"Being in lockdown has been tough but it's given me the drive to want something more."
These are the words of Brauer College year 12 student Takara Gorman, 17, who at the start of the year wasn't sure if she wanted to go to university.
She initially found the idea daunting but now has greater clarity, hoping to study psychology or social work next year.
"I want to have more schooling experiences that aren't just in my room doing online learning," Takara said. "If possible I'd like to study away from Warrnambool to gain even more new experiences with my friends."
This year's VCE students have learnt through the coronavirus pandemic's challenges and Takara said it had been more difficult and uncertain than last year "when we went into one big lockdown and basically stayed there".
The Woodford teen said she constantly felt swamped but wasn't sure if that was due to the changing conditions and lockdowns or "just the fact I'm in year 12".
"As soon as I get back into the groove of things - whether at home or at school - it suddenly switches up and I'm forced to change my routine yet again," she said. "This has definitely impacted my motivation for school this year and every day I just think about how I can't wait for it to be finished."
It's harder to understand content and ask questions while not at school which she said had left her feeling "extremely underprepared" for her exams and very nervous.
Takara said she had matured over the past two years and while the pandemic was unexpected, the students had adapted the best they could and it was all they knew.
"The last two years of high school are supposed to be the best," Takara said. "Sometimes I feel like that was robbed from me...VCE is really tough and it's unfair to be doing it at home, but having done both years with the pandemic, I don't know any different."
Takara's stronger as a result and the uncertainty meant she was more adaptable.
"I think after the pandemic I know how quickly things can change, and I'll be able to apply the mentality I have used during the lockdowns to get me through future hurdles I may face," she said.
"It's made me more hopeful for a time when I can go to uni and not have to worry about getting locked back down again, and I can just enjoy my life."
Port Fairy's Zoey Kuprynsky, 17, is an aspiring optometrist, and has had her heart set on her dream career since the start of the year.
She was confident that the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) she needed was achievable, regardless of the challenges COVID-19 posed. "I knew no matter the circumstances, I needed to put in the hard yards to get the results I wanted," Zoey said. "That meant I needed to put in 110 per cent, whether I was learning face-to-face or remote learning."
With family living up north, she looked at studying optometry or a Bachelor of Vision Science at the Queensland University of Technology but settled on Deakin University, Waurn Ponds, due to the uncertainty of future lockdowns.
"I've decided that Deakin University is the safest option, as it would be easier to move across Victoria rather than across the country, during these COVID-19 times," Zoey said.
She got used to remote learning this year and said it was "easier to handle than weeks on end like we had in 2020".
Zoey said studying VCE during a global pandemic had made her more flexible to changing circumstances "as now I can do it quickly and easily".
She's learned patience and persistence and has attempted to stay focused. "Hopefully these qualities will come in handy in my future years of study especially if we are still stuck in these conditions," she said. "Initially the idea of COVID-19 and its effects on physical, social and mental health did frighten me. The concept of locking down made me feel anxious. Yet I still gave online learning my all, what did I have to lose? From that I realised nothing is too hard if I put my all into it."
For Hana Price, 18, it's been "one of the hardest, most challenging years". The Mailors Flat teen said her plans for next year were less certain than at the beginning of the year and she was aiming to get an ATAR required to attend university.
The experience has brought Hana closer to her friends and she's realised how important they are, with social media connecting them and helping to reassure each other during lockdowns. All students interviewed commented on the importance of connection, with the support of family, friends and teachers helping keep their motivation up.
Hana said being plunged in and out of lockdown this year without warning and lockdowns forcing her study assessment dates to be pushed back had left her feeling unprepared. "Not only is it the most important year of my schooling life, but we're having to struggle through this important year with the devastating pandemic that is also surrounding us," she said.
"We're having to block out all of the devastation to study and keep up with our school work, but there's no way to keep the stress of the rest of the world from creeping in."
She said while the snap lockdowns had increased students' resilience "having done it many times before" the increased stress levels had taken their toll on young people's mental health. "It's made us both resilient and increased anxiety levels in many, many people," she said.
"Throughout one of the hardest, most challenging years of my life, I've had to adapt to constant changes in rules and regulations, as well as never really knowing when a lockdown will start or when it will end.
"It's led me to understand that change is okay, especially if it is for the better good."
At the start of the year Warrnambool's Olivia Brown, 18, planned to have a gap year after school to "earn some money and have fun". But COVID-19 limitations have fast-tracked her university plans and she hopes to move to Geelong with friends.
Olivia wants to study psychological science or criminology in 2022.
She said her VCE years had been extremely rough, and not at all what she expected. While "breakdowns are bound to happen" in year 12, the various lockdowns meant she couldn't find a routine and said it was very stressful.
"As a result of COVID-19, this year I've found myself more anxious," she said. "Anxiety is a very common feeling within year 12 anyway, except this year we're all constantly waiting and (prior to lockdown lifting) wondering when we'll be out of lockdown and if our exams are going to be pushed back.
"It's an added stressor, making it all a lot harder than it needs to be."
The experience has changed her. "I've grown to be resilient and know that I have to push through to reward myself at the end," she said. "I'm struggling with all the pressure of year 12 and (prior to lockdown being lifted) not being able to have that face-to -face learning and contact with people we all normally would. I think once year 12 finishes, I'll be more resilient and able to adapt to these crazy changes," Olivia said.
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