or risk falling behind.
"Watching how teachers can impact on students in a really positive way has really developed my passion for teaching, especially primary school teaching, so hopefully I'll be able to study that at ACU. When I was at school there were a lot of female teachers and I'd love to be that male role model in a boy's life in primary school as I found that very beneficial."
Ballarat Grammar's Sam Breuer and Maddie Dodds have taken perseverence, courage and a sense of positivity out of their final two years of school.
"We've missed out on what people sometimes say is the most enjoyable time of their life, but our eyes are open and we understand everyone has gone through the same thing and we are not the only ones suffering," Sam said.
"We are pretty fortunate being in the country compared to Melbourne where they've been stuck in lockdown which has obviously been harsh, but school have helped open our eyes to see we haven't had it as bad as other people."
The lack of social interaction during lockdowns was a challenge but interacting online with teachers and classmates kept him striving toward his academic goals.
"That interaction with teachers helps us be able to see the end of the tunnel is so close."
But it's the footy field where he hopes to shine next year. "I just want to get my exams done then maybe play football somewhere ... wherever that may take me ... and study some form of PE or health at uni."
Maddie was keen to get back in to class, acknowledging she needs to see friends to keep motivated but with a goal to study veterinary science next year she pushed through the remote learning.
"It hasn't been the easiest ride but it shows everyone's perseverence and courage to keep going," she said.
"It's ok not to be ok are words that are thrown around a lot but it's been mentally tough doing year 11 and 12 and ... it's important to learn that it is ok not to be ok." Having friends and teachers around and reaching out to them for support were vital to get through.
"Exams are obviously a bit of an anxious time for everybody but knowing teachers, friends and family are behind you and support you helps you through every step of the way."
The end of year and exams seem to have arrived quickly for Ballarat Clarendon College's Tom Marwood and Keira McDonald.
"It felt like it was coming for ages, then all of a sudden it's here," Tom said.
"Remote learning was quite difficult in its first year since it was quite new and a bit of a hectic experience ... but this year I've been a lot more dependent on my boarding house and a couple of lockdowns I stayed in which was really positive because everyone was positive about the whole thing even though it could have been demoralising and everybody was doing the same thing so we weren't really missing out on anything."
And while some year 12 milestones could not go ahead, with the end in sight Tom doesn't mind.
"At the start it felt like we were missing out but now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel I really couldn't care. I'm rapt and so excited for what's to come that the pain and heartbreak we thought was there isn't really bad at all compared to what it could have been."
Kiera McDonald found lockdown a positive, spending more time with family away from school and reassessing her priorities while acknowledging the hardships her family and friends were facing.
"I can definitely appreciate the effect it had on some people but for me personally it wasn't a hardship but I did watch other people really struggle."
She said COVID had drawn the year 12s together.
"Compared to last year a lot of us were a bit in flight or fight mode to get through year and we didn't know what would happen this year but we have come together more to enjoy it more about so come together enjoy it as ourselves ... and while we missed out on doing some things, after we finish we can do stuff with our friends and I think we can enjoy it more because we will be so grateful we can do it after."
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Molly Coleman from Mount Clear College has found being adaptable and independent the only way to cope with the disruption of the past two years.
"Exams are definitely like a stress but it's a relief to have that school part over with.
"I was already quite an independent person but I kind of learned to use that to my advantage with sitting at home by myself, sometimes you can't get in to contact with teachers so taking initiative and responsibilty for my own action when there's no one at home to look over me and my work."
She was thankful that at Mount Clear the year 12 cohort managed to go on camp at the start of the year, and hold their year 12 formal before a lockdown.
"It was really good as a cohort to do something finally, and looking back on it now as a final celebration."
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