Thousands of students across North Texas are walking the stage as high school and college graduates this spring.
In a series of stories this week, NBC 5 Today is highlighting the challenges they’ve overcome and what’s in store for their futures amid the pandemic.
For high school graduates, this final semester of senior year has been filled with stress in finding the right school or making the right plans that fit with their goals.
Picking the Right School
The latest news from around North Texas.
May 1 marked the national deadline to pick a school.
Some students haven't even set foot on campus for a tour, especially if it's out of state. Luckily, many schools are doing virtual tours but that can be hard for students to do when making one of the biggest decisions of their lives.
“The universities have done a great job of creating virtual tours. You just click through and they have a tour guide, they have YouTube videos you can watch. So even if you can’t tour in person, touring virtually is also an option,” said Priya Alexander, who is graduating from Nimitz High School in Irving at the end of this month.
She said she is choosing to stay local for her higher education by going to Southern Methodist University to major in political science and business administration.
She plans to live at home so she can be close to her family during the pandemic. The choice to stay local helped her and her parents tour the campus in person -- with masks and social distancing -- without having to fly to another state. And it’s also allowing her to enjoy the experience of going to a university in person while living at home.
She said what helped her get a jump start on finding a school was taking part in the "early decision" plan at her high school. That allowed her to be able to turn in her applications ahead of time and avoid complications in the process.
“But I know that for kids who did regular decisions, it was kind of a stressful time,” Alexander said. “The best thing that we can do is just to make the best of it. We have this situation, and it doesn’t make sense to sit and think about it for a long period of time. You just have to kind of roll with the punches.”
Weighing the Options
Overall, Alexander said the pandemic is not stopping her or her peers from living out their goals. Many are still moving out of state for school.
But others are considering a gap year or taking classes at a community college so that they can be closer to family.
“You don’t really want to get on a plane and move to an entirely different stage during a pandemic, so that’s definitely something that some kids have taken into consideration,” she said. “Some of them think it’s more beneficial to take a gap year, maybe learn about the world a little bit more, and then go to college. So I think it just depends on your prerogative.”
Many students also want to wait so that they can, one day, enjoy the full experience a university has to offer when the pandemic has loosened its grip on society.
“Because they’re like, ‘Well if I’m not even going to get to live on campus and I’m not going to be able to get to go to a classroom, why am I going to pay all this money?'” said Alicia Upton, an advanced academic coordinator with John Horn High School in Mesquite.
Shekinah Toro has been wrapping up classes at Dallas College this past year and preparing to transfer to the University of North Texas to study broadcast journalism. But she said the application process has been complicated because of COVID-19.
"It's been really crazy because it's all online. Before, you could have gone to the school and go around talking to advisors - and they'll tell you step by step,” she said. “Now, everything is online. They send you different Zoom meeting links to talk to your advisor. It's really chaotic honestly.”
Like Alexander, she’s also yearning to feel a connection with in-person learning at a university. Her classes have been totally virtual for over a year now.
“That’s the most important thing right now that I miss from school. I love to learn. I love to learn and study and I haven’t had that opportunity this past year. That’s what I’m hoping. To have the full experience of college,” she said. “I’m really grateful that finally, I’m transferring to a big university so I can actually have that experience. I feel like that’s what every student wants right now.”
There are also some students who might have no other choice than to go right into the workforce after high school because of the financial struggles their families have endured because of pandemic-related job loss in the past year.
“They understand that right now, I need to support my family but I can still go to this two year college at the same time and then when we get on our feet, I can go onto the four-year university and finish my degree," said Dr. Tracey Brown, director of Guided Counseling and College Readiness at Irving ISD.
She said she's noticing a trend where community colleges and four-year universities are working hand-in-hand to put together a bigger picture for the student.
"So even if the student doesn’t necessarily qualify for this four-year school right off, there is an alliance between the two-year colleges and four-colleges. So they're saying, 'Hey if you are willing to go to this community college and get your two-year degree, you have an automatic admission into this four-year school," Brown said. “I believe what’s happening is that it’s not an either/or type of situation -- it’s more of a 'all of the above', or whatever pathway fits you."
To help students reach their goals, counselors and advisers at both high school and college levels are working hard around the challenges to guide students through the different layers of acceptance and financial aid.
Upton said the application process can be confusing for kids in many ways.
For example, some schools are making the ACT or SAT tests optional due to the pandemic.
“Meaning that the school is it necessarily weighing ACT or SAT the same way that they used to. So, for kids to kind of figure out what it means. For some, that’s a positive thing. But for others, they want them to see their test scores because that’s potentially going to get you more [financial aid],” said Upton.
Many extracurriculars and sports were canceled or scaled back over the past year, so college admissions counselors had to change how they read and rate applications. Essay prompts and a student's story also now play a bigger role.
Either way, Upton said she's helping her students stay motivated, whichever path they choose after high school.
“Just kind of reassuring them that this will end. Life will go back to normalcy. And we just got to keep pushing through,” she said. “It seems like a lot. You know they are overwhelmed at times but it’s just reminding them that it’s going to pass, we’re going to get through it.”
Counselors have also said they are noticing that students who took a gap year in 2020 are calling and asking about transcripts so that they can apply for college this year. Alexander has witnessed this while she and her peers were applying for universities.
“I know admissions are really hard this year just because there’s a lot of kids,” said Alexander. “The class of 2020 took a gap year and a lot of them are applying now so the class of 2021 was kind of put at a disadvantage because we were competing with more kids.”
But it’s still a sign of hope as we move into another school year amid the pandemic.
“It’s good to see them get back in it,” Upton said. “Just keep taking those steps forward. If you graduated last year and now you’re going to start college, that’s great. Whenever you start is great. There are lots of people both at your high school and on the college campuses who want to help you.”