The rug has been pulled out from under the class of 2020.
Last week, amid a global pandemic, seniors walked out of their high-school classes for potentially the last time. As they wait out the storm, they joke about virtual prom and graduation ceremonies, collectively mourning the loss of what this spring was supposed to be.
Everyone is feeling the sting of ruined plans. But for those poised to be the first in their families to attend college in the fall, the sense of loss is especially sharp.
Just ask Tiffany “Thi” Nguyen, a senior at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle. “All of it has been stolen from us,” she said.
Or Eric Rosario, of Cascade High in Leavenworth. “I was scared about how much I would able to get done at home,” said Rosario. “I don’t have Wi-Fi. I don’t have what most other students have.”
Many don’t have a network of loved ones who have experience with higher education, or the means to pay someone who does; schools filled that void. They paired hard work with resources at school to help them navigate the technical details of making college a reality. The adults hassled them about important deadlines, and translated inscrutable financial-aid forms.
Over the next month, as many receive their college financial aid and acceptance letters, they face some of the biggest decisions of their lives — where to go to college and how to pay for it.
“Everything feels kinda hazy,” said Emmy Ngo, a student at Chief Sealth International High School in Seattle who plans to attend the University of Washington. “Currently, I don’t understand a lot of the concepts like work study and what the loans would look like.”
In many schools, college guidance and other longer term questions have taken a back burner to basic instruction and food needs during their indefinite closure, said Helen Chyz, an academic adviser for Math and Science Upward Bound at the University of Washington, a U.S. Department of Education-funded college prep program that supports low-income and first generation students.
Without the daily or weekly in-person interaction with students in a school building, teens and their advisers fear some important details will slip through the cracks.
This can be big things, such as how much to take out in loans or which scholarships are available, or small, like which administrative fees can be covered through financial aid.
“A lot of it is that students don’t know what they need help with,” said Sarah Applegate, a counselor at Cascade High in Leavenworth. “I had a student walk into my office the other day who seemed excited about a college offering $20,000, but she still hadn’t factored in the cost of tuition.”
Some support can be offered at a distance. Applegate said she plans to call every high-school senior and create a financial literacy slide deck. Thi’s math teacher has been checking in with her about which colleges accepted her, and Chyz’s Math and Science Upward Bound program is holding Zoom meetings with students.
Students can also find resources online, including a guide from Puget Sound College and Career Network. They can also text their questions to a hotline set up by the Washington Student Achievement Council.
But these digital ways to connect have their limitations, said Chyz. Some have slow internet access or have to work while school is out. Others might find it hard to reach out, thinking the process is something they can handle on their own.
“I can stand outside their fourth-period class,” said Chyz, “But I can’t force them to log on to Zoom.”
It’s “overwhelming,” said Rosario, the Cascade High senior, to think about the decisions he has to navigate now that schools are closed.
Eric took a college skills class called AVID, and used the school’s computers and scanners to upload financial documents.
He spends most of his days now babysitting his brother and nephew and making sure they get their schoolwork done. He borrowed a laptop from his school, but wasn’t able to get a district-provided Wi-Fi hotspot because it would require him leaving the kids at home. In the evenings, he uses an iPhone to type his essays for his classes and look up information about college.
College is a recent dream for Eric, but an important one. After his mom left a few years ago, he wanted to set a good example for his brother and started taking school more seriously.
He wants to study dentistry or maybe mechanical engineering.
“Something to better my community,” he said.
Last week, he got his first acceptance letter from Central Washington University, but his dream school is Western Washington. He toured the campus and said it reminded him of home.
It’s unclear what will await the students once fall arrives, and whether the schools they hope to attend will resume teaching in person.
Whether there will be dorms to move into.
Whether there will be a campus alive with the rich friendships and classes they dreamed of.
Whether they’ll have all the right forms and documents submitted.