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How the Class of 2020 is Persevering Through the Pandemic

Last year’s graduating seniors are doing more than taking 2020 in stride. They are converting disappointments, surprises, and tragedies into life lessons for the rest of us.

By Faviola Leyva and Susan Brenna

November 17, 2020

For the class that graduated from high school last spring with none of the celebrations, this fall has been even stranger. One of those seniors, Scarlet Coria, admitted to losing it a little when she had to begin college as a freshman without ever leaving home, not even to go to class. “I’m starting to wear a mask in my dreams,” she said.

This year is messy and lonely for many of last year’s seniors. And yet they’re aware that they’re writing history with every strange day they forge ahead into the fall of a global pandemic that is intensified by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, rolling natural disasters, and a major national election season. 

The six former seniors we caught up with here each have a unique story to tell of how they’re getting along. They also have common preoccupations as they consider what to put first. The security of their loved ones? Their place as potential leaders for justice? Their education?

Here’s one more thing they have in common: their determination to face life squarely and make the best of this moment they’re thrashing through in the fall of 2020.

Roberto Garces Mendez, attending Occidental College in Los Angeles from home in Oregon

© Photo Ivan McClellan Roberto Garces Mendez was looking forward to being in California where his mother and father both lived after moving from Guatemala and Mexico respectively.

Roberto Garces Mendez is 18 years old and a freshman at Occidental, which he’s attending virtually from his home in Salem, Oregon, near Portland. As a graduating senior last year, even as the pandemic was coming on, he said, “I was expecting to hang out with friends one last time” during the summer, “and then move down to L.A.”

Instead, this summer’s events forced him to confront a world—and his own family—in turmoil. He had to think of everyone else before himself. “I’m just trying to give people what they need at this very moment,” he said when we spoke in October.

He began the summer working the graveyard shift at the WinCo Foods store in Salem to save money to go to California. But after George Floyd was killed in Minnesota, Roberto began protesting in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. He took on the task of helping to set up and clean up after socially distanced demonstrations that typically attracted about 30 masked protesters in Salem. 

He got active with Latinos Unidos Siempre (LUS), a local youth organization, and began working with others at LUS toward the removal of resource officers from schools. He gave oral and written testimonies to the local school board. “There’s evidence that they punish more students of color,” he said. “We need to stop incriminating Black and brown students at school.”

In July, Roberto stopped his political activities and began quarantining to limit his mother Flora’s exposure to coronavirus ahead of the heart surgery she needed. He started his Occidental College freshman year virtually, from home, on a Monday in mid-August. The next day, his mom was admitted for surgery. Banned from visiting her in the hospital, he spoke by phone to her two days later. “It was very concerning to hear how frail and weak she sounded.”

Then the Riverside Fire engulfed parts of Oregon near his home in early September. Roberto and his girlfriend found a box of N-95 masks in her home and distributed them to friends and family members of farmworkers. Due to the hazardous air quality, his family stayed inside their home for more than two weeks, Roberto leaving only to work or to pick up groceries.

Through September, he continued to stock shelves on the night shift at WinCo, go to college virtually during the day, and care for his mother while his father worked, cooking her breakfast and lunch and helping her with other physical needs. Finally, in October, he was able to get normal sleep by moving to a day shift job at La Caseta de Woodburn, a money order service that primarily serves undocumented farmworkers.

He still plans eventually to go to L.A. and attend Occidental, a plan he made while participating in the Willamette Academy college access program led by Emilio Solano (L.A. ’10). But he thinks now he probably won’t attend in-person classes until next fall.

After that, he hopes to stay in California for law school and become an immigration attorney one day. “In Los Angeles there are a lot of different cultures that I want to interact with,” Roberto said. “It’s bigger. It’s louder.”

“Normally I work as a lifeguard in the summer. I made less than half of what I made last summer... Money is always a concern.”

Diana Guzman-Wug

Freshman, attending University of California, Los Angeles from home.

Sophia Hawkins, Attending Drexel University in Philadelphia from home in Oakland, CA

As an Oakland native, 18-year-old Sophia Hawkins always dreamed about living on the east coast. She figured if she left her family, she’d have to grow up. She was looking forward to starting her freshman year as a film and television major at Drexel, but the university went remote for the fall semester. “We all saw it coming,” Sophia said.

So instead of moving across the country and meeting her five suitemates, Sophia is waking up at 5:50 a.m. in her childhood bedroom to get to her 6 a.m. class (9 a.m. in Philly) in Cinematographer’s Art.

Unlike many college freshman, Sophia knows exactly what she wants to do with her life. The practical part of her wants to get her degree and establish financial security (she got her drive, she says, from her grandmother, who emigrated to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago to establish herself financially in the 1950s).

Her career goal is to tell stories by working in film and television and making independent documentaries, maybe getting a job at VICE News or A24, which produced one of her favorite films, Moonlight. She is eager to tell stories that expose viewers to multiple perspectives and to what she calls strong Black representation. She feels her moment is coming as she sees “more empowerment when telling Black stories.”

For now, she’s both loving her courses and finding virtual college a little weird. On camera you have to look engaged at all times, even if you’re zoning out as you would in a lecture hall. “A lot of teachers put that on their syllabus,” she said. “Don’t come to class without your camera on, or you’re going to be marked absent.”

Victor Foster, Attending Washington & Lee University in Virginia from home in Houston

© Photo Summer Taylor Riding his bike or walking his dog Cocoa helps Victor Foster de-stress.

Eighteen-year-old Victor Foster was raised in Houston by his grandmother who taught him to read and count before kindergarten, and to do long division a year before Victor learned it in school. She helped him gain admittance to a strong-performing middle school and supported him to endure long commutes from his neighborhood to what Victor considered a better high school in a richer part of town.

Under this matriarch’s influence, Victor knew he’d be going to college. But he never imagined how stressful it would be to try to strategize through the admissions process. Encouraged to shoot for selective schools by his counselors in the EMERGE college access program, he faced what he thought would be his hardest college decision last December. He’d worked his way meticulously through visits, counseling sessions, and his own voluminous research. Now—offered a full-ride scholarship through a QuestBridge match­—Victor, who is Black, agonized over whether to say yes to a small, mostly white, highly-ranked college in Virginia named for a Confederate general.

When I spoke to Victor this past October, that struggle to decide seemed like ancient history, happening as it did during pre-COVID-19 times. He was having no second thoughts about having enrolled at Washington & Lee University. But he deeply regretted another decision: choosing to stay home and attend college remotely this fall while the vast majority of W & L students are living on campus.

Victor decided to stay in Houston because he was worried about bringing COVID-19 home to his grandmother. He thought college students might flout social distancing and other rules.

But now, as he attends college from either his bedroom desk or his grandmother’s sewing table, Victor says he feels anxious all the time. He’s strained by hours of claustrophobic Zoom classes, meetings, and online study. He’s having trouble eating and sleeping. No matter how hard he works, he can’t shake the feeling that it’s not enough; that he’s missing a deadline or something else he’s supposed to be doing.

“I’m never able to be at peace,” he said. “I’m just constantly worrying if everything is completed. At the end of the day, my head hurts and I almost want to run into a wall.”

“If I was at college, maybe I could go to the library, which is amazing, or I could go out and see someplace on campus I’ve never been before,” he said. “I think having other students around would make it easier…Right now, I’m a full-time college student, but I don’t have any of the experience except the work.”

Victor thinks his college has done a good job of keeping campus life going while isolating infected students. The friends he has made through GroupMe keep sending encouraging messages: you’re going to love it when you get here. A dean he met on a visit last winter has called to check in every weekend. “I think they really care about me,” he said.

So he plans to fly to Lexington, Virginia, to attend in person for the spring semester. But when we spoke in October, the rate of infection on campus was inching up to 3.6% at the middle of the term. It left him wondering: Will he have an open campus to go to at all this year?

“I’m frustrated and confused but I’m trying to remain calm, even though this is out of my control... This is larger than any of us could imagine. I did everything I could to prevent it.”

Alejandro Reyes

Freshman, remotely attending University of California, San Diego from home. He and his grandmother had coronavirus this summer.

Josh Green, Attending Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas

The day Josh Green signed for a full scholarship to play football at Midwestern State University, his whole family cried. It was one of the best days of his life.

But nothing this past summer or fall has gone like Josh planned that day, before COVID-19.

Josh comes from a family that has always loved sportssoccer, basketball, but especially 49ers footballand who saw sports as a way up for their talented son. Josh’s older brother had wanted to play college football but never made it. But Josh says he had a stronger support system (his grandfather, uncle, his coach at Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas). So this past June, he showed up at MSU ready to study finance and to start practicing for a spring football season. 

Since then, his life has been whipsawed by the pandemic, even though Josh himself has never been sick. Practices were like nothing he’d expected. The team was split into smaller practice groups across two turf fields, and they trained at different times by grade levels, getting their temperatures checked before each practice. Josh and freshmen would train first and then sophomores would follow. They could run sprints and lift weights while wearing masks and standing 6 feet apart. But no tackling here.

Three weeks into summer practice, an outbreak among MSU faculty sent the football team home. Josh moved back in with his family with a workout booklet in hand provided by his new coach. When he didn’t have weights to lift, his former high school coach, Anthony Benedetto (Dallas-Fort Worth ’12), provided weights so he could stay in shape. Josh didn’t go back to college until mid-August, almost two months after leaving.

Then, over Labor Day weekend, Josh met the family of his girlfriend for the first time. A couple days later, she had a sore throat, body aches, and cold sweats. When Josh told his MSU coach his girlfriend had tested positive for coronavirus and he’d been exposed, he was sent home to Dallas again, then allowed to return to school once he’d tested negative. But he was quarantined in his dorm room. He kept taking classes, read a lot (including Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) and got his daily meals delivered: eggs and sausage, chicken fried steak, and smothered beef patties.

When we spoke during his quarantine, Josh sounded chastened and more cautious than before. “I definitely miss the workouts,” he said. “I definitely miss my teammates a lot. I haven’t seen them in a while. They’ve been calling me, texting me and checking in on me.” He said he’d gotten more careful about wearing his mask in places that didn’t require it, like at his local taco truck. “You’re not invincible,” he said. “You can definitely catch it.”

And he also sounded philosophical, saying he’s had time to gain new perspectives. With no football season to take up his time, a few weeks later he made the tough decision to move home to Dallas and continue his studies virtually. He’s taking time to consider if he really wants to be a student-athlete, saying, “I’ve come to a time in my life, where I want to bear down and get my degree and start my career.” He’s also been influenced by the anti-racist activism of former NFL player Colin Kaepernick and is thinking about the long-standing tradition of Black boys in his family playing sports.

He wants them to pursue their interests, Josh told me. “My little cousin, who is very smart, is being encouraged to play sports, but he wants to be a scientist. We’re not going to force him to play.”

Stesha Dupree: Attending Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina

© Photo Travis Dove "If you went through what I went through, you would know it is a killer,” says Stesha Dupree.

Stesha Dupree has a harder story to tell than many members of the Class of 2020, but it’s one she wants to take every opportunity to share. “If I could tell my story to a million people so they would be safe and protect their family, that’s what I would want to do,” she said.

Stesha, who is 19, lost her mother, Synethia, to coronavirus this summer. No one knows how Synethia got infected (everyone wore a mask where she worked). But from her first hospital admission in June, she struggled severely to breathe. “She took her last breath at 10:26 a.m. on August 4,” Stesha said.

Now Stesha (pronounced Stee-sha) is living alone in the house in Charlotte, North Carolina, that her mother saved for years to build after the two went through hard times when Stesha was younger. She pays the electricity and water bills and keeps up payments on the car. She shops for groceries and cleans and maintains the house. She makes her meals and eats alone.

Stesha always worked while going to high school, and she was intending to split her time this fall between work and community college. But now, work takes precedence so she can keep her household of one afloat. She takes a morning class in a cardiovascular technology program at Central Piedmont Community College, then works usually six afternoons a week at a paint store in nearby Gastonia. She checks in regularly with a therapist and texts with a web of people who are looking out for her, including teachers like Gregory Rudd (Charlotte-Piedmont Triad ’18) at West Mecklenburg High School, from which she graduated last spring.

“I have to figure out everything on my own. Honestly? Sometimes it gets very overwhelming,” Stesha said. “Some days I just don’t want to move out of my bed. Most days, I don’t want to get out of my bed. I want my mom to be here.”

“A lot of the stuff my mom would talk to me about, or get mad at me about, I understand now, with me being on my own as a grown adult. I feel like adulthood just came at me without warning.”

There are still people in her life, Stesha said, who don’t believe the virus is real. “A lot of people I went to school with, or friends on Facebook or Insta, I’m not afraid to tell them to please take it seriously. If you went through what I went through, you would know it is a killer.”

At the store where she works, “We can ask a customer to put on a mask, but if they don’t, we have to help them anyway. I just keep my distance and when they leave, I disinfect the whole store.”

Stesha’s mother loved butterflies. She keeps a butterfly hanging from the rearview mirror in her car. “I do feel like I’m strong,” she says. “I feel I have a heart like my mom. She went through a lot in her life but she never let anyone stop her from what she wanted to do.”

Now Stesha is willing herself to focus on the future. She foresees herself working in health care in a job where she can interact directly with patients and share some of that strength her mother imparted. “I have to accept that my career’s not going to come to me if I’m sitting around all day,” she says. “I have to go get it.”

“I’m starting to wear a mask in my dreams.”

Scarlet Coria

Freshman, attending California State University, Dominguez Hills from home.

View from a College Counselor

By Summer Taylor (Houston ’06)

A global pandemic robbed the Class of 2020 of the rites of passage we have grown accustomed to celebrating en masse, including move-in day on a college campus. And as the pandemic has continued into the summer and fall, I’ve felt an immense sense of guilt.

For 14 years, I have worked for organizations that promise first-generation scholars that if they work hard and persist, their resilience will result in college admission and, ultimately, a degree. Where I work at EMERGE in Houston, we go even further, promising the full college experience at top-tier institutions where students are most likely to graduate with little or no debt.

For some students and their families, educators have been hyping this promise not just for a year or two years, but since pre-K. Now it feels like we filled students with so much hope, only for them to have a huge letdown. As colleges are forced to move to virtual platforms, is this the beginning of a big change to what college is going to be like? Will dorms and student life have to change? What’s the balance now between getting kids excited for college and perpetuating a myth?

What gives me hope is the unrestrained optimism of youth. As we’ve been in touch with freshmen, we hear them acknowledging their disappointments, but then they go right on to talk about what’s exciting and cool. They’re facing their next phase with hope and joy. I’m glad they’re optimistic. It’s a good thing. They’re now the experts and the pioneers in college as it is today. We need their optimism.

Summer Taylor is the director of strategic partnerships at EMERGE, a college access program in Houston.