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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Checking In With Milwaukee High School Grads About How The Pandemic Affected Their College Plans

Naoshi Johnson, Jeremiah Baez and Moo Ko Wah are Milwaukee high school grads who talked to WUWM about how their college plans were affected by the pandemic.

Back in April, WUWM talked with three Milwaukee high school seniors about how their college plans were made more uncertain by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the new school year is underway, we checked in with them to see how their plans panned out.

>>COVID-19 Is Making College Planning More Difficult For Milwaukee High Schoolers

Milwaukee Pulaski High School grad Jeremiah Baez has his heart set on playing basketball in college and then — he hopes — professionally. But lots of colleges canceled their basketball seasons because of the ongoing pandemic and that caused him to modify his plans.

“Once those colleges had reached out to me and said the season was getting canceled, those schools kinda just erased off my list and I was stuck between two to three different schools after that,” Baez says.

In the end, Baez says the choice was easy. He got an email offering him a spot on the team at Bryant & Stratton, a New York-based for-profit college that has a campus in Wauwatosa.

“Talking it over with my family, they said do what’s best for you, do what you want to do for your future,” Baez said. “And I just felt like that email I got from Bryant and Stratton really motivated me and got me awake to trying out basketball and giving me passion to play at the next level.”

Baez says he might transfer and finish his degree elsewhere once most schools have their basketball programs back to normal.

For the other two students WUWM talked to, the cost of college was the deciding factor. Both of them chose UW-Madison — which offers full rides to in-state students from low and moderate-income households.

>>As Free Tuition 'Promise' Programs Grow, What About Wisconsin?

Moo Ko Wah graduated from South Division High School. Her parents are refugees from Myanmar.

“My goal was to go to college debt-free, because I know my parents can’t support me,” Wah said. “So, Madison was the best choice for me, even though it’s big, the classes are large.”

Most of Wah’s friends went to UW-Milwaukee. Because of restrictions on social gatherings, it’s been difficult for her to meet new friends in Madison. Her classes are all online, so she spends a lot of time in her dorm.

“I haven’t really been going out a lot. Most of the time, I’m in my room doing my assignments. I don’t like it, it’s harder for me to learn virtual like this,” Wah said.

Naoshi Johnson is also at UW-Madison – and she has dealt with even more isolation than Wah. That’s because Johnson lives in Witte Hall, one of the dorms that was quarantined for two weeks in September because of COVID-19 outbreaks on campus.

“We had to stay in our dorm, and we could only come out 30 minutes a day, three times a day to get lunch and fresh air or whatever,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t go out and walk around or something. Because it wasn’t like I was hanging out with large groups of people or anything.”

Johnson graduated from Pulaski High School in Milwaukee. She applied to colleges in warmer climates, including in Louisiana and D.C., because she hates Wisconsin winters. She wasn’t able to visit those out-of-state schools because of the pandemic.

She went with Madison, partly because no matter which school she chose, she would still be taking classes online.

“Regardless, I’m not really getting the full experience at any university that I go to,” Johnson said. “And I know at the other universities, I would have had to take out loans and stuff, and I would have been more upset about paying tuition if the classes were online.”

Johnson, Wah, and Baez all have support from College Possible, a program that helps low-income and first-generation students navigate higher education.

College Possible coach Tori Paige says her biggest concern is that college freshmen are missing out of the social side of school.

“Your first year of college is generally when you meet that core foundation of friends, you get to kind of explore different organizations on campus,” Paige said. “And with everything being virtual, it’s a bit harder to make those friends, I think. Especially for students who are stuck to their dorms.”

College application season is getting underway now, and high school counselors are thinking about the next class of grads. Carly Weckworth oversees the college and career center at MPS’ South Division High School. MPS started the year with virtual learning, and it’s not clear when that might change.

“Their entire school year is online at this point,” Weckworth said. “You don’t get prom, you don’t get homecoming, you don’t get football games. So, I just worry about how this class is gonna survive and make it to graduation.”

Weckworth says, the class of 2020 had to deal with disruptions in their college plans. But the class of 2021 might have even more challenges.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter.
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