Mary Belay is ready to shut her laptop and get back into the classroom.
When she first made the decision to attend Highline two years ago, she didn’t expect to be spending more hours on Zoom than on campus. And adjusting to the new learning environment proved to be a challenge.
“It was definitely difficult to not have the in-person experience with my professors,” said Belay. “I tend to get distracted when I’m at home and class is being held on a computer screen, so I felt myself dreading class a lot more often. It took a lot more effort to be present and attentive in class when it was so much easier to just avoid it.”
Belay, who is 18, found Highline through Running Start, a dual-credit program that allows students who are in their last two years of high school to take certain college classes for free.
“I liked the idea of becoming accustomed to college work and structure, so attending Highline is something I immediately knew I wanted to do,” she said.
To Belay, Running Start stood out alongside other options her high school offered like the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, or the Puget Sound Skills Center. Two years later, she’s happy with her choice and said her time at Highline has helped her figure out what she wants to do with her life.
“I’ve learned a lot about what my career interests are, and since I never declared a major, I was able to take a variety of classes until I found what I liked best,” she said. “I’ve been able to take classes ranging from human sexuality and creative writing to sociology and statistics. Being able to try out all of these classes . . . helped me figure out what my strengths and weaknesses are, as well as what I enjoy learning about most.”
Throughout her time at Highline, Belay said, she has struggled with time management.
“It wasn’t until winter and spring of this year that I got a good routine down that helped me be productive,” she said. “There was a big transition that I had to make when it came to homework expectations in the classroom.”
One thing Highline offered her that high school didn’t was the opportunity to create her own schedule. That, Belay said, is something that prospective Highline students should keep in mind.
“Whether it’s online class, in-person class, 8 a.m. lectures, or evening labs, it’s important that you only take on as much as you can handle,” said Belay. “College can be a good or bad experience depending on what you make of it, and while it might take some experimenting to figure out what works best, you ultimately need to do what will set yourself up for success.”
On top of being a full-time student at Highline, Belay has also been deeply involved with several community groups. One of them is called the Highline Youth Race and Equity Coalition, or HYREC, for short. The organization is for students of color in the Highline School District and was started last year.
“HYREC has been advocating for more equitable policies to support youth [of color] throughout their academic career,” Belay said. “This has included a campaign for technology levy, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] student hiring committees, and even creating safe spaces for students to disclose their needs as underrepresented students in the district. I’ve really enjoyed my time in HYREC and being able to push for a better learning community.”
Belay is also part of a business program at the University of Washington called Young Executives of Color.
“In this program, I had monthly meetings with other students of color, in addition to the UW mentors and leaders,” she said. “During these sessions we participated in different business-oriented case competitions to learn more about the business world. It was an extremely competitive but exciting opportunity where I was able to learn more about the career path I wanted to pursue.”
Belay, a lifelong resident of the Seattle area, doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon. She recently committed to UW and has been directly admitted into the very competitive Foster School of Business, where she’ll start this fall.
“I’m really excited for what’s to come and all the new opportunities,” she said. “I’m planning to major in sociology and business with a concentration in marketing.”
For now, Belay is taking some time to celebrate her graduation, from both Highline and Mount Rainier High School.
“I’m super proud of myself for completing my degree despite all of the obstacles thrown my way,” she said. “It has been an extremely difficult and stressful couple years, but I’ve still managed to complete my credits and maintain a 3.9 GPA.”