A trio of upcoming graduates reflect on their high school experiences and what graduation means to them

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For countless young people around the country high school graduation is a celebrated achievement and often one of the biggest milestones in their lives.

On Saturday, June 10, surrounded by mountains and teary-eyed family members in Warhorse Stadium, scores of Owen High School seniors will receive their diploma as they prepare to face the next chapter in their lives.

McKenzie Brewer, Mathew Brown and Laurel Zeigler are three of those soon-to-be graduates but they offer a diverse glimpse into what makes graduation meaningful for individual students.

On the grounds of the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly on May 30, Brewer and Brown received the Principal’s Award, which is given annually to two students who have been positive members of the school community and show promise for the future.

Brewer, who recently became a Certified Nursing Assistant through the program at Owen, was also recognized with the Most Improved Senior Award.

“They’re both pretty good,” she said of which award she was proudest to earn. But it’s the Principal’s Award that shows Brewer’s hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed.

While many students look at the final semester of high school as a time to kick back and enjoy their final weeks, Brewer didn’t become an award-winning student by taking it easy. After struggling as a freshman and sophomore, she committed to doing better.

She wanted to be a nurse like her mother, who passed away when she was 10.

“Graduation means everything to me,” Brewer said. “My mom was a CNA, and that’s part of what drove me to want to do the same thing.”

As a result of her rocky start to high school, Brewer had a lot of work to do - and she did it, according to Owen counselor Jennifer Abshire.

“She’s pushed and challenged herself academically in the classes she’s taken,” Abshire said.

Perhaps no point in Brewer’s high school career has that been more evident than her final semester, when she elected to take only honors classes and classes at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in an effort to boost her grade point average.

“My GPA isn’t high, but it’s high enough for me,” she said. “I took as many honors classes as I could take. and when there were honors classes I couldn’t take, I signed up for AB-Tech classes.”

Just as Brewer set the goal of becoming a CNA, she has set another goal for her future.

“I want to earn a bachelor’s or master’s (degree) in nursing so I can be a nurse practitioner,” she said.

Her work on those goals begins at Western Carolina University just a week and a half after graduation.

“I’m doing a summer program that’s kind of like an orientation program (in which) you can earn college credit,” she said. “It gives me a head start.”

Brewer will likely see Brown, her fellow Principal’s Award recipient, at WCU.

Many recognize Brown for his accomplishments on the basketball court during his two seasons with the Warhorses. He was one of three players on the team to reach the 1,000-point mark for his career.

The 6-foot-5 center was also a double-double machine.

In 37 of his 56 high school games, Brown scored in the double digits while also pulling down at least 10 rebounds. He accomplished the feat more than any other player in the state last year, recording a double-double in 27 of the 29 games he played.

Through it all, he constantly wore a smile on his face, prompting Owen principal Meg Turner to refer to him as a “gentle giant” when she presented him with Principal’s Award.

“My whole high school experience has been great,” Brown said. “I’ve enjoyed being here, and I’m definitely going to miss it.”

Brown plans to attend WCU, where he will will try to win a spot on the Catamounts basketball team.

“The grind doesn’t stop here,” he said of graduation. “I still have a lot of work to do.”

As he waits for his name to be called during graduation, Brown, a native of Black Mountain, will reflect on what graduation means to him.

“Graduation means a lot to me because I’m the last ‘Brown' boy who will graduate for awhile,” he said. “My two older brothers and two older cousins have all graduated from Owen.”

In addition to basketball Brown plans to pursue a business degree in Cullowhee.

Laurel Zeigler wants to be a veterinarian, specializing in exotic mammals, when she finishes college. She plans to study biology at UNC Chapel Hill. The Taverner Family Foundation Scholarship will help her do just that.

Zeigler was this year’s recipient of a $30,000 scholarship established in 2004 and awarded for the first time the following year.

"Laurel has a true love for learning," Abshire said "She was awarded the prestigious Girl Scout Gold Award and has been an active member of the marching band all through high school."

Zeigler, who has earned straight A's through most of her high school career, said graduation was "just another step in the road" in the days leading up to the event.

"I doubt I'll feel that way on Saturday," she said before the big day. "I'll probably get the chills in the heat. Who knows what I'll be thinking? It could be anything from 'please just stop talking so we can go,' to 'I'm not ready for this.'"

Read a story about Laurel Zeigler's Girl Scout Gold Award on Page 2A.

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