They’re all different. They come from different backgrounds and home lives. They attend different schools and live in different towns. They have different plans for their futures: college, work, gap years.
The one thing they all have in common is the milestone they’re reaching: high school graduation. In one way or another, they’re all at that crossroads marking the divide between youth and some version of adulthood.
In Rochester alone, there are about 1,400 graduating seniors headed off to the next phase of their lives. There are hundreds more just miles away in smaller communities including Byron, Stewartville, and Dover-Eyota. These are the stories of five of them.
Abe Gauthier: A citizen of the world
Abe Gauthier has been to a lot of places, and there are a lot of places he has yet to see. The one place he might never arrive at, though, is "home."
But, he’s alright with that.
Born to missionary parents in Honduras, he went on to live in both Kenya and the United States before the family moved to Haiti for four years when he was 9. Whether he realized it at the time or not, his time spent overseas with his family would provide the foundation for his own future plans.
“I never found it hard to move around,” the Mayo High School senior said. “I don’t have a home -- a place that I call home, exactly. Ultimately, I just want to travel the world and see all of God’s creation.”
While in Haiti, he lived with his family just outside the northeast town of Fort Liberte. It's seated on the coast of Fort Liberte Bay. He’d drive his two younger sisters around town on a small moped. He learned French in school and Creole in the streets.
While in Haiti, his parents worked in community development, helping the community learn how to build earthquake-resistant housing and install solar panels, among other projects.
He stood out at times. Other kids from the community would want to touch his hair. He'd play with the Haitian children as well as the other missionary kids.
"Everybody loves Abraham," his mother Kara said.
About six years ago, the family returned to Rochester. At the time, Abe was excited to be back. But he would soon return to the Caribbean nations, even if only for a short while.
For three summers after he returned to the states, he went on short-term mission trips to the Dominican Republic, the nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Over the course of 10 days, he and the others on the trip would build a church. He’d use the Creole he learned to speak in Haiti to help translate for the rest of the group.
Now that he's graduating, Abe plans to take a gap year. He's planning to travel to West Africa to do community development just as he watched his parents do for so many years. After that, he wants to go to college for global leadership and intercultural studies.
"It gives me excitement to be able to go to all these different places and experience all these different things," he said.
Brynn Fritsche: Using her challenges to help others
Brynn is in a much healthier place than she used to be. Haunted by abuse and mental health issues and trouble in school, she found herself in a state of self-harm before finding a way to cope and even heal.
In turn, she's getting ready to help others who are going through their own struggles. After graduation, she plans to attend RCTC to begin to pursue a degree in child psychology.
"Everything that has gone on in my life has really pushed me forward to want to help other kids," Brynn said.
When she was 8, her younger brother, Logan, was born with severe health needs. To this day, he isn’t able to feed or clothe himself. He requires the constant care of their mother, Amber. Brynn has had a tumultuous relationship with her father. With all those factors at play, things began to unravel for her.
“It was an extremely hard time for all of us,” the Kasson-Mantorville senior said.
She began harming herself. During the same year, she was molested by an older boy over the course of multiple months. When a version of the scenario started spreading throughout school, she was shamed for it.
She was admitted to Mayo Clinic’s Generose building for mental health treatment. She stayed there for eight days. Later, she would return to Generose for a shorter stay.
In spite of everything stacked against her, somewhere along the way Brynn began to heal. She's put in a lot of work to get to the point where she is now. But that healing process began with a realization.
"I had just been miserable for years and years and years," she said. "Until one day, randomly, I just realized I'm not going to get better unless I want to get better."
Brynn is one of the recipients of the OAKS scholarship at RCTC. OAKS stands for Overcoming Adversity, Keeping Strong. It is for students who have overcome the odds and found success. Shelly Bielen, a counselor at Kasson-Mantorville High School, wrote Brynn a letter of recommendation for the scholarship. That letter talks about the change Bielen saw in Brynn’s life.
The letter describes a fistfight during the first month of her freshman year and the suspension that resulted from it. It describes failing grades, five failed classes, and a PTSD diagnosis.
“If I were to make predictions off of Brynn’s freshman year (grades, attitude, and attendance), I would’ve said that there would be a slim chance that Brynn would graduate on time,” Bielen wrote in the recommendation letter. “Brynn is a perfect example of a student who has overcome adversity while staying strong. She has never given up, even though she could have.”
Quonnell Greene: Growing up on the court
Quonnell didn’t like basketball as a child. But whenever his mother would shoo him and his older brother out of the house, they’d inevitably land at the basketball court. He learned a lot about the game from his older brother. He’s stolen some of his best moves from him, he sheepishly admits.
Today, basketball is a release for Quonnell. It's the place he goes to get rid of stress.
A mentor of his on the court has been Teddy Collins, who runs the organization T&K Tournament.
“He’s basically like a father figure for every basketball player that comes here,” Quonnell said. “He supports everyone who goes in there and plays.”
Now a senior at Century High School, Quonnell was on the basketball court at the Boys and Girls Club in southeast Rochester one recent weeknight. He was listening to music through large, bulky headphones as he chased the ball back and forth across the court.
The sound of sneakers squeaking on the hardwood floor echoed throughout the room as a dozen or so young men jockeyed for control of the court. Sharing the gym with other activities meant that sometimes another basketball, or even a soccer ball, came bouncing through and upset the action.
But whenever someone made a particularly impressive shot, the cheering would start.
“He’s on fire!” Quonnell yelled about his friend at one point.
Originally from Chicago, he moved to Rochester with his mother and siblings when he was about 6. Quonnell now is trying to find a landscaping job. Unlike many of his fellow seniors, he plans to attend Rochester Public Schools' Alternative Learning Center to finish up some coursework.
In the long term, he likes the idea of going into the medical field.
Regardless of where Quonnell ends up in the future, Collins is convinced that basketball is what helped the teen make it as far as he has so far. Collins says he uses his basketball program to give young men an alternative to the street. Without the Boys and Girls Club, and without the basketball tournament, Collins thinks Quonnell would have ended up in a lot darker place.
"It gave him some structure," Collins said. "He is trying to be around some positive people. I love those kids because those kids are going to be the ones to change the community ... he has earned everything he's got."
Abby Speltz: Independent from the word 'go'
Abby has had a lot on her plate. She was a manager for the cross country team in Dover-Eyota for five years. She was a peer counselor for three years. This year, she was named the top member of FFA. She’s been a nanny for three children. She also helped develop an LGBT-focused group in her school.
“If it’s something I’m passionate about and something I really want to do, I always put 110% into what I’m doing,” Abby said.
Managing everything has been a challenge at times. Around the time she was 11, she was diagnosed with diabetes. Managing her symptoms sometimes meant working around class schedules. There would be times where she would have to miss entire class periods because of it.
“I would do presentations after school sometimes. Or, I’d just go the next day,” she said. “It was definitely a big impact on how I went about going to school.”
About the time she was diagnosed, her parents were going through a divorce. Abby and her siblings would split their time between their parents' homes.
According to her mother, Naomi James, Abby was determined to take control of the situation right from the onset. Although it forced her schedule to bend from time to time, she ultimately managed to handle it the same way she had resolved to handle any of her projects: with decisiveness.
"From day one when we left the hospital, she was like 'I want to do everything myself,'" Naomi said. "We wanted to help and she was like, 'nope, I got this. This is my life and I have to be able to do it.'"
As independent as she is, her family is also an important part of life. She plans to go to Winona State to major in middle school education, allowing her to stay within a commutable distance of home.
She's known she wanted to be a middle school teacher for quite a while. She was helping other students in math class even when she was taking the class herself. She briefly had a more formal taste of the career when she shadowed a middle school teacher in Plainview.
"I think I worry about her more than she worries about her," her mother said. "She's just cool and calm and collected and has it all under control."
Muna Mohammed: Learning a whole new life
Muna Mohammed has probably learned more in the last four years of high school than most of her peers. Along with her mother and siblings, she moved to the United States in 2017 from Turkey.
At the time, she didn't know any English. She carried a card imprinted with a phone number and address in case of emergencies.
"We had to adjust pretty fast," she said.
She enrolled in English-language classes and started building her vocabulary little by little. Muna likened it to being in kindergarten. She credits Century High School teacher Natalia Benjamin as her "big supporter."
Today, English is just the latest in the list of languages she speaks: English, Turkish, Arabic and Somali.
Once she graduates from Century High School, she plans to attend the University of Minnesota Rochester to study medicine.
Even though Muna grew up in Turkey, her family is from Somalia. Her mother moved the family to Turkey as refugees seeking a better life than the volatile area they had come from.
Even though there's a sizable Somali population in Rochester, moving here required an adjustment for Muna. Her mom is Somali, and Muna speaks the language, but she often she finds herself thinking and doing things the way they would in Turkey.
"Every year, I have new things I'm learning about being here," Mohammed said.