Admittedly, theirs has been anything but a traditional high school experience. Yet despite it all, the Class of 2023 will take to The Corral on Friday night, May 26 just as many of them began their education 13 years ago; bright eyed and ready to take on the world.
Graduating seniors Jessica Birchall, Cole Kirschner and Emma Frazer will serve as the 2023 Valedictorian and Salutatorians, offering a speech during the ceremony to their peers and families. With Birchall earning the top spot of Valedictorian, Frazer and Kirschner are the first in well over a decade to tie for the Salutatorian spot.
It’s an honor which all three shared they are happy to accept, yet never truly strived for during their academic tenure.
“It wasn’t even something that was brought up until last year, when we started looking at our schedules,” Birchall shared of reviewing their class schedules and overall ranking. “It never really was something I imagined, but it’s exciting and a big honor.”
Valedictorian and Salutatorian honors are chosen each year based strictly on Grade Point Average (GPA).
Longtime friends and fierce competitors Frazer and Kirschner admitted while it was never a goal, as friends they’ve always been academically competitive.
“I’m really glad I’ll have him there to do it with me,” Frazer said, admitting to not being 100 percent comfortable with public speaking. “Not just because it’s another person to do public speaking, but because we’ve been going at it for grades since like seventh grade. So, I love that we’re ending it together.”
The Mustang trio acknowledged that while their tenure as Mustangs was far from traditional, they are grateful for the opportunity to end it on a “normal” note.
“It did alter our high school experience,” Birchall said of dealing with the pandemic. “I’m so grateful we get to finish how we started school in Oakdale. End in a way which is back to normal, because I know the classes before us can’t say the same thing.”
With an unconventional start, the Class of 2023 was robbed of a traditional education as early as their freshman year at the hands of the pandemic in spring of 2020. A fact which was both a lesson, as well as a growth opportunity for the trio.
“It’s a little cliché but being able to go to school in the morning,” Kirschner shared of what he learned through COVID. “Interacting with your teachers on a more personal level, because it’s not the same through a screen. And it did make me appreciate the teachers on this campus who you really could tell cared. It makes me appreciate all their hard work now, even more.”
Echoing his sentiments, Birchall went on to share additional lessons gained from that period of their education.
“I didn’t realize until recently how good of an experience that was for me to get closer with my family,” she said. “School isn’t everything and high school isn’t the be all end all. The relationships you build with those family and friends is what I’m going to take with me.”
And now as their primary education comes to an end, the three will prepare this summer for their move away from home. Birchall has plans to attend Brigham Young University, Utah; Kirschner will be attending University of California Davis and Frazer will travel to Colorado to attend Colorado Christian University.
While Birchall and Kirschner plan to enter with undeclared majors, Frazer has her eye set firm on following in the footsteps of her family and pursuing a career in nursing.
“My passion for that I think stemmed from having so many people in my family who are in the medical field,” Frazer said. “I’ve always had a big interest in anatomy and I’ve always loved math and science, it’s just kind of an extra draw there.”
And even though the other two are undeclared, their fields of interest are equally as impressive as their scholastic achievements. Birchall plans to explore the area of neurological psychology and Kirschner will pursue civil engineering.
“I’m a people person and I love talking to people,” Birchall said. “I’ve always been interested in science and math as well. Analyzing people’s behavior and how that correlates with how the brain works, that’s always been very interesting to me.”
Following suit and also tapping into what has always fascinated him is how Kirschner landed one, stating, “I’ve always been successful at math and I’ve always been fascinated with how structures are made. How are we able to go across the bridge and what’s keeping this building up.”
As the three graduates reflect on the past 13 years of education, one thread which they undeniably share in common is their love and appreciation for family. Each shared in their own way the excitement, as well as sadness as they venture off to what’s next.
“It’s insane. I feel like we’ve been thinking about it for so long and now it’s here, so that’s weird,” Frazer said of the next chapter.
“It is definitely bittersweet,” Kirschner added. “Sweet in the sense of I’m excited to visit a new place, meet new people and bitter in the sense that I won’t be able to interact with the same people who have helped me over the last 13 years. My community, my friends, my family just everybody that’s helped me in some way.”
Each with younger siblings, they agreed leaving them will also be difficult, yet there’s no place like home.
“That sense of community is such a good thing to take any place you go,” Birchall said, mentioning the variety of communities the graduates will each go to. “I think Oakdale is one of the most generous communities. The amount that the community gives back is so special and something that I definitely want to bring to wherever I go. To give back to a community because they’ve given to me.”
“The community of just knowing I could go out anywhere in this town and probably run into someone I know,” Frazer added of the uniqueness of Oakdale. “It’s so much fun. I’m a super social person so I love that everyone is so close and so friendly. I’m hoping other places are like this.”
As they look to Friday night and the honor of addressing their class, the three demonstrate a humbleness that rivals their intelligence.
“At the end of the day, it’s not that big of a deal,” Birchall said of preparing to give an address. “We’re all there just to graduate.”
Oakdale High School Commencement begins at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 26.
The week is full of ceremonies, including: Oakdale Charter School ceremonies, Wednesday, May 24 at 5 p.m. in the multi-purpose room of Cloverland Elementary; East Stanislaus/Valley Oak will host ceremonies that same day at 7 p.m. at the OHS Main Gym; Oakdale Junior High School will host its ceremony on Thursday, May 25 at the Mustang Corral at 7 p.m.