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What's Next For Seniors Graduating Under Pandemic's Cloud?

Local high schools are dusting off recordings of Pomp and Circumstance, preparing to graduate the Class of 2021.

Even more so than the previous graduating class, these seniors are heading out into the world after an academic year completely overshadowed by COVID-19, impacting their choices for life after receiving their diploma.

At an end-of-the-year meeting for Richmond Heights Secondary School seniors led by school counselor Candice Meintel, a handful of students are physically in the auditorium. But most of the 55-member graduating class for is logging into the meeting from home.  

For almost all of the 2020-21 academic year, all the students at this majority-Black school were doing distance learning. For many seniors, Meintel said, all that time spent away from the classroom, the teachers and the counselors, had an impact.

“They felt so detached,” Meintel said, “They felt detached from school, detached from the whole thing.”

And in April, when students were told they could return to the classroom, many chose to stay remote, she said.

“Especially the seniors, are taking advantage of getting jobs. Some of them have multiple jobs on top of doing school work,” Meintel said.   

Jenny Hamel
School counselor Candice Meintel has been working with the seniors to find out what they want to do after graduation. If they do want to apply to college, she helps them navigate the application process.

Some have been working at grocery stores and restaurants, working to help their families during the pandemic, Meintel said, so planning for college took a back seat.

“I think a lot of that stuff just kind of escaped their mind,” she said. “I also think that with colleges not being so open to let people come visit – and we did have admissions reps do virtual visits – but they barely want to log into their classes, let alone join in extra meetings.”

Marnisha Brown, Richmond Heights principal and assistant superintendent, said some seniors have kept a job during the pandemic in order to help loved ones

“They were still able to juggle school work, but they were working to support families,” Brown said. “Parents had lost jobs. Students have been relocated and had to live with family members. So for them, work became the priority.”

Last year, 70% of the seniors at Richmond Heights High School applied to college. This year, so far, it’s less than half of the graduating class. 

Meintel is confident more students will end up applying now that they’re attending school in-person and she can meet with them one-on-one to figure out what comes next. 

Just before the senior meeting, 17-year-old Ibn Edwards spent the morning applying to a slate of colleges using the Common App online platform.

Common App allows students to fill out one application and submit it to any of its 900 member undergraduate college and university partners. More than 400 of the choices don’t have a fee and for applicants eligible for free or reduced lunch, like some of students at Richmond Heights High School are, the application fee is waived.  

“It felt good because I waited so long to submit them, so I finally submitted them,” Edwards said. “I missed a lot of deadlines because, I wasn't really on top of my A-game. Like a lot of the ones [applications] that's like rolling [deadlines] and everything, I was able to submit.” 

Jenny Hamel
Richmond Heights senior Ibn Edwards just recently applied to colleges and would love to become a sports agent.

Why wait so long to apply to colleges? Edwards said during quarantine, he was busy running his dad’s health food store and smoothie bar and playing sports.

“Ms. Meintel, she’s been on my back about submitting college applications and everything. I want to go to college,” he said. “My dad actually has his own business. If I don't go to college, I plan to run his business to take it over and everything. I’m just kind of whatever comes... whatever door opens for me, I take it, at this point, to be honest.”   

Some college-bound students at Richmond Heights High weren’t deterred by the pandemic. Rayna Williamson, 18, applied to schools early on and seems clear about her direction.

“So I've committed to North Carolina A&T,” Williams said. “That's a pretty, pretty big jump. I wanted to go to a bigger college because my high school was so small. I plan on majoring in psychology and probably finding a minor in something business-related because I'm taking my Excel TECC, which is a business academy course.”

Jenny Hamel
Richmond Heights senior Rayna Williamson has committed to North Carolina A&T State University for fall 2021.

But college isn’t the right path for every senior, and Meintel said she tries to present kids with alternative pathways to the future.

“Like, what is more sustainable? What is something that you can actually do after you graduate?” Meintel said. “Because I hate sending them off to these colleges and they get stuck with loans. Even if they just went for a year, then that follows them and then they realize that's not what they wanted to do.”

Brown said the school promotes a college-going culture, and pennants from various universities adorn the walls. But she said Richmond Heights also fosters paths directly into the workforce, with students working through local manufacturing-focused nonprofit consultant MAGNET to get internships and apprenticeships while they’re still in high school.

“We are creating a manufacturing pathway, a career pathway, here at the high school,” Brown said. “So there are a lot of trades that kids are deciding to go into. We are also part of the Excel Tech Consortium, which is vocational learning.”

Jenny Hamel
Richmond Heights Upper School promotes a college-going culture, but also develops pathways for graduates to go directly into the workforce, according to Richmond Heights Principal and Assistant Superintendent Marnish Brown.

Senior Mya Zanath, 17, has been mulling over her options for after high school, and not every path she’s considering leads to four years of college.

“I initially wanted to go to the military before,” Zanath said. “I even had my recruiters come to my house when the pandemic first started. They came, they talked to me, and my mom was like, ‘Nope, you are not doing that.’”

Now Zanath wants to follow in her mom’s footsteps and train to become a dialysis technician.

Jenny Hamel
Senior Mya Zanath thought about entering the military but now has her sights on "going into dialysis," and following in her mom's footsteps as a healthcare professional. 

For Sanaiya Turner, 18, getting a college degree is definitely in her sights, although there are no definite plans currently.

“After high school, I'm thinking about going to college, for business and stuff like that. You know, entrepreneurship,” Turner said. “I'm not completely sure right now what college exactly, but I know I want to go to college for sure and get a degree.”

The financial commitment looms large, though, she said, though she’d like to get started on college classes straight out of Richmond Heights High.

“I'm hoping to go in the fall,” she said. “But I do want to have, you know, some money, personal money, put up. So I do plan on working more before I go to college.”

Jenny Hamel
Sanaiya Turner plans to go to college, but she plans on working first to save some money.

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Jenny Hamel