20: Percentage of valedictorians who said technology is making it harder for them to truly connect with others
73: Percentage of valedictorians who say they expect to have a higher standard of living than their parents
63: Percentage of valedictorians who say they have confidence in the nation's future and their security.
Source: Times Free Press survey
The class of 2013 carries a notable distinction: This is the first all-21st century class to graduate.
Born in 1995, they began kindergarten at the turn of the century in 2000, and are the first students to complete grades first through 12th in this millennium. Having grown up with daily doses of digital technology, their style of learning reflects their comfort factor with that method.
"We Google everything for research. We use iPads in class," says Nakia Skelton, Tyner Academy valedictorian. "I used my iPad to make flash cards for my anatomy class to learn body parts.
"For people who aren't strong learners by reading, they can get information read to them on the Internet," adds the Tyner grad, who plans to be a radiologist.
Cameron Gonzalez is one of two valedictorians at Silverdale Baptist Academy, where students' iPads are synced to interactive SMART Boards in classrooms.
"SMART Boards work really well in math because you can write all kinds of equations, and it will draw different shapes for you," he says. "The iPad is helpful for taking notes. A lot of people type faster than they write, so it's easier to take notes and keep it organized. We don't use books for research unless it's school textbooks. We usually email homework assignments to our teachers and just print out hard copies for big papers."
But such intimate familiarity with technology also has its drawbacks, including a decreasing ability to connect with actual human beings.
The Times Free Press surveyed valedictorians representing the 85 high schools within the paper's circulation area. When asked to name the biggest issue now facing their generation, one-fifth of the respondents said the detrimental effect of technology on interpersonal skills. The increasing reliance on iPads, tablets and smartphones is resulting in the decline of face-to-face communication, they said.
Another fifth of the students who responded said apathy and complacency are the top challenges, but many also linked that to technology, explaining that the growing reliance on technology and its ease of use is leading to a complacent generation.
Gonzalez compares texting to "almost a fake wall" between a message's sender and recipient.
"You aren't actually having to interact, so some think it's a little easier to have a serious conversation because they aren't going to have to see the reaction of that person. People are losing that sense of looking someone in the eye, the importance of 'conversations,'" says the teen.
Rance Harden, valedictorian of Boyd Buchanan School, notes that his generation is suffering from "the declining ability to communicate."
"In a technologically fueled society, people are turning to texting, emails and chat rooms," he says. "This has begun to create issues when it comes to face-to-face interactions. People feel lost and uncomfortable in these settings and avoid them whenever possible."
Cicely McCoy, Hixson High School valedictorian, says, "I wish that people would take a step back and realize there is much more to life beyond the glowing of a screen,"
Monica Justo, Girls Preparatory School valedictorian, contrasts the social phenomena of constant contact through Facebook with losing "the virtue of just spending time with one another, face to face."
"I feel this rapidity in advancement has given birth to an instant gratification generation ... This will only hurt us as we easily give up when times get tough," she says.
When Christian Patterson, valedictorian of East Ridge High School, looks around, he becomes worried by a growing sense of apathy in his peers.
"Our generation seeks drugs, technology and other modern outlets to help us forget about our problems," he says. "I see a lack of drive and innovation that is needed to put us back on our feet."
Yet, even while citing these challenges facing their future, the class of 2013 remains optimistic. About 73 percent responding to the survey say they expect to have a higher standard of living than their parents.
And, even though these students have never known a school year without war -- 9/11 occurred in the fall of their first-grade year -- 63 percent are confident in the future of the U.S. and the country's ability to keep them safe.
"Our generation has immeasurable potential," says Gonzalez. "If we rise to our full potential and don't let anyone or anything hold us back, we can do incredible things -- both individually and as a generation."
Contact staff writer Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.