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‘A lot of my goals just had to disappear’: College-bound students grapple with the future amid coronavirus

Melody Hahm
West Coast Correspondent

Grace Chun, 17, was looking forward to an epic graduation trip to South Korea this summer, a treat before heading off to UC San Diego in September. She and her sister, who is graduating from college this year, were looking at plane tickets and sketching out an itinerary when the coronavirus pandemic suddenly hit.

“We’re all four years apart, and my family was supposed to have three graduations — my brother is graduating from 8th grade and entering high school, I’m graduating from high school, my sister from college,” said Chun, who lives in Torrance, California. The ceremonies have either been canceled or postponed indefinitely.

As high school seniors scramble to pivot summer plans, they are also trying to figure out what their fall semesters will look like. Many have even debated taking time off as institutions figure out how campuses will fully reopen over the next few months as the pandemic continues to push out any return to normalcy. 

Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, said it’s unlikely the 10 campuses in her purview will fully reopen by the fall. Many universities are refraining from guaranteeing a full return to campus; schools like University of Chicago and Cornell are unlikely to make a decision until June. Princeton will decide in early July, but faculty are preparing for a virtual semester. Most institutions intend to have students on campus but are holding that idea loosely, and developing multiple back-up hybrid scenarios.

After high-stress high school careers, many students were looking forward to their trips abroad, summer jobs, and senior sliding with their friends before leaving their nests.

Some even mourn the loss of academic rigor in the last few weeks of high school, including Karl Kilb IV, 17, who attends a performing arts high school in New York. “I’m learning new piano pieces, but all my school goals are gone. A lot of my goals just had to disappear — there’s nothing to look forward to,” he said. 

‘Things could be worse’

Sixteen percent of high school seniors say they definitely or most likely will change their plans to attend college in the fall because of the coronavirus, according to a survey of 1,171 students conducted April 21 through 24 by Art & Science Group, a higher education research firm. This is more than a fivefold increase from the ~3% of students who took time off between high school and college in 2018.

“It’s been a bit crazy. I actually was debating about whether I should take a gap year. But I’ve decided to stay committed and I’ll start in the fall regardless of what happens,” said Will Follana, a 17-year-old high school senior in New York City, who applied early decision to Santa Clara University, which plans to fully reopen its physical campus to over 3,000 undergraduate students come September.  

Follana ultimately decided against a gap year because he connected with his future classmates on Facebook (FB) and has been speaking to them on Snapchat (SNAP) and Instagram regularly.

“I already found a roommate, I have a few friends already and we’re in touch. It’s hard to take a gap year now and have to wait another year. I want to get my college life started,” he said. 

“I also have no idea what I would even do if I took a gap year. It’s hard to say… I decided even if we start the first semester online, things could be worse. I didn't want to be stuck doing nothing because of my gap year.”

Karl Kilb IV, a 17-year-old New Yorker, will be attending The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU Tisch, where he will be studying music production entrepreneurship (Source: Karl Kilb IV)

Typically, students consider gap years to travel or get some general education course credits out of the way. Chun said some of her friends are considering taking classes at a local community college prior to starting at a four-year university. 

Kilb, the performing arts student, has committed to NYU Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. A pianist and clarinetist, his final weeks of senior year have been hit hard by the lack of in-person classes. 

“We don’t have any assignments through any of my music classes — they shut down schools — no one has any access to their lockers. I can’t lug a piano back and forth. I was lucky enough to get my clarinet from my locker, but because no one can practice, none of us are required to play,” he said. 

When it first hit him that he wouldn’t have in-person classes for the remainder of his senior year, Kilb was in a state of complete shock. “Everything started racing through my head, the end-of-the-year music awards, tests… I was really disappointed. But at least I knew everyone else was going through the same thing as me. That’s how I was able to deal with it. If it was just my school, I’d be more upset. But this is affecting everyone across the world.”

‘Never let a crisis go to waste’

Students are chasing a moving target, with any semblance of a normal freshman fall dissipating by the day, as institutions are in the thick of adjusting and rejiggering procedures. Overall, colleges are cautiously optimistic, but even partial re-openings are full of caveats — as they juggle the ongoing pressures to reopen with the safety of students, faculty, and staff. University of Michigan “hopes” to have students on campus. University of Pennsylvania is “planning for a likely combination of in-class and virtual teaching.”

If the current landscape of virtual teaching is any indication, it’s unlikely students and parents will be satisfied with paying the hefty price tag for a four-year college degree if campuses aren’t even open for business. Current college students across more than 25 schools have filed lawsuits against their schools, demanding full or partial tuition reimbursement. As classes have shifted online for the remainder of the spring, they claim they’re not getting their money’s worth with makeshift solutions like Zoom seminars.

In the meantime, some institutions are hoping that students will find creative ways to use this era marked by immense uncertainty. University of California’s Napolitano suggested in an interview with Yahoo Finance last month that high schoolers take advantage of this time being stuck at home, primarily referring to juniors who would be starting to think about their college applications.

Will Follana applied and got in early decision to Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley. He got a chance to visit campus with his mom last fall (Source: Will Follana)

"If some students figure out a way to use Tik Tok or some other technology, and use the time and want to put that in their application, it'll be one of the factors we look at. That's for sure. And there's a lot of creativity going on out there, no doubt. And, you know, there's the saying never let a crisis go to waste,” said Napolitano, who has since said UC campuses will not fully reopen by the fall.

Passionate musician Kilb, who was planning to spend the summer lifeguarding, will be focusing on music — practicing his instruments and producing new pieces.

Chun, for her part, is trying to cut herself some slack during this tumultuous time. 

“When I first thought I was in a 2-week quarantine, I set this list of goals — like learning Korean so when I do go to Korea, I can understand and expand. I wanted to take more time on my blog, but all I've done is explain my college decision, feelings, rejections and stuff. I’ve been on Twitter a lot more. I went off the other day — ranting on people protesting. The other day my friend had a birthday so I made him a blanket, I’m sewing more, baking a lot,” she said. 

“I’ve been telling myself, I was able to grind so hard for three and a half years and now I don't have any ability to go out with friends, which is what I wanted to do all this time. Now that I can’t do that, I’m trying to catch up on the laziness I didn’t allow myself before.”

Melody Hahm is Yahoo Finance’s west coast correspondent, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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