They did everything right to get into college. Coronavirus changes things, students say


For college-bound high school seniors and transfer students, one of the most consequential decisions of their young lives is riddled with uncertainties over affordability, safety, family obligations and “choosing blind” without campus visits, as one student put it.

Here’s how students said they are making their college decisions amid the coronavirus emergency:

Sonali Jacinto, 18, William S. Hart High School

Jacinto visited Arizona State University last fall and fell in love with the big-school atmosphere and football culture. Shortly after getting admitted last month, she accepted the offer and paid the $400 nonrefundable deposit.

That was before the coronavirus crisis. With her mom’s hours as a restaurant manager cut, Jacinto’s family finances are weighing more heavily on her. Now she is considering staying closer to home and attending California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, a private school that offered her far more financial aid.

Jacinto is weighing the community college option, too — though she would never have considered it a few months ago. “I like how that would be saving a lot of money, but I also just want to go out and experience my freshman year living in the dorms,” she said. “But then again, I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”


Makailah Jenkins, 18, George Washington Preparatory High School

Jenkins has persevered in school despite homelessness, domestic abuse, the death of a baby brother and an unstable family life until finding a supportive foster home last year. She says a loving mentor, therapy and meditation have helped her heal and stay focused on her college goals.

She was set to attend a summer program required for full admission to Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university in Charlotte, N.C. But the pandemic has caused the campus to cancel the program. Instead, Jenkins will attend San Francisco State University, where she plans to major in sociology and minor in chemistry.

“I’m proud of my resiliency and how strong I managed to be to come out of everything,” she said.

Jemere Calhoun, 36, L.A. City College

Calhoun juggles community college courses, three part-time jobs and care for his 5-year-old daughter. He went back to school later in life to pursue a career in mental health — and is steadfast in his resolve to continue this fall at a four-year university so he doesn’t fall off track.

He has already been accepted to UC Santa Cruz and awaits news from USC, his top choice. The coronavirus outbreak has made him wary of leaving L.A. Starting remotely at a college hundreds of miles away is unappealing, and he’s worried about mid-semester disruptions that will leave him scrambling to find a new job or housing.

“Logistically at this point, it may just be easier to stay local,” Calhoun said.

Sebastian Cazares, 19, College of the Canyons

Cazares hopes this fall to transfer to UCLA. He is passionate about activism, coming from a family whose members joined Cesar Chavez’s farmworker movement. He intends to major in political science and go on to law school.

He had carefully set his plans in place. Cazares had completed most of his transfer requirements before this semester and enrolled in only two classes so he could save money working as a campus tutor and at a restaurant. But now those jobs are gone.

If he can’t find work, he plans to live at home with his parents in Santa Clarita and commute by bus to school. He will put work over student activism, school leadership and internships because it’s “super hard” to juggle everything. “At that point, all that’s a luxury,” he said of extracurriculars.

Crystal Salinas, 17, William S. Hart High School

Salinas has already submitted her intent to enroll at California Baptist University. The private school in Riverside will cover 80% of Salinas’ tuition, room and board, about $40,000. But Salinas said proximity was important, too: In an emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be easier to come home.

Salinas, who plans to major in science, hopes to join CBU’s debate team and student government. She already found her roommates and is eager for dorm life. But she is still waiting to see what her university decides about fall instruction.

If online learning continues, she said, she will likely take a gap year to volunteer abroad or perhaps enroll in community college. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable going to school doing online learning for my first semester of college, especially knowing the amount I’d be paying,” she said.

Andrew Soto, 17, San Pedro High School

Attending the University of Chicago became Soto’s dream shortly after he learned, during his eighth-grade history class, about student activists from the campus who protested housing segregation in the 1960s.

The first in his family to pursue a college degree, the advanced placement student and drum major bused tables and washed dishes in high school to help make ends meet. In December, he was accepted through early decision to the University of Chicago with a full scholarship. The coronavirus crisis is not cutting short his dream, he said.

Metzli Cruz, 17, Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High School

Cruz was still a toddler when her mother’s boss told her to aim for college to help her working-class parents and show the world minorities could succeed. She absorbed that message and is graduating this spring from Mendez High School in Boyle Heights as class valedictorian with a perfect grade point average.

But amid the pandemic, she is scrambling to find $300 to cover the deposit for USC because money is tight now that both her parents have lost work at a beauty salon and cosmetics factory. Cruz, who attends the public school campus operated by the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, also was accepted into top University of California schools — Los Angeles, Berkeley, San Diego, Davis and Santa Barbara — and wait-listed at Stanford, Brown and New York University.

“I’ve done everything I could to be at the top of my class,” she said.

Jasmine Oang, 18, Arcadia High School

Oang won early admission to Yale University in December but was planning to make her final decision after visiting the New Haven, Conn., campus this month for the annual “Bulldog Days” welcome events for admitted students. The events have been moved online; she has tuned in to master classes on writing and constitutional law, a talk by the admissions dean and YouTube videos about student life.

But it’s nothing like an actual visit, she said, to assess whether Yale lives up to one of her top criteria: a balance between nature and city life. She also considered UC Berkeley, drawn to its competitive academic environment, but will probably head east to major in political science.

“It’s a gamble,” she said about committing to Yale sight unseen, “but not only are they academically strong, they also have a nice supportive environment.”

Dasani Anderson, 18, George Washington Preparatory High School

Anderson grew up on welfare with a single mother whose family struggled with substance abuse. She suffered from low self-esteem and bullying. But she persevered, she said, because she and her mother knew that education was the way to a better life.

She dreamed of leaving Los Angeles to attend Spelman College, the nation’s top-rated historically black college. But even though she saved money from a part-time restaurant job to visit the Atlanta campus during spring break, the pandemic shut down those plans. Now she’s leaning toward UCLA. She hopes to major in chemistry and become a neurologist to understand the strokes that have disabled family members.

“I’ve always stayed on track to succeed, and I’m not going to let anything get in the way of that,” she said. “I was always determined to be something so my mom could be something.”

Keenia Mata, 17, Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High School

Mata was in fourth grade when she told her parents she wanted to transfer to a charter school her brother’s friend attended. She wanted tougher academic challenges, she said, even at that young age. Her parents never attended college but supported her all the way — including shelling out scarce dollars to buy her a laptop in high school.

She gave up weekends to bus to UCLA for extra advanced placement course study sessions and achieved a 4.27 GPA. She wanted to attend college outside California — perhaps Bucknell University in Pennsylvania — but the coronavirus crisis changed her mind. She’ll probably choose UC Berkeley to stay closer to home.

“I want to be near my family,” she said. “They’ve given me all they could.”

Avery Kim, 18, South Pasadena High School

Kim was attracted to the University of Oregon because she has attention deficit disorder and the campus is known for strong support services for students with learning differences. Her first campus visit nearly sealed the deal, when she saw the lush greenery and adjacent river.

But she was uncertain whether she could afford to attend because her parents are helping support a relative who lost his gigs as a DJ when the pandemic hit. She also wanted to make one last visit to other possible choices, including the University of Colorado Boulder, but campus tours were canceled. The Oregon campus came through with a $5,000 scholarship, however, so Kim is headed there to study nursing.

“I totally caught the vibe,” she said of the university. “I can definitely see myself there.”

Lester Cedeño, 18, Middle College High School

Cedeño’s unusual academic experiences have caught the eye of several colleges. At Middle College High in San Bernardino, he took half his classes at a nearby community college and will graduate with both a high school diploma and two-year associate’s degree.

He’s been offered admission to UC flagships — Los Angeles, Berkeley and San Diego — and hopes to major in molecular and cellular biology. He is leaning toward Berkeley, he said, because it’s offered extra academic support and is more diverse than his largely Mexican American school. He is wary of committing without visiting, but friends who attend Cal have given it high marks.

“It’s going to be a huge cultural shift, but I’m interested in branching out,” he said.

Jeffrey Lee, 18, Arcadia High School

Lee’s research into colleges has been colored by the pandemic. He is investigating the usual areas — the strength of college programs in English or communications, his likely major, and the generosity of financial aid offers. But he is also looking at how campuses have supported students during the coronavirus crisis. If they’ve pushed students off campus, especially if they have nowhere safe to go, he said, they’re off his list.

He remains undecided but has narrowed his choices to UC Berkeley, USC and New York University. All three have shown sensitivity to students and offered support, he said.

“It’s a measuring stick of how much they care about students,” he said.