It was never the goal of Emma-Le Olsen and Alexis Kaer to be at the top of their class.

They just wanted to hit the books hard and get a great education. But along the way, they ended up being Belton New Tech High School’s top graduates.

Olsen, 18, came out on top of the Class of 2020 while Kaer, 17, was right behind her. This year’s New Tech graduating class has 117 students.

“Starting out in freshman year, I was not aiming for that high of a standard at all,” Olsen, the valedictorian, said. “I was just hoping to get into the top 10 percent of my class. It’s definitely an honor, but I wasn’t specifically aiming for it.”

Although students can sometimes view academia through the lens of a competition, that was not the case at New Tech, Kaer explained.

“It wasn’t as much competition as everybody just wanting to do the best that they could do. The cards kind of fell as they did,” she said. “Being salutatorian wasn’t as much of a goal as doing well in school was. It kind of just happened because of that.”

‘A shared experience’

Senior year is often considered one of the best years of high school. Typically, it’s filled to the brim with celebrations honoring students and their hard work in class and extracurricular activities for the past four years.

But the COVID-19 pandemic ripped those once-in-a-lifetime events from graduates.

Emma-Le — the daughter of Connie and Mark Olsen — saw those senior celebrations firsthand last year when her sister graduated.

“I was expecting this year I could also do the same thing,” she said. “Sadly, with the event, that’s not the case. The school is doing a really good job of celebrating it in other ways and doing things, like car drive-throughs, so it’s OK.”

It’s disheartening not to be able to celebrate the end of their high school career, but Alexis — whose parents are Walter and Trisha Kaer — pointed out this unprecedented crisis will never be forgotten.

“It’s also a shared experience among the Class of 2020 and it’s something that we can look back on as maybe not normal,” she said. “But I think it’s been cool to find ways to celebrate anyways whether that be with my friends or the school doing things to help make it special for us.”

College plans

Hopefully, both graduates will be able to attend in-person classes at their future colleges. Emma-Le will attend Baylor University to study biology on a pre-medical track. Alexis plans to attend Colorado College and major in biochemistry.

Emma-Le has always been set on becoming a doctor. The pandemic is certainly reinforcing that goal.

“Since I was a kid, I’ve pretty much always known that I wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “I just have a passion to help others.”

Even before the coronavirus upended daily life, Emma-Le had already taken steps toward the medical field. She was a part of two church missions to remote villages in Kenya to help give people medical services.

“It’s hard to describe because it was so surreal,” said Emma-Le, who attends First Baptist Church-Belton. “It was very surreal in some ways to see so many people that had a lot of medical conditions and they did not have access to clean water and stuff like that and no electricity. I was very glad to help in any way I could and help assist the doctors.”

More so than ever, Emma-Le, who has logged 400 volunteer hours in high school, is inspired to become a doctor.

“We have family friends who are doctors and they’re definitely putting their lives on the line. That’s extremely inspiring,” she said.

Alexis also plans to enter the medical field.

“I want to go into psychiatry. That’s just something I think that’s going to help me prepare for that career path,” she said of her planned pursuit of a biochemistry degree.

‘In the air’

The pandemic vastly changed how graduation — which is set for June 18 — will occur this year, but both graduates will get their chance to give their valedictorian and salutatorian speeches. The Belton Independent School District plans to record their speeches and include them in a video package later this summer.

Emma-Le and Alexis are still thinking through their speeches.

“I don’t have a whole lot of an idea yet,” the valedictorian said. “But I’m probably mostly going to thank the school for all it has done for me and my peers. That’s the main thing.”

“I’m definitely still working on it. Yeah, I’m not really sure what I’m going to talk about yet just to be honest. It’s still kind of in the air,” Alexis said, with a laugh.

Lessons learned

The COVID-19 pandemic has given both graduates a new perspective on life.

“Probably the main thing is learning to be very flexible and understanding because, although it is sad for pretty much every senior, (everyone should) be understanding of the situation that the lockdown is what’s best,” Emma-Le said.

All people, including students, are learning how to stay connected to their loved ones through the coronavirus crisis, Alexis said. That will be more important going into the future, she added.

“One of the lessons I want to get out of this is to be grateful for the really small things whether that is like going to school every day,” she said. “I think all students are going to have a new appreciation in the fall — or whenever school starts back up. I think a lot of students are going to appreciate being able to go to school every day and get out of their house in a way that people haven’t before.”

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