COVID-19 poses difficult dilemma for rising college freshmen

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Courtesy of Fiona Courogen

COVID-19 solidified senior Fiona Courogen’s plan to take a gap year. In 2021, she will attend Colorado State University.

By Cate Bikales, Lincoln High School - OR

COVID-19 has created a challenging situation for current high school seniors: go to college in the fall or skip it?

According to a national survey of 487 rising college freshmen conducted by the Art & Science Group, a higher-education consulting firm, one in six high school seniors who originally planned to attend a four-year college before the COVID-19 pandemic now thinks they will change their plans for the fall. Students at Lincoln are no different. 

“Until school was canceled, I was certain that I was going to Tulane University in New Orleans. It had the programs I was looking for, it was easy to double major and I loved the campus. Yet, when it became apparent that COVID-19 was no small issue, I realized that I had to change my plans in order to have a normal college career,” says senior Stella Harkness, who is now attending the Oregon State (OSU) Honors College. 

One of the main reasons why Harkness chose to attend OSU over Tulane was because of its location in New Orleans– the hardest-hit coronavirus location in Louisiana– meaning that the school is unlikely to open in the fall. Conversely, OSU is located in Benton County, which has only had 51 coronavirus cases as of May 15. Making the decision to attend OSU was extremely difficult for Harkness.

“Tulane was my dream school. I grew up in the south and, though I disagree with the common view of things like abortion rights or LGBTQ+ rights, I miss the culture,” says Harkness. “I would have loved to live in New Orleans and celebrate things like Mardi Gras.” 

Despite the difficulty of the decision, Harkness believes she chose the correct path for the fall.

“Going to Tulane, I would have been worried about making the most of the experience because of the price tag. Going to OSU opens doors for graduate plans and I get to live on campus in the fall,” she says.

COVID-19 has also led many students to choose a gap year over going to school in the fall. At Lincoln, the virus solidified this plan for many students. 

“I was planning on taking a gap year before [COVID-19] hit. [The virus] only gave me more of an incentive to take a year off before college, because no one wants to spend their first year in college online,” says Sumner Rahr, who will be attending Colby College in the fall of 2021.

For Rahr, there have been many positives to Governor Brown’s stay-at-home order.

“Once the virus hit and we were forced to stay home, I really started working hard on the things that were important to me such as music. I felt the gap year was necessary to continue my stride and hopefully get somewhere,” he says. “I can’t wait to start my gap year. College will be there for me, but just a little later.”

COVID-19 also solidified senior Fiona Courogen’s plan to take a gap year. In 2021, she will attend Colorado State University.

“Even though COVID-19 has brought a lot of new factors into the college decision process that I normally wouldn’t have to consider, it hasn’t actually had a significant impact on my final decision,” says Courogen. “In the end, COVID-19 has actually affirmed my decision and made me more confident that a gap year is the best way for me to maximize what I take away from my college experience. I don’t want to sacrifice experiences like orientation week, living in dorms, going to classes, meeting professors, enjoying football games and making new friends.”

Not being able to travel has caused a difficulty for some who had planned for gap years.

“This fall I was supposed to spend a semester in South America with Carpe Diem, a gap year organization focused on cultural exchange and hands-on experiential learning. While it was pretty disappointing to learn that I won’t be taking this trip, I have to remember to keep things in perspective,” says Courogen.

Like others, Courogen believes she made the correct decision. 

“Knowing myself and my own goals for the next few years, I think I made the right decision,” says Courogen. “Sure, my gap year probably won’t play out how I wanted it to, but the only thing I can do right now is adapt and keep an open mind. After all, there is no right or wrong way to spend a gap year, and I will ultimately get out what I put into it.”

The coronavirus pandemic has changed many prospective college students’ plans while simultaneously solidifying others. High school students face a new reality due to COVID-19, both in school and out. 

“COVID-19 has highlighted the alarming gaps in our healthcare system and government, and now more than ever, there is an urgent need for young people to step up and be the agents of change that our country desperately needs,” says Courogen. “[The virus] has opened my eyes to the fact that school, whether it be high school or college, is not a means to an end– rather, it is an opportunity to build connections, develop as a person and appreciate my community as much as I possibly can. The opportunity to go to college is a great privilege that many of us, including myself, sometimes take for granted.”

This story was originally published on The Cardinal Times on May 20, 2020.