RICHTON PARK, Ill. (CBS) — Senior year was shot for students at Southland College Prep in Richton Park – replaced with remote learning, virtual meetups, and scrapped sports.

We’ve shared a lot of life-changing struggles and defeats during the coronavirus pandemic. But on Wednesday, CBS 2’s Jermont Terry learned about a group of seniors – we’re talking about teenagers – beat back in big ways.

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On picture day at Southland College Prep Wednesday, at 4601 Sauk Trail in Richton Park, the top scholars of the senior class of 2021 gathered in the rotunda for their first time together the entire year because of the pandemic.

“I keep forgetting that, like, I’m a senior and that we’re graduating this year, because it just feels so different,” said Nyah Ware.

Ware is the valedictorian, and you’ll find her up front in the class picture. If her GPA doesn’t shock you – it’s a 4.8 – maybe the value of the merit scholarships she has been awarded will raise a brow.

It totals $1.6 million.

Brennan Syas is right behind, with $1.3 million in scholarships.

Despite e-learning, the entire senior class raked in $50 million in combined merit scholarships – and check out the colleges and universities where they’re headed.

Syas is headed to Indiana University for information technology.

“I want to be able to affect other people’s lives in a positive way through technology,” he said.

Meanwhile, after a year and a half of learning on computers, Ware turned down several elite offers.

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“I got accepted into Yale early, Columbia, MIT, Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan,” she said.

Ware is instead headed out west to Stanford. But she credits the tough curriculum of the south suburban charter school for making it possible.

“From the top to the bottom, everyone sort of leaves with a little bit of that grit, and just being able to look at challenges and just get through them,” she said.

“I feel great – especially with the tools they’ve given me to succeed,” added Syas.

And while the seniors are the ones getting all the accolades, the faculty and staff at Southland are gleaming with pride.

“I think about the community before we existed. It’s nothing the community doesn’t deserve, because they do. The children deserve it. All children do,” said Southland College Prep Chief Executive Officer Dr. Blondean Davis. “So we’re not doing anything special. We’re doing what education – public education – should do for children as a whole.”

And to students trying to fit in, these seniors offered a few words.

“Don’t be scared to excel,” Syas said.

“It’s not about how smart you are or how hardworking you are,” Ware added. “It’s passion combined with perseverance.”

There are a total of 139 seniors at Southland Prep, and each and every one of them will attend a college or university in the fall.

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They will have a graduation in a few weeks, but in groups of 12 due to social distancing – so there will be multiple ceremonies to give them all the accolades they deserve.