There's anxious excitement and some nervous tension. At 1 p.m. today, graduating seniors from East Lake High School will walk across the stage at the University of South Florida's Sun Dome arena and into their future. They don't quite know how their lives will change, but they know things will be different. Like thousands of high school graduates this time of year, some of the young men and women of East Lake High will leave home for the first time for college. Others will stay at home but attend a community college. Still others will stay in the Tampa Bay area and find work.
We spoke with six East Lake High graduating seniors about their future plans and their views on the new world they are getting ready to encounter.
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Brandon Moores, 18, always wanted to be a University of Florida Gator. But Moores decided to head to the University of Virginia because it provided him better options for a business degree with a finance or financial planning focus.
Moores, who's co-valedictorian, is hoping that the job market isn't as shaky when he graduates college in four years.
"I am a little bit concerned but I think I will be fine," Moores said. "But I can't mess around with all that money on the table."
This will be his first time away from home for any extended period.
"I'm little nervous about leaving all my friends and family," he said. "But this will be a good experience for me to see who I really am."
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Kirsten Bembnowski has been playing softball since she was 5 years old and it paid off. The centerfielder will attend Florida Gulf Coast University on a softball scholarship with the help of Bright Futures.
Bembnowski, 18, is not sure if she's fully prepared to leave the nest, but she's going to take her mother's advice: "When times get hard, you dig your feet in and just take it," she said.
For now, Bembnowski is focusing on getting a summer job to earn a little precollege cash. But she hasn't had much luck in the current job market, which has her questioning everything, especially if she's choosing the right major: English. She hopes it's something she will figure out in college.
"It's about being independent and I don't know if I'm fully prepared," she said. "I have a lot of work to do."
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When the school year started, Mason St. Martin had a 0.8 grade point average. Years before, skipping class was the norm. But when his senior year came around, he conducted a self-analysis and realized he had to change. He started going to class and studying. By the end of the school year, St. Martin, 18, had earned the turn-around student of the year honor.
"It feels great," he said of graduating from East Lake with a 2.25 GPA. "My mom is real proud. It's very important to get your diploma. A year ago, I was doubtful I was even getting one so I'm proud of it."
Not in the best financial shape, St. Martin plans to get a full-time job with the company his girlfriend's father owns. He will live at home and go to St. Petersburg College in the fall, perhaps pursuing an associate's degree in emergency management services.
He said he now understands the power of the word ''change.''
"It's always possible," he said. "If you have enough motivation to persevere, you can change no matter how hard it seems. In the end, it's going to be worth it."
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Larissa Pepe will be home while being away from home. Pepe will attend the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg campus, where she will study psychology. Pepe, 18, knows the area and it's a small campus, something she was looking for.
"I like being able to know everyone, like a family," she said. "I'm really excited."
Pepe said in college she will be honest with herself and try not to take shortcuts. "You might get ahead now, but it's going to catch up to you," she said.
Pepe is optimistic but nervous about the world her generation is inheriting.
"We have a lot of stuff we have to fix," Pepe said. "Things are not getting better. We assume other people are going to do it. But we are the ones who are going to have to fix it."
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Kettering University is going to be a different experience for Mark Wahnish. The winters will be bitter cold on the Flint, Mich., campus, but the school's stellar engineering program lured Wahnish.
"I've always been engineering minded as far back as I can remember," said Wahnish, 18. "I actually like the cold weather. It will be a different experience for me and I will be staying on campus."
Most think technical when they think of engineers, Wahnish said. And while he will pursue mechanical engineering, he said the only way to make change in the world is to care for others.
"Generally, most people you see are self-absorbed and into materialism," Wahnish said. "We are all guilty of it. But you can't change anything unless you are caring about people."
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Baseball has always been a part of Taylor Lesch's life. And that will be the case when the pitcher attends Florida Southern this fall. Lesch will learn to juggle being a college athlete where everyone is working to be stronger and faster. He said it can be a humbling experience.
"It's going to be a different environment but you have to find a place where you can fit in," Lesch, 17, said. "A lot of people are not themselves and you have to work to try and get a feel for people."
Lesch said he has learned to always weigh the positive and negative of a situation, then plan accordingly. He is optimistic about the future, though he said it's hard when you're surrounded by negativity.
"That's why it's important to find positive people to be around," Lesch said. "Again, you have to find a good fit with good people and that's not just in college, but in life."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4174.