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High School Seniors Ask College Students Their Burning Questions: COVID-19 Edition


For the past year, college hasn't really looked like college. Some campuses are closed even when they're open. Lots of schools are doing classes largely or exclusively online. One thing that hasn't changed - the price.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: We have seen only a few colleges give some sort of COVID discount, like a handful. So the majority price is the same, whether it's online or in-person.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny. She's been covering this wild year in higher ed. So the stakes are still high, in some cases $50,000 a year high. And with so much unknown about the fall semester, high school seniors have lots of questions. We've collected some. And to answer them, we've got Elissa here and also a couple of college students who you actually met in your reporting, right, Elissa?

NADWORNY: That's right. Yeah. We've talked to each other before, been tracking their progress as freshmen.

CORNISH: And I'm going to start with Adam Ahmad, who's a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. Welcome.

ADAM AHMAD: Thank you. Thank you.

CORNISH: And Ayiana Davis Polen, a freshman attending Spelman College in Atlanta. Welcome to you.


CORNISH: Our first question comes from Destiny Henderson. She goes to Houston Academy for International Studies. And here she is.

DESTINY HENDERSON: I really am curious about how you build, like, a college community online. I'm not sure if I'm going to be all online or, like, hybrid or in-person yet. And I want to still have, like, the freshman year experience where you're figuring everything out and getting to build, like, your lifelong friends from college. And I don't know if that's going to be possible. And it's nervous - it makes me nervous, rather.

CORNISH: So, Adam Ahmad, I want to start with you because you have joined clubs. Can you talk about what that process was like and if you were nervous going into it?

AHMAD: I was, but I found it quite easy. UC Berkeley has a club directory that I utilized. I reached out via email. I went on social media websites such as Reddit and Discord trying to find members who are within those communities that I can engage with. And the only real piece of advice that I have when it comes to it is you're going to have to really engage, especially, you know, in an online format...

CORNISH: Meaning you've got to send that first email or first text to say, hi, please talk to me.


AHMAD: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. Yes.

CORNISH: Ayiana, for you, what were those initial attempts like to, as Destiny is saying, build community?

DAVIS POLEN: So I'm a more of a reserved person. For me, I really use, like academics. We all have, like, group chats and stuff our classes. And so, you know, instead of being quiet, if I needed help or something, I was in a group chat like, hey, like, I'm struggling with this. Does anyone understand this assignment? And literally, like, one of the girls that I'm close to now, she FaceTimed me and said, I'm struggling with this, too. Like, let's figure it out. And after that, like, we, like, talk almost every day. But for me, it was difficult because I am reserved. But I still did want that sense of community.

CORNISH: I want to follow up with another question from Destiny. And I think this one, Ayiana, you can start with the answer. And here she is.

HENDERSON: I want to know if living on campus right now is worth the risk because living in a dorm is a big draw for any student. And I always wanted to be in one and, like, have that experience. So I wonder if it's worth the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

DAVIS POLEN: So there's many factors that play a role into it. One, knowing how your school is operating. So knowing that I would get tested twice a week, knowing that it's like less than 200 of us on campus, knowing that the school has explicitly said, hey, if the numbers get too high on campus or too high in Atlanta, we're shutting school down - and also knowing to have self-discipline. So wearing your mask, things of that nature. So I don't think there is a yes or no or, you know, black or white answer to it. I think it really depends on all the factors playing a role in your particular situation.

CORNISH: The next question is actually about selecting a school, and it comes from Logan Fleming from Windermere, Fla. And the pandemic has meant, to him, he's had limited opportunities to actually visit colleges in person.

LOGAN FLEMING: I haven't been able to experience the campus on foot when I normally would like to. I don't know the city around it. And I haven't been able to, like, speak in person with the tour guides, with people there. And so how do I know I'm making the right decision of my next four years?

CORNISH: Elissa, I'm going to start with you first. What are some things that you're seeing students are doing or can do to get a sense of the colleges?

NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, the best advice I've heard from students is that they've reached out to current students to talk to. You can do this through the admissions office. But you can also just use social media. So talking to a student who's especially this last year lived through a COVID year, what's that been like? How have the supports been? I think the big things that students should look at when they're trying to pick an institution, of course money. The finances are going to be top of mind.

CORNISH: Is there anything students can do if they're not offered enough financial aid - right? - to affird their first choice school?

NADWORNY: Well, look. You filled out the FAFSA, which is the federal aid form. That information is pre-pandemic. So a lot of stuff happened in the last year, which means that right now, when students are getting their financial aid offers, they aren't enough. So you can absolutely go back to your school and ask for more money. There's a great tool called SwiftStudent that helps you write the form letter that you need to submit to the financial aid office to say, look, all these things happened to me. My family maybe lost a job. COVID has impacted me. I need more money for school. And schools are ready for this. They know it's been a crazy year financially for families.

CORNISH: Our next student question comes from Emily Borbon, who goes to John F. Kennedy High School in Denver.

EMILY BORBON: My first question was, how have professors helped students during the adjustment to online classes? I ask this because, like, it's been such a crazy time. And, like, for as long as I can remember, all my teachers have always said, like, your professors won't help you. They're going to be so much more mean to you than we are, that it's going to be so much harder. And doing this all online is, like, so stressful. Like, I have no idea how much more challenging that's going to be.

CORNISH: OK. We'll put aside the fact that Emily's teachers are scaring her going into college.


CORNISH: I don't know what that's about. But, Adam, do you have a response to her question about professors?

AHMAD: I do. I have found that professors are very understanding of the extenuating circumstances that you can't control. The fact that we're not all in a classroom means that we're not all being subjected to the same exact circumstances. I found myself extremely sick back in January and just emailed all my professors. No medical proof was required. They were very understanding. And I received extensions. Likewise, I've had some of my peers mention certain family issues that have came up, and their professors have been quite understanding, providing alternative exam dates for midterms and stuff of that nature. Communication is really key.

DAVIS POLEN: And also, another thing that allows you kind of that ability to communicate with your teachers when you do have a situation and you need more time is always be present as a student. So make sure you are turning in the assignments on time. Make sure you are doing everything you need to do, so that when you do have a situation, they will respond in a way that will favor you or favor your situation. So I think communication is also huge. And don't go in scared of this narrative that we kind of get in high school because it's really not like that.

CORNISH: All right. So we have one last question. This one is also from Emily.

BORBON: What would you have wanted to know going into this year that you think would have helped you during this crazy time? Like, what am I not going to be expecting?

CORNISH: All right. Adam, what would have helped you?

AHMAD: Oh, I mean, despite my involvement in various on-campus organizations, don't - just don't expect it to be the same caliber as it would, you know, during non-COVID, non-pandemic times. While still great, the social interaction is great, it's not the same. And so going into it with an open mind and understanding that you shouldn't be trying to achieve what was but should be looking forward to what is or what can be.


CORNISH: That's Adam Ahmad, a freshman at UC Berkeley. You also heard from Ayiana Davis Polen, a freshman at Spelman College in Atlanta, and from NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.