By Jocelyn Gonzalez, Ella Schuette and Meline Ellwanger
The first year of college is one of the most exciting times in the lives of many young adults. And so it was to be for the Ojai Valley School Class of 2020.
The members of that class spent their senior year working hard to apply to their top schools, collectively filling out and submitting hundreds of applications and pumping out just as many essays and writing supplements. Taken together, they earned admission to more than 160 colleges and universities nationwide.
They were ready to step into the next chapter of their lives. Then came COVID-19.
It has been a trying time for the 2020 graduates, their lives altered and upended by quarantine and closures and restrictions.
The vast majority of the most recent OVS graduates continued onto their colleges of choice, though most of those have started their first year as virtual learners. Some made it onto their college campuses to live and study. A few seniors decided to defer college enrollment until later this year, or even next year.
Together, they join a collection of first-year college students who are doing what is unprecedented in modern times, navigating a college system that is working overtime to keep pace with the events and uncertainties of a worldwide pandemic.
Here are some of their stories.
Olivia Brown, an alum who spent her years at Upper Campus on the stage in musicals and working hard for the journalism crew, was ready to begin her college journey at the University of San Francisco on August 15. The rise of COVID-19, however, led her to defer a year until the fall of 2021.
Olivia was hoping to get the full college experience, though the dangers of the pandemic led her to decide that taking a year off was the safer thing to do. She is spending her gap year working for her tuition at The Nest in Ojai.
“I did not see myself ever taking a gap year — to me it was completely out of the picture,” she said. “There are so many uncertainties as of now.”
Now, in her free time, she has been maintaining her education through reading literature and reading about current issues, including the struggles of the African American community.
Olivia wants to work with African American communities as well as health organizations in larger cities. Working with marginalized groups is important to her as she wants to help people find their voice.
She looks forward to beginning her journey at the USF next fall, where she hopes to pursue her career goals and help those less fortunate.
To Olivia, the gap year so far has been “eye opening,” and she gains satisfaction knowing that she is “working for a greater goal and not just to pass time.”
Former student body president Aaron Wolf began his fall quarter at UCLA on October 1. Aaron did not consider deferring because he “felt as if a year away from school or even a semester would have affected [his] study habits and ultimately hurt [him] in the long run.”
Social connections are an important factor of a college education, though Aaron said social distancing could provide a unique opportunity to improve his academic performance by eliminating outside commitments.
He admitted that “the lack of distractions would actually aid me in my first year of college and help me adjust to the rigorous academic schedule.”
Aaron recently moved into his off-campus apartment and he has stayed busy making connections with those living around him via social media. He was initially concerned about attending school virtually because he would not be able to meet people, though he created a group chat for those in his apartment complex that has gained more than 100 followers.
The social connection helped Aaron become more orientated “so that none of us would feel isolated.”
He’s also now busy with school work, taking a full virtual load that includes Cell and Molecular Biology, Mathematics for Life Scientists and a Western Civilization course. His largest class has 400 virtual students in it.
“I’m actually excited for the year ahead,” he said. “I believe that this will be an interesting year and a very important year for personal connections.”
College life was going just fine for Avery Colborn.
She moved into her dorm at Colorado College in mid-August, cleared quarantine and started taking her first class virtually, a look at American food systems called Food for Thought.
“All of my friends had hammocks so we would set those up, study, play music, play spike ball, and just hang out,” Avery explained. “My RA (resident adviser) had Just Dance so we did a lot of that too.”
But then it all came to a screeching halt.
County officials made the school send students home after 10 students tested positive, thrusting the three major dormitories into lockdown. The only students who were allowed on campus are those who needed housing and those doing in-person labs.
“Going into it I knew that this year would not be normal,” said Avery, who was a standout scholar, musician and athlete at the Upper Campus. “I honestly tried to have very little expectations for my first few weeks. I was happy to be able to move in and to have somewhat of an introduction to college life, and I’m very thankful that I was able to.”
Since the shutdown, Avery has been living with family outside of Denver. She continues to take virtual classes, which will include — Colorado College operates on the block plan, where students take one class at a time for three and a half weeks — a Spanish literature class and a class that explores global environmental change.
While she is certain she will continue virtual learning for the first semester, Avery holds out hope of returning to the campus later this school year.
“I really hope that we’ll be able to go back for the second semester,” Avery said. “I was really excited to experience the different seasons in Colorado and I’m hoping that if we get to return, it will resemble more of a normal (college) life.”
Sebastian Wayman-Dalo is having a great school year so far.
A freshman at Bowdoin College in Maine, Sebastian’s college plans were not severely affected by the pandemic. Bowdoin was able to open in late August for students to arrive and live on campus.
Sebastian takes most of his classes online, and Bowdoin has put in place some strict protocols to keep students, staff and faculty safe. Those include twice-a-week testing for all students and a mandatory face mask policy anytime students are out of their rooms.
Sebastian is fortunate enough to be living in a single room in upperclassmen housing.
During his free time, he watches movies or plays cards with his friends. He earned a spot on the school newspaper, and he is also a member of the track team, where he is the only thrower on the squad.
“Being part of a team is crucial right now because it’s a way to really get to know people and go through the same struggles,” he explained. “ It makes you forget about the normal difficulty of making close friends.”
Sebastian is taking quite a lot of classes, which includes Elementary Arabic I, Introduction to Film Music, The Global Cold War, and the Weapons of the Weak, a writing seminar about insurgent warfare mostly in the Middle East.
Sebastian’s credits Bowdoin’s rigorous COVID- 19 testing program and efficient social distancing protocols for enabling it to stay open.
“We are able to stay on campus with a very low (virtually zero) COVID case rate,” Sebastian explained.
Thomas Christopher was forced to make the very difficult decision of deferring admission to his college.
The 2020 OVS graduate was supposed to start attending Gettysburg College in mid-August, and he was ready for a new chapter of his life. But shortly before classes were set to begin, he decided it would be best for him to wait a year.
’’I decided back in July, basing my decision off of what the world situation was then,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately, it’s gotten worse in a lot of ways, especially for the college I was planning to attend.’’
Colleges across the country that have reopened this fall have struggled with spikes in COVID-19 cases. Gettysburg was no different.
After a steady uptick in COVID cases, the small, private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania restricted all students to their dorms in early September and shifted all classes online. That was only two weeks after the school opened its fall semester. Since then, Gettysburg has taken steps to reduce its residential numbers by creating a residential cohort and a remote cohort where students study online.
With that news, Thomas is glad he sat out the year.
Instead of attending college, he is currently in Ojai, working and saving up money for the next college year by working for his father’s company.
“I’m working for my pops at the moment, spending half my time tending our grove and the other half working for his ‘company’ Mustard LLC, where I do data entry and editorial work for, somewhat ironically, a scholarship database,” Thomas said.
Besides working and saving up money, he is also doing some self-guided studies in history, which is his planned major. Thomas is an avid history buff, which was demonstrated throughout his years at OVS, especially on his Capstone project, a 50-minute documentary about the history of the Corsair fighter jets in WWII.
Despite missing a year of college, Thomas knows he made the right choice. he most important thing for him is to have a good college experience, and if that means he will have to wait another year, he will gladly do so.
“’More than anything else, I want a normal college experience, and I (wouldn’t be) getting that anytime in the next school year,’’ he said.
Former OVS vice president Joshua Hsu is currently attending online classes from his home in Taiwan.
Joshua was scheduled to move to his college, Michigan State University, on September 2 but due to the pandemic he was not able to do so. The campus closed its doors and is not planning to open until January and switched to remote learning for the whole school.
Joshua is taking five classes, most of which are asynchronous, meaning he has to study by himself and has no actual class.
“’Having to take college classes online is very complicated,” he said. “Each teacher uses different platforms making it really difficult and complicated to keep up with the work’’
When college started, the university tried helping students transition into the new remote learning environment. The school tried helping students figure out the daily schedules and how classes would work by having orientation activities and walkthroughs.
“They tried their best explaining everything, but it will never come close to being in- person,’’ Joshua said.
Joshua described his freshman college experience as ’’preposterous and unexpected,’’ and said he is sad and disappointed that he didn’t get the chance to have the typical freshman experience.
The university will keep its door closed for the entire first semester, and no decision has yet been made about second semester. Like so many students, Joshua is hoping to salvage at least part of his freshman year by heading to campus in January and finally being able to live a normal college life.
“I am scared but also excited for what this year will have to offer,’’ he said.