Rise Together: Utah's students come together to uplift Class of 2020 during pandemic's surge

(Rise Together, YouTube)

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SALT LAKE CITY — After three weeks of meetings, group texts and virtual discussion about the format of the statewide project, the video was finally set to be unveiled.

Taylorsville student body president Marc Lopez sat down in front of his school-issued laptop, and stared into his webcam. He typed two words, and then spoke from the heart.

"Dear Utah," he says at the beginning of a 5-minute, 34-second video that travels the Beehive State. "What a time to be alive. Who knew we’d be caught in the midst of a global crisis?"

The camera shifts from president to president, including to Bountiful president Andrew Hyde, who continues on with the roller coaster past month and response to the coronavirus pandemic that has disrupted the senior year of the Class of 2020, from athletics to academics to upcoming proms and even graduations.

It’s been a tough month for these seniors. But they wanted to take back control of what has, for many, been uncontrollable.

"Our goal is to unify all of Utah," Hyde told KSL.com. "We hadn’t come together as every school, and in a worldwide pandemic, we needed something bigger. That’s why we made that video: to unite more than our schools, and to show that we’re all going through the same thing."

And thus begins the video, taking viewers on a virtual tour of Utah — from Dixie, Snow Canyon and Desert Hills in Washington County to the northernmost areas of the state in Cache Valley Sky View, Logan, Ridgeline and others in Cache Valley. More than 100 student body presidents from schools around the state read the same message, indifferent of race, gender, ethnicity, social status or economic upbringing.

There are 6A schools like Bingham and Skyridge, mid-tier 5A schools like East and Salem Hills, and even rural 1A schools like Panguitch, all represented with the same banner. It’s a two-word phrase: Rise Together.

And it’s what this band of student leadership urges from its classmates.

"We wanted to involve as much of Utah as we could," said Salem Hills student body president Larson Brown, who helped spearhead the movement, though he gave credit to Taylorsville’s Lopez, Viewmont’s Gabe Robbins and East’s Nele Kafusi for many of the technical and organization skills. "We’ve had an amazing response to the video, people sharing it and sharing the message, which is just as important. People are excited to move forward with the idea of finding a way to do something positive with the situation that we’re in."

Since it was posted Monday afternoon, the video has garnered more than 7,000 views on YouTube. An accompanying Instagram account has more than 1,500 followers.

Students plan to use that account, @RiseTogetherUtah, to inspire challenges to give service and show kindness in their individual communities. While all classroom instruction has been shut down across the state, there’s still learning to be had.

And, perhaps just as importantly, social opportunities to be undertaken. Which is why each region — like the ones used in football, basketball and baseball, whose season was canceled Tuesday by the Utah High School Activities Association in conjunction with the governor's dismissal of classroom time for the remainder of the school year — will be assigned a day to take over the Instagram account. On any given Monday, Wednesday or Friday through the end of the school year, a new challenge will be issued. Or a video, a podcast or something to inspire students across Utah to get up and do.

"Lots of schools have tried to keep students involved and happy," said Hyde, who stressed this new project isn’t an attempt to undermine individual schools and districts. "We’re unifying our efforts together, to see if we can make something happen as a state and a school."

And with the governor extending the school’s soft closure through the end of the year, these student leaders know their peers will have more time on their hands — time to reach toward, help out and lift up those around them.

"It’s almost fortuitous timing," said Brown, who admitted to being initially shocked and disappointed by the abrupt end to his senior year. "We’re excited for the opportunity this will bring. Change can be hard, but it’s the way you embrace that change that helps you adapt and live a better life.

"I’m excited to look forward and see how people handle this."

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