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‘I canceled my plan of attending my dream school:’ 2021 grads hit harder by pandemic than those before them

Nationally, 62% of 2021 graduates stayed the course of what they originally planned to do after high school, compared to 74% of 2020 graduates, according to a survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center.

Yamaan Nandolia is a freshman at University of Illinois Chicago majoring in computer science.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Four days a week, Yamaan Nandolia rides two trains and a bus to college.

It can take up to two hours to get from his West Rogers Park home to the University of Illinois Chicago campus on the Near West Side.

This wasn’t Nandolia’s original plan for college. His senior year at Nicholas Senn High School, Nandolia was admitted to his top choice: the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But after the huge wave of COVID-19 cases hit last winter, his parents sat him down.

“My parents got really worried,” Nandolia, 17, recalled. They told him, “‘We know it’s your decision to make, but you should be really careful. We’re really scared for you.’” His parents feared Nandolia living in the dorms, getting sick and not being able to get the resources needed.

“Due to the pandemic, I canceled my plan of attending my dream school,” Nandolia said.

High school graduates in the class of 2021 like Nandolia have endured a slew of challenges that have altered their post-graduation plans — even more so than the class before them, who were seniors when the pandemic upended their final year of school. Nationally, just 62% of 2021 graduates followed through with their original post-high school plans, compared to 74% of 2020 graduates, according to a survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center.

Community colleges’ enrollment plunge

One of the hardest-hit higher education institutions has been community colleges, which saw a 9.5% drop in enrollment nationally this spring, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

This fall, 32,586 students enrolled at City Colleges of Chicago, down 8.6% from the previous fall and down nearly 20% from fall 2019 — before the pandemic — according to survey results from the Illinois Community College Board.

Chicago’s 2021 graduates are navigating a transition back to in-person learning in an entirely new setting, after completing an almost completely virtual senior year. In-person college visits were seldom an option, having to schedule virtual guidance counseling appointments made school resources harder to access, and student mental health often suffered, students said.

Easy and quick access to outside mentors or resources was critical to helping students navigate a pandemic senior year and achieve post-graduation success, Chicago college advisers said.

“Making sure we’re really accessible with students is key ... made available both in person and remotely,” said Irma Ortiz, interim director of Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for College Access and Success, which partners with several CPS schools. “The biggest thing we can do at this point is let students know all their options and answer all their questions.”

Declining enrollment and altered post-graduation plans during the pandemic resulted from a unique set of factors facing 2021 graduates, said Jeffery Beckham Jr., CEO of Chicago Scholars, a foundation that helps low-income and first-generation students pursue college success. Chicago Scholars, Beckham noted, still saw “very strong matriculation” among its most recent graduates.

‘More stress to already strenuous process’

The unpredictability of what will be around the corner during the pandemic has created a “volatile” end of high school and start to higher education, Beckham said, creating “layers of stress” for students.

The Edweek survey found 2021 grads had higher rates of economic and health-related stress than 2020 grads.

“What we’ve heard especially recently is ... a huge increase in social and emotional distress of being back in person,” Beckham said. “It’s the anxiety of getting back to normal, trying to find a sense of what’s normal while navigating the complexity of the college process.”

For first-generation college students, Beckham said the pandemic adds more stress to an already strenuous process.

Emily Cahue

Emily Cahue’s parents didn’t attend college, so they didn’t know the answer to all of Cahue’s college questions — things like financial aid applications and what schools look for in a college essay.

And as school counselors were inundated with students needing help, Cahue said it was a hassle trying to book virtual counseling appointments her senior year at John Hancock College Prep High School.

“Sometimes my questions were time sensitive,” said Cahue, 18, of West Lawn. “If I don’t have anybody at home I can ask, I have to wait till somebody is available at school so I can ask them.”

Relying on her mentor through Chicago Scholars, Cahue is now a first-year student at Purdue University. The transition has been “overwhelming,” but through student groups on campus, such as the Latino Cultural Center and Horizons Student Support Services, Cahue said she’s found her “home away from home.”

External support has been critical in getting Raquel Rojas where she is today — in her first year at Harold Washington College.

Rojas felt so discouraged her senior year at Carver Military Academy High School, she wasn’t even sure if she’d graduate. Instead of attending homecoming and prom, Rojas and most CPS students searched for motivation to complete virtual learning from home.

School “became depressing,” said Rojas, 18, of the Southeast Side. The thought that college might be more of the same discouraged her from pursuing higher education at first, she said. As the summer months ticked by, Rojas remembered a CCC Navigator who spoke to her school, offering guidance on how to enroll in Chicago’s community colleges.

She reached out, enrolled at Harold Washington and plans to earn an associate’s degree in business, Rojas said.

Raquel Rojas

“If it wasn’t for [the Navigator], I wouldn’t be in college right now,” Rojas said. “She literally walked me through the enrollment process. She was definitely a lifesaver.”

At UIC, Nandolia is studying computer science and minoring in business. He follows a rigid routine to stay on top of his schoolwork, taking a brief half-hour break to relax or play a game after getting home from classes. Then he hits the books, completing homework due the next day or the remainder of the week, Nandolia said.

With the money he’s saving by living at home this semester, Nandolia said he plans to buy a car, which would reduce his commute time.

Nandolia plans to transfer to UIUC at the start of his junior year, but for now, he’s “really focused” on his time at UIC, Nandolia said, joining social clubs and student organizations.

“Right now, I’m feeling good,” Nandolia said. “I’m not really thinking about junior year because if I’m getting my expectations too high and something bad happens, I will be sad.”