By Jackie Ibarra
SAN ANTONIO, Tx.—In June of 2019, I was filled with excitement as I got ready for my freshmen orientation at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). For me and many other 2019 high school seniors, it would be another summer filled with graduation parties, orientation sessions and fun in the sun. However, for the class of 2020, their summer and, ultimately, their world would be drastically different. For them, it would be a summer filled with worry about infection and stay-at-home orders from a pandemic.
For high school seniors starting college life can be stressful. To be starting college in the midst of a global pandemic that, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has claimed the lives of 140,630 people in the U.S. as of July 21, the virus can make the college process difficult, to say the least.
From record high deaths to historically high unemployment levels of 13.3%, the pandemic has been affecting millions of people and students around the world and at disproportionate rates as well. According to a Washington-Post-Ipsos Poll, Hispanics are two times more likely to lose their job during the pandemic than whites.
With Texas confirming nearly 346,000 cases and 4,160 deaths, Texas high school seniors opened up about the stressors of entering college in this world of uncertainty.
Gianna Ximenez, a South San Antonio High School and early college graduate, worked at a local movie theater with hopes to work there over the summer. But the pandemic had other plans for her. It would not only leave her without a job but it would cause both of her parents to lose theirs as well.
“For a while, we were relying on, like family members and even the school, Communities in Schools (CIS), they would provide food for us.” Ximenez said.
CIS, a non-profit organazation known for helping bridge the gap to college, along with providing academic resources for low income or first-generation students like Ximenez has now added providing food to their list of services.
Ximenez said being in this kind of financial stress left her to rethink about her dream college, University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton, a school located about 36 miles north of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“Once (the pandemic) hit, I really had to think about what the financial aspect of going to college,” Ximenez said. “We can’t even afford groceries, and paying the bills, how are we going to afford college? Why should I have that financial burden on (my parents), considering they already have so many bills to pay.”
College comes with a pretty hefty price tag especially at UT Austin where tuition can run between $5,000 and $6,500 per semester for Texas residents for the 2020-2021 school year.
Estefania Martinez Torres, another South San Antonio and Early College graduate, said finding someone to help with college applications was something she struggled with daily, especially as a first-generation college student.
“We’re first-generation students, we want help,” Torres said. “We need help and we can’t really be getting so much help at this point in time just because of everything.”
Torres can attest to waiting long periods for the college center administrator at her school, especially when she attends a high school of 500 plus students. Along with the struggles of researching answers and guidance on applications, she was not able to ask a parent for help.
“It takes a week just to get one (email) compared to a few minutes (at the college center). It’s been extremely stressful just because I’m like ‘is this (website) reliable? is it not reliable?’ because I’ve been researching stuff online on what to do.” Torres said. “My parents don’t know what’s going on. Even when I get a scholarship they’re like, ‘oh nice.’ They can’t really be excited because they don’t know much about that.”
Although she said getting answers from the college center did cause stress, what worried her the most was the safety of her family and the risk she’d be taking by leaving to attend school at UT Austin.
Torres said with her mom falling ill back in December she had to rethink about the cost of attending the school she dreamed about since middle school to stay in San Antonio and attend Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) since the financial aid package covered more of the costs.
According to the OLLU website, more than 95% of its students receive some form of financial aid. Compared to UT Austin’s data, it only offers a 50% reduction rate on tuition for students who are Texas residents and a 25% reduction for non-resident students.
“You know, what if I leave, something happens and I’m not here because I’m the only kid here,” Torres said. “I don’t want anything to happen and then I have to rush back but I don’t drive. It’s situations like that that scare me so much.”
Despite her fears, Torres decided to attend the University of Texas at Austin.
With plans to open back up in the fall, Torres worries about the social distancing protocols and the risk it would be to be on campus. UT Austin has made plans for students to come back in the fall with masks mandatory and 40% capacity for classrooms but for Torres there are still concerns that it isn’t enough to keep students safe, especially with dorm rooms planning to open again and students still having to walk around close together.
“I’m scared because I get sick really easily,” she said. “I’m just scared to go to the school, you know, and be around so many people. That’s what worries me.”
Navigating through life amidst a pandemic has caused questions to be raised and stress levels to be high for the girls, but they were determined to follow their dreams of continuing their education.
Despite grappling with the idea of even attending a university at all and instead spending the upcoming year working to save up money, Ximenez, with the guidance from her mother, decided she’d pursue her passion for education.
Luckily for Ximenez, with some scholarships and financial aid from Texas A&M University San Antonio, she would have enough to attend the school without having to take out loans or pay out of pocket allowing her to make her dream a reality.
In all the challenges and uncertainties Ximenez faced, one thing remained clear: her passion for education and wanting to become a teacher was not going anywhere.
“I just felt kind of rushed to figure out a decision of staying at home,” Ximenez said. Her decision to be an elementary school teacher was something the pandemic was not going to change.
She said seeing the countless videos of teachers in quarantine doing the most for their students inspired her even more to become a teacher. The video in particular was a teacher turning her students drawings into stuffed animals, which only motivated Ximenez.
“I don’t think the pandemic really had me change,” she said. “If anything, I saw what teachers were really trying to do for their students and trying to change their style to help their students more. That’s the kind of teacher I want to be.”
Although, for Torres, attending her dream university scares her, she said her desire to work with kids as a Speech, Language, and Pathology major would make her a lot happier than staying home.
“This has been my dream since literally middle school. I have to do it,” Torres said. “I’m not going to back out and then just not go. I just have to go.”
The pandemic has caused Torres to rethink plenty about her future. However, not all pandemic-induced pondering has been worrisome for Torres. In fact, the pandemic has actually inspired Torres to think about switching majors.
“(With the pandemic) I realized how important vaccines or anything to do with science,” she said. “So I’m kind of thinking about studying biology or Speech, Language Pathology.”
Torres mentioned to be part of the Class of 2020 is almost like being part of a club. A club where no one else besides graduating seniors would know what it’s like to be a part of. A club with strict rules to follow like staying six-feet apart and shutting down events.
For the class of 2020, the COVID-19 club has been, in their own words, stressful, hopeful and even memorable, especially for these seniors but as they graduated on June 9, they each will continue their education and help change the world.
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