By Shannon Jeffries
College & Career Coordinator
District of Columbia International School
As a college counselor at the District of Columbia International School (DCI), I am constantly looking for better ways to engage and inspire my students. When COVID-19 hit, that desire shifted into overdrive. With nearly 70 kids, our inaugural graduating class at DCI is ready to take on the world – but it was not an easy task amid the pandemic.
Transitioning to distance learning has been difficult for every grade level, but add in college decision making and one has a completely new set of challenges. At DCI, we’ve shifted to distance learning by providing a rigorous remote learning experience for students. Making the decision of which college to attend feels like the choice of a lifetime for a student, and the realities of COVID-19 exacerbated this.
In my work counseling seniors on college admissions, I’ve seen what was traditionally “decision day” turn into decision month. Colleges and universities were busy adjusting to distance learning and these challenges from higher education trickled down to high school students receiving delayed communication from admissions and financial aid. Thankfully, many colleges delayed their decision deadlines while students adjusted to the new world, and we worked with them to understand their scholarships and financial aid in a time of such uncertainty.
Without in-person counseling, at first, many students stumbled particularly around completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and other financial aid forms. Further, for students in the District, many apply for the DC Tuition Assistance Grant (DC TAG) which usually requires a lot of physical paperwork. This year, many of the resources went online, but with notaries difficult to find during COVID-19, and many parents unable to rectify issues with taxes in person, we anticipated a drop in applications for the grant. Many first generation students and their families struggled with a lack of information and infrastructure to answer their questions. Now, I’m working, as many of my colleagues at other schools are, to provide the support these students and families need. Fortunately, DC TAG has moved the deadline to July, but there is still much work to be done to encourage students to apply for the grant, and to help them navigate the process.
Despite the many obstacles presented by COVID-19, we have stepped up to help students in many ways by being flexible, providing students with a number of resources and amplifying numerous methods for staying up-to-date. While seniors finished their courses, we doubled down on reaching out to them and prioritized helping them secure their next steps. I have connected with every student by hosting Zoom calls, chatting via Google hangouts, sending emails and using a texting platform. Through Zoom, I’ve been able to host a number of senior meetings and I have posted my presentations online using Google Classroom. By using the texting platform Remind, I can even send Zoom links directly to students’ cell phones to help students stay on target and not miss deadlines. We have continued to be flexible and directed parents and students to resources like the DC College Access Program (DC-CAP) to help with DC TAG and FAFSA. DCI is also executing a senior questionnaire to help us guide future supports for graduating classes. Overall, by increasing our resources for students, we are hoping to bridge the information gap caused by the virus.
Even in this difficult time, we are working diligently to create the best situation for our students. DCI hosted a virtual college choice celebration via Zoom where we invited students, parents and staff to hear from graduates. We encouraged each graduate to wear their college t-shirt and even provided funds for students to purchase t-shirts if they were unable to. On the Zoom, each graduate was given time to present his or her plan for next year and we created a Padlet to honor our graduates. On June 8th we hosted a parking lot graduation supplies pickup followed by a full virtual graduation ceremony on June 12th.
Looking at the fall, we have already started to prepare our rising seniors for the reality of virtual college visits, adjusted testing, and potential changes to application processes. And for our graduates, we have hired an additional staff member for the college office, who will be there for our first class of graduates as they navigate their time beyond DCI. While COVID-19 has had a drastic impact on our education system, we have learned a lot over the past few months and started to implement helpful tactics that benefit our students in the long run. While we couldn’t celebrate in person this year, I hope that we sent our graduates off with an energy to do anything they set their minds to and a reassurance that we will be here to help, even after they have graduated.