As James Innocent watched a mob of thousands storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, he said he felt a “call to action” to do something different with his life. 

“It just made it very clear that I’m in a country that doesn’t want me here. Whether or not that’s how people feel, that was definitely the message that I felt,” said Innocent, who is biracial. “I think it really forced me to be like, ‘Do I want to be a cog in the machine right now? Do I want to continue doing this? Or do I at least try to make a difference?’”

Innocent said a career change had been on his mind for a while, but the culmination of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Capitol insurrection pushed him past his breaking point. At age 30, he’s decided to leave his career as a project manager at a technology company and go back to school to earn his master’s degree in psychology. 

After a year of intense, polarizing events, thousands of college students, including Innocent, have received their acceptance letters and are preparing to attend school in the fall. But what impact did living through the past year have on their goals and vision for the future? 

While the long-term social and psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic likely won’t be known for years to come, it’s clear that a year in lockdown has changed us. 

Each of the seven students interviewed for this story felt the impact of 2020 on different levels. For some, the pandemic pushed them to get their medical degree and join doctors and nurses on the front lines. 

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Alisha Nguyen, 24, from Tri-Cities, said watching news reports of all the doctors and nurses treating COVID-19 motivated her to apply to Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, these are like real-world superheroes!’” Nguyen said. “They are fighting day in, day out for their communities, they are sacrificing their own physical and mental health sometimes just to take care of other people — and to me, seeing that was really inspiring.”

Others said the inequalities exposed by the Black Lives Matter movement and disproportionate COVID-19 deaths among people of color inspired them to find solutions as they pursued their education.

Innocent followed his conscience and will be starting a master’s program in psychology at Seattle University this fall so he can learn the tools to help make society better. 

He said the competitive program combines philosophical thought “to help us really challenge our perspectives on the world, so we can improve ourselves, so we can help improve other people.” 

Applications increase at universities, medical schools

Data shows that in the 2020-21 application cycle, significantly more people applied to colleges and universities both in the state of Washington and nationally.  

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The University of Washington saw an 11.5% increase in applications, according to Paul Seegert, director of admissions. The UW received 48,820 applications this year, compared with 43,781 applications that came in last year — though these numbers aren’t finalized yet.

“It seemed like, based on what I’ve heard has happened to other universities … that students that did apply to universities tended to apply to more universities,” he said, “and they tended to apply more to well-known, more selective universities like the University of Washington.”

Nationally, big name colleges saw record-high application numbers, which experts attribute to waived standardized test scores. 

Local applicant pools were described by local admissions officers as more diverse than previous years at some schools, with an increased awareness of social justice issues. Inside Higher Ed reported that 20% more first-generation college students and 24% more Black, Latino, American Indian and Pacific Islander students applied to big, selective schools.

Medical schools in Washington saw application rates rise more than 20% this year as well.

University of Washington School of Medicine saw a 26% increase in applications, with 9,577 applications coming in for the 2021 school year, up from the previous year’s 7,572 applications. 

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“Due to the pandemic we adjusted our process to ensure applicant, admissions committee/staff, and faculty health and safety while maintaining a holistic review approach throughout the process,” said LeeAnna Muzquiz, associate dean for admissions at the medical school, in an email. 

Applicants were not required to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), the secondary application fee was waived for all applicants and interviews were conducted remotely. Muzquiz said the school saw higher rates of underrepresented applicants, including rural, first-generation, people of color and those who self-identified as disadvantaged.

“The quality and competitiveness of the applicants was very high,” Muzquiz said.

WSU’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine saw a 21% bump in applications compared with the 2020 school year, according to Leila Harrison, senior associate dean for admissions and student affairs. The school, which takes in a class of 80 students each year, received 1,754 applications for 2021, up from the 1,444 applications received for 2020.

There was an 18% increase in applications from first-generation college graduates and people from low socioeconomic backgrounds as well, Harrison said.

“It’s hard to know [why], because it’s not something we directly ask applicants, but from anecdotal conversations, a lot of them indicated that they were inspired to kind of get going in their training so they could have an impact,” she said. The “devastation and impact of the pandemic and how health care professionals were in the front lines” were factors as well.

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Lensa Moen says the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced her decision to apply to medical school. She will attend Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine this fall.  (Jonathan Pece / RocketHorse Photography)

Lensa Moen, a 38-year-old medical technologist who grew up in Ethiopia and Sweden, had a taste of working on the front lines before getting accepted into WSU’s medical school.

At the start of the pandemic, she was moved from a testing lab, where she conducted blood and urine tests, to a coronavirus testing site. While being thrown into the unknown seemed daunting, Moen said it reinforced her decision to apply to and attend medical school.

She said she was used to testing sensitive samples for viruses like HIV and hepatitis, but testing for the coronavirus was much scarier because everything was still so unknown.

“It was all so frantic and crazy at the beginning of the pandemic … but I still thrived,” Moen said. “It just ended up reinforcing that I was on the right path, because if I’m enjoying my work when it’s during a pandemic and it’s really challenging, I’m going to do just fine when it’s regular times.” 

Social justice and equality at the front of students’ minds

Innocent said the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was a “breaking point” for him personally, but the Black Lives Matter movement hit close to home. About 10 years ago, when he was living in New York City, the brother of one of his friends was killed by a police officer.

“I feel like a movement has been happening, and I’ve just been sitting on this chair with the camera on, talking about how to serve ads all day, and I just feel like I’ve been completely out of touch with all the suffering that’s been happening,” he said.  “Parts of it I’ve been able to directly empathize with, parts of it were new and I was exploring as well.”

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Innocent said pursuing his master’s in psychology had been in the back of his mind for a while, and the events of the past year “forced his hand” to apply to programs. He wanted to go back to school so he could have the education and tools he needed to make a positive mark on his community.

He isn’t alone. The pandemic highlighted inequalities in our society that students took as a call to action.

University of Washington freshman Shoaib Laghari, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, said that when he started classes, he had lots of interests. So many that he opted to take political science, economics and computer science classes in place of his general education requirements.

University of Washington freshman Shoaib Laghari says living through the COVID-19 pandemic and watching the economic crash of 2020 affected his decision to major in economics. He wants to study issues like global inequality and learn about how to improve the quality of life for ethnic minorities. (Courtesy of Sadia Laghari)

But he ultimately chose to major in economics after he watched the COVID-19 pandemic expose inequalities, like how ethnic minorities are more likely than white people to get COVID-19, and to die from it, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think a lot of my general interests are in policymaking and researching, and even if I’m not coming up with the solution to global inequality, studying those issues and kind of making a dent in how we can improve the issue, I think that would be an awesome thing for me to do with my life,” he said.

Similarly, Nguyen, the WSU graduate student from Tri-Cities, said she had been working toward medical school for years, but was empowered to try and fix the inequalities in the health care system after the pandemic showed those disparities.

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“It wasn’t until last year when the pandemic hit and stricter guidelines were placed on our state that I really got to see this in effect,” she said. “Seeing that there were definitely inequities in health care access and accessibility, and so to me, it sort of inspires me to go into medicine and become a proactive physician.”

Innocent said the events of 2020 pushed him to change his life to help others, but acknowledges the “extraordinary privilege” he has.

“There are a lot of millennials out there that can’t afford to do those things,” he said, “and there are some that are making changes with their career because of this.”

After he attains his master’s in psychology from Seattle University, Innocent says he has tons of ideas for what to do next.

“I love the idea of maybe being a therapist, pursuing a Ph.D., teaching — maybe all of it, maybe some of it — and I think my experience in all these different industries and tech is going to put me in a really interesting position to kind of see what’s happening in the community,” he said.

He said he’s already started volunteering at a local homeless center for youths in Seattle while he waits for the program to start.

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“It just feels so much realer than what I was doing — just volunteering,” he said.