Let us pause for a moment to salute the thousands of high school students who kept their college dreams on track while a pandemic upended life as they knew it.
They’re not the ones we’ve heard most about. Headlines draw our attention—and understandable concern—to the million-plus who had to downsize, delay, or abandon their college plans. Fear of contracting COVID-19, worries about how to pay for college, and the need to work fueled many teenagers’ decisions. The price the pandemic extracted on students’ postsecondary plans was highest among students of color, according to a recent survey by YouthTruth.
That’s why it’s particularly remarkable this year to see students managing to hang on to their college plans. How did they do it? EdWeek put the question to three seniors from San Luis Obispo, Calif., who will be the first in their families to go to college. Their stories showcase their persistence, of course, but also their strength and openness to letting the pandemic reshape and clarify their goals. Their interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
‘A lot of us had our college plans just ripped from our hands’
Lexy Moreno, Pacific Beach High School
My whole life, I’ve wanted to become a labor and delivery nurse. But then I lost so many family members and friends to COVID, from old age to their later thirties. I witnessed the pain that my cousin was feeling from losing his wife. He couldn’t see her in her final days, and all he had was what she told the nurses to tell her family when she passed away. That really hit me. Any field of nursing is beautiful, but I feel like I would be most impactful as an [intensive care unit] nurse. Those families are leaning on you.
After I graduate, I’ll go to Cuesta [Community College in San Luis Obispo] and hopefully get into their nursing program, and then graduate with my associate degree. After that, I plan to transfer to [California State University] Monterey Bay for my bachelor’s degree in nursing.
A lot of us high school students had our college plans just ripped from our hands. I have an older brother who graduated in 2021 who was planning on getting an apartment with his friends and going to community college, and COVID just shot it down. He ended up moving to Alaska. He’s working full time at a grocery store up there.
My dad had already moved to Alaska. He’s a construction worker, and during COVID he got laid off. My grandpa and my two aunts and all my cousins live in Alaska, so it was better for him financially to move up there. So that was all a big shocker, and yeah, our finances have changed. So I worked my butt off to get as many scholarships as I can. And I got a solid amount of financial aid. We have a program here called the Cuesta Promise that will give me two years of free tuition. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have that. I’ll live with my mom, so she’ll cover rent.
I’d been hoping to go from high school straight into a four-year university. But financially and mentally, I think it’s a better idea for me to just live at home and save up. And during the pandemic I decided I really didn’t want to be away from my family, either.
‘I didn’t want to be just another person who gives up’
Nathanael Severn, San Luis Obispo High School
I’m going to Cal State [University] Los Angeles and plan to major in political science. I plan on going to law school after that. I want to do criminal defense work, to defend people who maybe have been wrongfully convicted.
Before the pandemic, I had a different view on high school. It was just mandatory, and I wanted to do the bare minimum. I hadn’t really thought about what I was going to do after high school.
I live with my father, and it wasn’t like, “Oh, you need to go to college.” It was just expected that you go to high school and then work after. My dad works for the county, and he had always wanted me to work for the county with him, but I was never really interested in it.
With online school, I wasn’t able to see my friends, and couldn’t talk to any of my teachers in person, and I wasn’t happy with how I was performing in school. I really wanted to prove to myself that I could be successful in high school. So I kind of like made this pledge to myself that if we do return to school, I was going to try harder than I’d ever tried. I didn’t think we were going to come back for my senior year,—I really didn’t. There were lots of cases, lots of deaths. So I made this pledge to try as hard in school as I could. And that’s what I’ve been doing.
It seemed like all of my friends had just given up during online school. Lots of people have dropped out. I didn’t want to be just another person who gives up at something I know I’m capable of doing.
Finances are one thing that’s been discouraging to me. The college that I’m going to is $22,000 a year, so that’s scary. But my family is really proud of the hard work that I put into school, and they’re going to help me out. My dad has a small savings account, not too much. And I’m getting financial aid and a couple of scholarships.
The image I have of myself during all this is just staying disciplined. My dad raised me to be a pretty independent person, to be able to manage my life on my own. A lot of people can’t manage themselves the way I do. I feel proud of myself. I just want to continue this into college.
‘I kind of got lost’
Araceli Alarcon, San Luis Obispo High School
I’m going to San Francisco State [University] in the fall for civil engineering. My dream is to minor in business and try to have my own company, with architects working for me. I’m going to be the first person in my family to attend a university. Both of my parents were born in Mexico.
Going to a four-year university has always been something I dreamed of. My entire life, I’ve been held to a certain standard: straight A’s, being involved in school, and pursuing a higher education. But when COVID-19 hit, I kind of got lost in my own world. We were all isolated, and I wasn’t as successful in school as before, and I was thinking maybe school isn’t for me. I was doubting myself, like will I even make it to a four-year university? It was a really dark time for me.
But I feel like I matured over these past two years. I regretted not turning in assignments, not being involved in things. I wanted to be able to succeed in my classes again. I had meetings with counselors and teachers and talked about how I could redeem myself. And I did ultimately bounce back from all of that.
At home, I definitely have support for the idea of college, like, “We want to see you succeed, and not struggle financially the way we did.” But they don’t know how to get me there. They don’t know what FAFSA [the federal financial aid application] is. They don’t know how loans work, how grants work, how [college] housing works. I mean, they dropped out in middle school. So I had to develop that independence.
The AVID [federally funded college-readiness] program was really helpful. The teachers made sure we turned in assignments, taught us how to apply for FAFSA, helped us visit colleges. They were definitely that guiding hand and the beam of light for people who kind of felt lost because their parents don’t have degrees.
I thought about going to college at Montana State [University] in Bozeman. But my parents own a food truck. Their business depends on events with large groups of people, like high school soccer games, so the pandemic impacted us a lot financially. Luckily, they were able to bounce back from that, but money [for college] was definitely a factor we had to think about. We were like, Montana, that’s double the money, and further from home.
They would have made it happen for me, no matter how many loans we had to take out, if it was something I really wanted. But I decided on San Francisco because it was closer and I didn’t want to be too far away from my family. And also the financial aspect, because I don’t want to put that weight on their shoulders.
Going through all of this has built me as a person. I saw what my real morals and values were.
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2022 edition of Education Week as Stories of Tenacity: 3 First-Generation College-Bound Students Keep Their Dreams on Track