If it wasn't for the COVID lockdown in the middle of the year, the Port's HSC students would have graduated by now, completed their final examinations and be enjoying some well earned time off. At least an extra month of learning and exam study was added to the 2021 Year 12 cohort's final year of high school, but the end is finally in sight.
There is little doubt the HSC class of 2021 has had it tough with COVID lockdowns and restrictions, home schooling, study interruptions and the uncertainty of whether or not the exams would even go ahead.
But for at least four Year 12 students from St Philips Christian College at Salamander Bay, the challenges have not all been bad news, despite the cancellation of HSC trials.
The students - Kalia Chadwick, 17, Riley Davis, 18, Kobe Le Grange, 17 and Luke Wright, 17 - had completed their English, history and maths papers when the Examiner talked to them on Monday.
Kalia admitted that she had struggled as a result of the initial lockdown, adding that "2020's experience had made this year's easier to handle".
"Nevertheless it has been difficult ... at one stage I had lost my motivation to study at home. It didn't help that we had to miss out on things like school camps and presentations."
Kalia, who hopes to take a gap year before returning to university to study nursing (paediatric) or early education, believed she had done okay in her first three papers.
Riley said he had also found it difficult to remain disciplined following the initial outbreak before settling on a routine that involved getting up early and taking time to go beach swimming to clear his head.
"I was a little worried sitting a three-hour exam for the first time and missing out on the trials, but overall I think I have done alright so far, although the English short answer questions were tricky."
While Riley hopes to join the Navy as a maritime warfare officer, Luke - who has a fascination with drones - has already been accepted in the Army as a surveillance aircraft operator.
"Yes it has been a little rough on our year but I decided early on just to get on with it."
For Kobe, listening to teaching staff helped him remain focussed during lockdowns.
"We have had to miss out on a few things but the work had to be done, lockdown or no lockdown."
Kobe said he was undecided about whether to pursue a career in psychology or architecture.
For Irrawang High School leaders Caity Ping and Ellie Martin, both 18, they finally see a light at the end of the tunnel after an incredibly long year.
Had the state not been plunged into a lockdown earlier this year, learning not interrupted and the HSC exams delayed by four weeks, the pair along with their fellow year 12 cohort would have finished their high school studies by now, graduated and enjoyed their end of year celebrations, like the formal.
"It's been really hard to stay motivated, especially when the end goal - graduation and the end of exams - kept getting pushed back," Miss Martin, vice captain for the Raymond Terrace school, said.
"We've been constantly interrupted in our year 11 and 12 exams. During the lockdown this year, my motivation went downhill. You really had to force yourself to stay focused."
Miss Martin had four exams left and Miss Ping two when the Examiner caught up with them on Monday.
The pair had finished their math exams on Monday, which they both said had been the hardest subject to study while undertaking learning from home.
The school leaders were relieved, however, to learn that they have been accepted early into university - taking the pressure off them in the examinations. Both said they were still striving towards the best marks and ATAR possible, but they did not have fears about university acceptance looming over them while undertaking their exams.
Miss Ping, a young Worimi woman from Raymond Terrace, has been accepted into the University of Newcastle for a Bachelor of Secondary Education. The 18-year-old comes from a family of teachers - both parents, her grandparents and most aunts and uncles are educators.
"I've always known I wanted to be a teacher," she said.
Miss Ping's university studies will be bolstered by $50,000 through the Ma & Morley Scholarship Program. She nabbed one of only three scholarship available to new Indigenous students.
Involvement in the program will provide leadership and advocacy development opportunities, something Miss Ping is passionate about, particularly as a light-skinned Aboriginal woman.
Miss Martin, from Raymond Terrace, was accepted into Charles Sturt University's Port Macquarie campus where she will undertake a Bachelor of Paramedicine.
Like Miss Ping, Miss Martin has undertaken her HSC studies knowing what she wants to do after school. She said early acceptance into university "takes the pressure off" an already stressful year.
"The HSC is a lot of pressure because there's so many expectations on you to do well in school, in exams, to figure out what you want to do next," she said. "Your parents and teachers have expectations, but it's also the expectations you put on yourself. I'm going to be really glad when exams are over. I'm excited for what's to come."
Miss Ping added: "I am ready to finish high school and start the next chapter."
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