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‘It’s finally here’: Are colleges prepared to receive a first-year cohort shaped by COVID-19?

A girl wearing a tan dress holds a laptop box and a bag. She stands next to a woman wearing a pink shirt.
Kai Grover poses with her aunt, holding a new laptop and other items from her Ada S. McKinley Community Services trunk scholarship. “My aunt is my biggest cheerleader you can have, my mascot, my everything — the whole football team,” Kai said.
Maia Spoto/Chalkbeat Chicago

Clifford Armstead III’s hardest goodbye before college dresses up in his clothes and shoes and follows him around all day.

It’s his baby brother. Since the pandemic’s onset, Clifford (“CJ”) and his brother, nicknamed “SJ,” have grown used to staying up well past SJ’s bedtime — they’ll fall asleep on the couch together watching animated movies: the Cars series, Frozen, Big Hero 6. Now more than ever, the five-year-old “teddy bear” is Clifford’s mini-me.

“I tell him I’m going to FaceTime him when I get down there,” Clifford said, about when he heads to Howard University.

The brothers have always been close. The pandemic just brought them closer. And that will make the goodbye even more of a challenge.

For Clifford, as for many in his cohort of first-year college students, a year and a half of pandemic schooling and the rising threat of the delta variant have reshaped the questions they confront in the countdown to college move-in.

Across the country, as students, families, and schools face the prospect of a new COVID-19 surge, many colleges and universities are contemplating mask and vaccine mandates — and some young adults are reconsidering where they’ll be in the fall. Some feel a stronger pull from home and family, others grapple with loss, and many worry new coronavirus variants could render the transition even more isolating.

Those worries, mingled with hope, seemed to circulate through the line at Ada S. McKinley Community Services’ college trunk scholarship day at the end of July, where 50 rising first-years from Chicago picked up new technology, dorm essentials, and other school supplies to help ease their transition.

Among the students were Clifford, who is racing to see extended family before he leaves for Washington D.C., Kyelah Risper, who is wrapping herself in music as she counts down the days, and Kai Grover, who daydreams about her freshman fall even as she warily watches her school’s pandemic safety policies shift.

Clifford, who leaves for Howard University in a couple of weeks, is looking forward to an upcoming family reunion and college send-off, which will mark the first time in more than a year that he will see his grandmother, godparents, little cousins, and other family members all together.

“I get a little teary-eyed,” the Leo Catholic High School graduate said. “But I’m ready to go.”

Family is everything to Clifford, who plans to study architecture. After he graduates from Howard, Clifford plans to come home and build his relatives a strong, sturdy house, big enough to fit everyone at that family reunion, with a lot of room for the kids to run around.

“I want to give back to the community,” Clifford says. “Not just leave, turn around, and walk away.”

Faced with the decision between Berklee College of Music (“the Harvard of music”) and Jackson State University this spring, Kyelah Risper chose family ties — and Jackson State, where her aunt and uncle went to school. She’ll double-major in music education and business administration, with the dream of starting her own music school one day.

Before the pandemic hit, Kyelah split her time between work, school, and band practice. The Dunbar Vocational Career Academy graduate needed everything to be done — and done right — and she gave herself little room to breathe.

This year has forced her to slow down. She finally had time to write her first single, which she’s releasing soon on iTunes. It’s titled “Outthinker,” and it’s about women reclaiming expectations and refusing to let others decide their lives for them.

Kyelah is nervous but confident she’ll tackle the challenges ahead.

“I’ve been counting down for the entire month [of July],” said Kyelah, who leaves for Mississippi on Aug. 13. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god … I’m happy, I’m happy, it’s finally here.’”

Wendell Phillips Academy High School graduate Kai Grover has also reckoned with confidence this year.

In the spring of 2020, she moved out of her childhood home to live with her aunt and built a new life from the ground up. She’s her own worst critic, and the transition made her doubt her worth. Even though she had “always been a school person” and earned great grades, Grover felt surprised when she was accepted by more than 10 schools.

Are they really talking about me?, she wondered as loved ones cheered her on. Are they sure they got the right person?

“I’m not used to being in the spotlight,” she said. “Knowing that all these people are going to congratulate me, it makes me nervous.”

Kai will study communications at Quincy University on a merit scholarship — and already pictures it vividly in her mind:

She’ll have a whiteboard calendar full of post-it notes and a decorated nook for her computer in her dorm. She’ll walk around on campus with her friends, and grab food together at the dining hall. She’ll sit in the front row for all of her classes, and raise her hand often.

But new coronavirus variants and shifting safety policies are dampening Kai’s hopes. She’s not changing any plans just yet, but she’s worried that the latest pandemic wave will make it harder to socialize and build community.

That’s a future problem. For now, Kai is celebrating wins. Her internship just wrapped up, and the essay she wrote for Ada S. McKinley’s competition won third place.

“It definitely makes me a little nervous-happy,” Kai said. “Not like, nervous-nervous, but nervous-happy … I’m like, this is crazy right now.”

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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