AlumnaeApr 26, 2021

updated Apr 26, 2021

Forging Her Own Path through the Pandemic

Former School President, Ayla Wallace ’20, reflects on her senior year, the lessons she learned, and life after MHS.

By Sam ’22, with assistance from Liz Kulze, MHS English Language Teacher & Student Communications Coordinator

No high school senior expects her long-anticipated graduation festivities and college plans to be interrupted by a global pandemic and a nationwide reckoning with racial injustice. As Ayla Wallace ’20, former School President and Pickett Scholar, shared in a recent conversation, however, this challenging period also offered unexpected blessings, including time for deep reflection and opportunities to affect change.

Ayla recently sat down with Sam ’22, a Horizons intern in the School’s Marketing and Communications Office. She also reflected on how her time at Miss Hall’s helped to prepare her to make the most of her post-graduate experience, such as having the courage to forge her own path, understanding the value of community, and focusing on what she can control, such as using her voice and standing up for issues that matter.

Below are highlights from Sam and Ayla’s conversation:

On the work she’s doing now:

I am a Massachusetts Promise Fellow with AmeriCorps, serving at Enroot in Boston. We do after-school programming for immigrant students, working with a lot of students who are learning English, and we practice life skills and help them prepare for college. We also help if they want to go straight into the workforce, and we talk about social issues.

I'm really loving working with young people. I felt like my support system at Miss Hall’s was really strong, and it's what got me through a lot of tough times in my life, so I wanted to be that for other young people. I also had previously interned at the Berkshire Immigrant Center during my junior year for Horizons, and that was a space that I really, really loved. It exposed me to the whole world of immigration, and it was something that I knew I wanted to do outside of school. When I got this opportunity to do two things I love, which are working with young people and working in immigration, in service, I had to hop on it.

On how the pandemic shaped her post-MHS plans and forced her to forge her own path:

I was originally planning on deferring college for a year, then I decided to take a gap year. I feel like there's this mentality that after high school, especially if you’re at a prep school, an all-girls prep school like Miss Hall’s, that it’s time to move on to the next big thing, but that’s not always the case. You can create your own path, because not everyone is the same, not everyone has the same goals, and not everyone has the same perspective on how they want their life to go chronologically. Taking a gap-year was what I thought was best for me to navigate this next year, because a lot of us didn't know what was going to happen. I really wanted to be able to have control over what I was doing.

On how the rise of COVID-19 and the social justice issues of 2020 impacted her senior year:

The start of senior year was an amazing time in my life and my career at Miss Hall’s. It's something that we all look forward to, so I'm really grateful that we got to have a little bit of that normalcy, but when COVID hit, I think we were all in shock, not knowing what was going to happen.

We learned a lot about the world and each other. We learned how to look at each other as humans. It was a great opportunity to reframe, to think about how we want to move forward as people. When you’re a senior, all you’re thinking about is college and your Commencement dress and flowers, and all of that is fun and fine to be thinking about, but for my class, we were forced to think about broader issues, obviously, with the death of George Floyd and the state of the country, not only physical health-wise, but mental health-wise. During the time of isolation, I really appreciated having my classmates and being able to create spaces where we could have conversations about these issues and be vulnerable.

That was also the first time that I saw young people at the forefront of these movements for change. It was amazing to hear and see young people say, “Okay, we're not going to allow this. This is not going to be our future. This is not going to be our children's future. Enough is enough.” It was people my age — and your age — that led this charge and are still leading it, and it's sad that it had to take all of this for it to happen, but I'm really grateful and inspired by the work that young people have been doing during the last nine to twelve months.

On the importance of connection and being in community, one of the great lessons of the pandemic, which she first learned at Miss Hall’s:

Something about Miss Hall’s that I loved from the get-go was that I was friends with seniors my freshman year, and that I had friends who were totally different from me, who were from opposite parts of the world, from totally different upbringings, and it didn’t matter. You can find connection with anyone, and during this time we've had to learn how to do that, but at Miss Hall’s, as a community, we've been doing that work for a long time.

On how her experience at Miss Hall’s helped her learn the value of letting go and focusing on what you can control:

There are things that you can control, and things that you can't control, and that's another lesson that I learned at Miss Hall’s. It wasn't necessarily from a lecture or class but more of an experiential thing.

I learned that there are things that we never thought we could control but that we can control by using our voices, by doing research, and by participating in clubs, and we can have a real impact in that way. There are also things that are out of our hands. My senior class had no control over the coronavirus and what was happening at the time. Control comes from wanting to know the future and wanting to know everything about what's happening, but that was a time that taught us it's okay not to know everything.

I think as a woman or female-identifying person, you're expected to be on top of your game, or else you won't be taken seriously. And, you add intersectionality to that — like being a black female or being a female of color or BIPOC or being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community — and those layers add even more pressure to be perfect and that you know everything, but the pandemic shot through all that. We had to be okay saying, “I don't have control over this. I don't know what's going to happen, and that's okay. But, the things that I do have control over, like using my voice, standing up for what I believe is right, donating, or doing this activism or volunteer work, that's what I have control over, that's what I can do.”

I recently learned that you got the Pickett Scholarship as a junior. What has receiving that scholarship meant to you?

My Big Sister my freshman year at Miss Hall’s was Jayme McGuigan ’18. She became School President, and she received the Pickett Scholarship. Someone else I looked up to was Nikky “Cely” Abreu ’19. She was also School President, and she also received the Pickett Scholarship. People I really looked up to during my time at Miss Hall’s received this award, people who I was in awe of and really respected. For me to receive this award, it was a cool moment because I remember thinking, “I want to be as awesome as Jayme is. I want to be as awesome as Cely is.” When I received the award, I was like, “Okay, you can be as awesome as you are.” It was a really special moment, and I'm grateful I had that opportunity.

I really respected the character of the people who had received the award. They had superb character and they cared about people and had a love for the School. Just to see yourself grow into those into the things that you admired in your freshman and sophomore years and see yourself become valued for those things is really great.