When the calendar marked 2013, four students at a private religious school in Oklahoma City began their official countdown.
The exuberant quartet at Mercy School is set to become the Islamic school's first graduating class.
The historic class of 2013 includes Isra Cheema, 17, of Edmond; Jasmine Shafik, 17, of Oklahoma City; Areebah Anwar, 18, of Norman; and Zoha Qureshi, 17, of Oklahoma City.
The four said they started their senior year with excitement in August, but as the months went by, they began to feel a little sad.
Now, they said the next couple of months until their May graduation will be somewhat bittersweet.
"None of us want to leave," Qureshi said, smiling. "Graduation is probably going to be all of us crying. Our school is more of a family — everyone here is looking out for you."
Mercy School was opened by the Islamic Society of Oklahoma City in a small building at 3900 NW 39. Over the years, the school offered Islamic studies for young people in prekindergarten through 10th grade.
It wasn't until the school was relocated to a new $9 million complex at 14001 N Harvey in 2010 that a senior class was feasible, Islamic Society leaders said. Leaders said the new building allowed the school to serve more students. The smaller building's size was so limited that many students were placed on a waiting list. The 11th grade was added in 2011, and the 12th grade was added in 2012.
Imad Enchassi, the Islamic Society's president and imam, said the metro Muslim faith community has come a long way to get to the school's first graduating class.
"This has been a journey," he said.
"These girls are basically pioneers. They are trailblazing the way through for others."
Enchassi said Mercy School's first seniors and the school's faculty had to figure out what their next steps were in their studies and overall curriculum. Enchassi said that, in the past, older high school students such as his daughter were homeschooled and took online classes.
The school's first group of seniors said they started several extracurricular activities such as a newspaper and involvement in the Muslim Interscholastic Tournament (MIST) to help diversify their high school experience. The students said competing in subjects such as debate, science, math and Quran knowledge at MIST tournaments in Houston and Canada last year was particularly exciting, as they came back with 10 awards.
As for academics, each of the young women enrolled at a local junior college and has been taking concurrent college courses in addition to attending Mercy School. Shafik said each has between 40 and 50 hours of college credit.
The students said they initially were apprehensive about attending college as high schoolers, but they now think the experience has helped them gain confidence that will help them when they become full-time college students.
"We were really nervous in the beginning to kind of branch out, but we were all together," Anwar said.
This school year, the young women are not taking as many of their college classes together, but they said they communicate a lot through text messages. And they meet up at Mercy School for their high school classes.
Charting the course
Some of the seniors have younger siblings, and they realize the younger students look up to them.
"When we're here, it helps us realize that we are role models for the younger kids," Cheema said.
"We don't take this for granted," Shafik said.
She said she is thankful her parents were insistent that she attend Mercy School instead of transferring elsewhere or completing her high school career in another way.
"I don't know where I would be if I hadn't come to Mercy School," she said.
Qureshi's mother, Remeeza Qureshi, has taught the young women Islamic studies for two years. She said she is pleased with this first graduating class, particularly because the students have used their small class size to their benefit.
Buthiana Jwayyed, the school's vice principal, also is proud of the seniors.
"They are so inspiring. It's amazing to see their conviction — they want to learn," she said.
She said the seniors have let their Mercy School teachers know that they have been well prepared for college and the world beyond the four walls of the school. Plus, she said the young women are helping other students by giving them guidance and offering tutoring.
Another growth sign
Meanwhile, Enchassi, the Islamic Society's imam, said the society recently opened a community center called Mercy Youth Club or MY Club, for short, at the Mercy School complex.
The community center was part of the master plan for the complex, which sits on 20 acres north of the intersection of Harvey Avenue and Memorial Road. Enchassi said the society has hired a youth director for the center and it is open to non-Muslim individuals and community groups as well as those within the Muslim faith community.
Enchassi said the center's completion, like Mercy School's first graduating class, is another sign of the Muslim faith's community's metro-area growth.
"It's fascinating," he said.