Like all members of the class of 2020, Derrick Aikens of Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., has completed his senior year amid the COVID-19 pandemic that left sickness, death and a severe economic downturn in its wake, along with causing schools to close their campuses and transition to online learning following local government restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s hard to stay joyful through such a terrible moment in America right now,” Aikens said. “I try to focus on the positive things like graduating from high school and enrolling into Catholic University.”

But in an interview, Aikens expressed hope in his future. The 18-year-old Washington, D.C., native is undecided about what major he will pursue at The Catholic University of America, perhaps architecture or mechanical engineering, but he said after graduating from college, he would like to help create affordable housing in the D.C. area.

“I have a duty, an obligation to the city, to give back to the community that has given so much to me,” Aikens said.

That mindset has been fostered by the ethics and social justice classes he has taken at Gonzaga, by the community service he has done as a student there and earlier while attending the Washington Jesuit Academy, and also by witnessing the poverty in the nation’s capital, he said.

“Just all the homeless people I’ve seen every day every day of my life, walking to school from the Metro, it motivated me to be successful and not to be in that position, but it also motivated me to give back to the community,” Aikens said.

Aikens noted how his religion teacher, Katherine Murphy, took students to see the affordable housing across the street from the high school, and taught her classes about the importance of working for justice and serving those in need. Her class in ethics and social justice was his favorite during his years there, he said.

Gonzaga, a Jesuit high school for young men, encourages its students and graduates to be “Men for Others.” Aikens volunteered in the school’s Campus Kitchen program during his years at Gonzaga.

“I started freshman year. I was one of the shy kids,” Aikens said. “I’ve cooked meals and delivered meals to Sibley Plaza and the Golden Rule Apartments.” While delivering the meals, he got to meet some of the residents. “They’re all normal people like we are, (but they’re) struggling,” he said.

As a junior he received the school’s Mother Teresa Award for outstanding service. “I was honored to receive an award named after her,” Aikens said.

During his years at Gonzaga, Aikens’ favorite classes also included math.

“Math has always been one of my favorite subjects, and my teachers made me love it more,” he said.

Aikens’ Jesuit education with its rigorous academics and emphasis on serving others began at the Washington Jesuit Academy, which he attended from the fifth through the eighth grade.

“It’s where it all started. Working with them, with all the great people in that school really helped me develop as a man, as an athlete and as a student,” said Aikens, who during his years there joined fellow students in visiting senior citizens at the nearby Carroll Manor nursing home.

Aikens, who was raised Baptist, is the son of Erica Stannard and Derrick Aikens. He praised his mom for “always encouraging me, never goes a day without (her) saying she loves me, cares for me and is proud of me,” and he said his father “is there for me.”

During the coronavirus shutdown, Aikens stayed busy with his schoolwork, and also working at Annie’s Ace Hardware in Washington’s Brookland neighborhood.

Aikens, who plans to play football at Catholic University, said he learned lessons in working hard as he competed in football at the school.

“I’ve always been a hard worker,” he said, adding that playing football for the Eagles helped me take that work ethic “to the next level.”

He played linebacker for three years there, and fullback as a senior, when he gained first team all conference honors. A special highlight was playing on Gonzaga’s 2018 team, when the Eagles won the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference football championship in amazing comeback fashion, defeating DeMatha Catholic High School, 46-43, on a 53-yard “Hail Mary” pass from quarterback Caleb Williams to receiver John Marshall with only seconds remaining in the game.

Gonzaga had taken its first lead of the 48-minute contest when Williams threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Sam Sweeney with 29 seconds left, giving the Eagles a 40-36 lead after the point-after kick.

But then on the kickoff that followed, DeMatha’s Dominic Logan-Nealy raced 77 yards down the sideline for a touchdown, with the Stags regaining the lead, 43-40. Then Gonzaga had one last chance, and after Williams completed a 12-year sideline pass, he threw the Hail Mary pass that won it for the Eagles.

David Steinbacher, the Catholic Standard’s sports writer, chronicled that moment, writing, “Gonzaga's John Marshall went high up into the air to pull in Williams’ amazing throw and the Eagles’ celebration was on.” In the last 30 seconds, the lead changed hands four times, with DeMatha’s game-long lead going to Gonzaga, then back to DeMatha, then back to Gonzaga, which won the game on the dramatic pass and catch, causing hundreds of exuberant Eagles’ fans to storm the field.

For Aikens, “The end of the game was my favorite moment, (it was) the first time I ever cried out of joy in my life. And just receiving so much love from my brothers was just amazing. And also knowing I was part of an amazing run to put my school at the top of the conference. All the work we put in had finally paid off. We won not only for the 2018 football team, but for the football teams who came before us as well.”

While at Gonzaga, Aikens also participated in the Onyx Club, a Black Student Union at the school.

“We have a lot of discussions about different race issues in the world today,” said Aikens. He said it filled him with joy to be with other young African American students at Gonzaga who shared a commitment to do “everything they possibly can to lift their community.”

As a student, volunteer and football player, Aikens left an impact on Gonzaga College High School, said Devon Leary, the school’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Derrick really is one of Gonzaga's finest young men,” Leary said, “He is a leader on our campus and a great example of what it means to be a Gonzaga man. Derrick is a proud D.C. native that has seen struggle, so he passionately lives out the mission and values of Gonzaga. No matter how busy he gets with school, football, and his job, he rarely misses an opportunity to serve the poor. He is open to growth, intellectually competent, loving, religious and committed to doing justice.”

For Aikens, his classroom, extracurricular and volunteer experiences at Gonzaga shaped his life’s purpose, “to give back.”

“That’s what I’ve always been living my life for,” he said.