Global Community High School graduates triumph over pandemic
Karina Tovar Chacón never wanted to leave El Salvador.
But in 2019, her parents decided that part of their family would leave their home country to search for a better life in the United States.
“I didn’t want to leave my brother, my uncle and my grandmother behind, and more than anything, I didn’t want to change my entire life,” she said during an interview in Spanish.
Two years later, Tovar Chacón was on track to graduate from Global Community High School, which serves students in Las Vegas who have been in the U.S. for less than five years. But COVID-19 brought her family back to El Salvador in February 2021, halting her goal of starting college so she could work toward a career as a pediatrician.
Tovar Chacón, 19, wasn’t the only Global student affected by the pandemic.
Before COVID, the East Las Vegas high school had close to 200 students, but after COVID hit, some returned to their home countries. That reduced enrollment to about 170.
“They either went back home and couldn't come back for travel reasons,” Principal Elena Fabunan said. “A lot of our students are undocumented so, you know, taking that journey back here was probably difficult for them.”
Although these past two years under COVID have been difficult, Fabunan said her students have not let it define them.
On Thursday, the school held a graduation ceremony for its 33 graduating seniors in an intimate celebration inside Desert Pines High School’s theater. Before the students could leave, though, Fabunan had one last lesson for them.
“Some of you may think that life's not fair,” she told the graduates. “It never was. It isn't now and it won't ever be. Do not fall into the trap of feeling like you are a victim. You are not.”
Tovar Chacón stood unique among this year’s graduates as Global’s Class of 2022 salutatorian. She walked across the stage in a navy blue gown adorned with medals and cords honoring her academic achievements, and a stole displaying the American and Salvadorian flags.
Speaking to a crowd of her classmates, their families and school faculty, Tovar Chacón said she has come to terms with the decision her parents made for her.
"All the effort and everything I have achieved has been thanks to two great people in my life, my parents,” she said in her graduation speech, delivered in both English and Spanish. “I promise you that this is only the beginning of all the triumphs I will have in the future.”
“I will use any fear I felt the first day I came to the United States to continue to motivate me to improve myself.”
Serving up the American high school experience
Global Community High School first opened its doors in 2005. From its inception, its mission was to serve newcomers to the U.S. and provide them with a welcoming and nurturing environment.
Some students are newly arrived in the country. Some were born in the U.S. but lived abroad for a portion of their lives. Some are refugees. Some are undocumented. Some came as unaccompanied minors.
Regardless of their back stories, the school admits newcomers from anywhere in the Clark County School District’s boundaries, and from any grade level.
“We are all on board with the vision and the mission of the school, that we are here to help our students first and foremost, to provide a safe environment,” said Fabunan, Global’s principal for the last four years.
Beyond academics, the school also strives to give students typical American teen experiences. In the fall, Fabunan said the school held a Halloween event giving students a chance to carve pumpkins. In the winter, they made gingerbread houses.
But the students don’t always understand the traditions. Fabunan remembers that students once made and promptly ate their gingerbread houses all in one sitting.
“It was so funny,” she said.
For the past two years, the school has navigated the added challenge of helping students grasp English and learning new material in a remote setting, after the pandemic forced brick-and-mortar schools to temporarily close. When it became clear that students wouldn’t be returning to in-person classes for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year, Fabunan and her staff spent two days teaching students how to use a laptop because some didn’t know how.
“We brought them in and gave them one-on-one assistance on how to use the computer, how to split the screens,” Fabunan said. “That's attributed to having a small school; you wouldn't be able to do with 3,000 students.”
Fabunan credits the strong relationships that her staff built with students prior to COVID, and educators' hard work and dedication to get students through distance learning.
“Teachers were available after hours,” she said. “That's just the type of staff that I have. First and foremost, they want to be there for their students.”
Navigating pandemic schooling
Senior Tam Tran, who's from Vietnam, started his first year at Global, and his first time at an American school, during the 2020-21 academic year, when the Clark County School District chose to continue with remote classes.
Before then, he said he didn’t have much experience with using a computer or online classes. Tran remembers he missed some of his morning classes on his first day of school at Global because he wasn’t able to log on to Google Meet.
Luckily, Tran’s older sister – who came to the U.S. two years before him and graduated from Global in 2020 – was able to help him navigate through it, he said.
Despite the challenges, Tran excelled academically during his first year at Global. His social life, however, was a different story.
“I think it's kind of hard for me to get to know everyone because my English is not good, and everyone communicates in English,” he said.
And with classes being remote, Tran wasn’t able to meet his classmates face to face.
Unlike Tran, Tovar Chacón had spent almost an entire school year at the high school by the time things shifted to distance learning. She had hoped to finish high school last year so she could get an earlier start on college.
“Primarily, what I wanted was to invest more time into college because I knew this year would further delay me from getting the degree in the career I wanted,” she said in Spanish.
But her graduation dream was derailed in February 2021, when her family returned to El Salvador to take care of her grandmother after she came down with COVID-19. Then, Tovar Chacón’s mother and father fell ill. The virus caused her father to have breathing issues, and he was eventually hospitalized and admitted in an intensive care unit.
“He was there for a really long time,” she said.
Tovar Chacón attended her Global classes remotely while her father recovered, but by the time they were able to return to the U.S. in June 2021, it was too late for her to take the final exams she needed to graduate.
“Honestly, it made me feel sad,” Tovar Chacón said.
Returning to Global
Tovar Chacón tried to make the most of this school year. She made new friends and had fun participating in the school’s activities for seniors.
While it wasn’t what she planned, she was grateful to have spent another year at Global improving her English, saying goodbye to her friends and preparing herself for what comes next.
“Now, I feel much more confident … I feel like I have a key in my hands that can open many doors for me,” she said.
For Tran, this school year allowed him to experience the full Global atmosphere now that classes are again in-person. The 18-year-old’s favorite part about Global is the teachers, who Tran said are willing to help students with everything. His favorite class is math.
“I'm good at it,” he said. “We have a lot of fun activities in math.”
On Thursday, Tran graduated among the top five students in his class, an accomplishment he credits to his time management skills.
Older sister, My-Tu Tran, said she is proud of how far Tran has come since he first started at Global.
“We thought he couldn’t make it, probably gonna stay for one more year to improve his English, but actually he improved so much (more) than we expected,” she said. “He worked really hard, and I think he deserves the best.”
Now that he’s done with high school, Tran is headed off to UNLV, where he’s considering majoring in biochemistry.
Tovar Chacón plans to study nursing at the College of Southern Nevada, so she can start working as soon as possible to help support her family financially. From there, she hopes to continue going to school until she reaches her ultimate goal of becoming a pediatrician.
One piece of advice she has for future Global students is not to let fear keep them from trying new things.
“At the beginning it is a great challenge and you will feel many emotions, but in the end, everything will be worth it,” she said.