Amid the coronavirus pandemic, several flaws within the U.S. education system — and American society at large — have surfaced and worsened. All of our systems prioritize the rich and the able.
As a college student, I am always thinking of the individuals who have yet to apply to college in the ongoing crisis. I do not think something as basic and essential as education should be as challenging as it is for BIPOC — Black, Indigenous and People of Color — or low-income students. However, that seems to be where we’re at, especially now.
I wish the opportunity to attend college was attainable for any student willing and interested in doing so, rather than exclusive to those who have the privilege and resources to navigate the obstacles. Upward mobility has never been a straight line for BIPOC and low-income communities.
I worry that the coronavirus is going to erase access to opportunity for low-income students and students of color. Because unlike a pandemic, inaccessibility to higher education isn’t felt by everyone. I went through it two years ago with help from a free virtual advising program called Matriculate, which is part of College Point. And now I advise other high school students from low-income families.
Even with perfect conditions, students like me who are applying to college hesitate to take that leap of faith. The pandemic has made some students — in both high school and college — rethink whether they can afford to pursue higher education, as demonstrated by a decline in Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) renewals since the pandemic hit. Add to that the disturbing persecution of BIPOC communities throughout the nation, and it’s easy to see how any student might lose hope or, worse still, fall into fear and self-doubt.
Low-income students are often the first to crack under that pressure because they aren’t always able to juggle the inherent stress of college applications with tricky financial situations. From the moment their grades begin to drop, students may give up right then and there, not knowing that some institutions are willing to take into account special circumstances and accommodate bright students. Now more than ever, students need as much active and ongoing support as they can get.
As a first-year college student, I feel undeniably privileged with the financial support and stability provided by the institution I attend, Tufts University in Massachusetts. I didn’t know something like this existed until I was informed by my Matriculate advisor. At school, I’ve been able to study and work on campus to support my family back home for when there are delays in their income. Even during the pandemic, Tufts has ensured that students like me can maintain the work-study income we rely on. As many know, families like mine weren’t eligible to receive stimulus checks.
I am lucky to have a place to return to and resume my college education when this is all over. My heart is always with students who do not have enough support, especially now. It breaks my heart to hear low-income students say, “I don’t think I belong in college.” The systemic inequality engrained in our culture is infuriating. I appreciate programs like Matriculate because rather than merely address the problem, they represent a step toward the solution.
My brother, as a first-generation college student, endured many adversities to pursue higher education. He had no one to inform him of opportunities out there for students like him with DACA status. He had no choice but to start at a community college close to our home in Florida. Persistent as he was, it took him six years to earn his bachelor’s degree. This is common for students in similar situations.
When it was my turn to apply to college, I had my older brother to learn from as well as the support of my Matriculate advisor, a Latina sophomore at Cornell University. I had my doubts about achieving my dream of going to college in the Northeast. My advisor not only understood my doubts firsthand — she pushed me to discover what I was truly capable of. This is part of the reason that I am as confident and successful as I am now at a place like Tufts.
I was in the middle of the certification process to become a college adviser with Matriculate as the coronavirus pandemic worsened. It seemed to me that our virtual advising cohort was at the right place at the right time — ready to support low-income students actively so they can attend the best colleges and get a chance to turn their lives around despite the pandemic.
However, I recognize the reality of the situation and how unlikely things are to return to normal anytime soon. I am very fearful that schools will reopen too soon in a desperate attempt to return to normal and we will face a second evacuation. And I am fearful that Covid-19 will wipe out what access low-income students like me have to education and opportunity.
I hear many individuals using the phrase “a new normal” in reference to changes post-quarantine. I sincerely hope this new normal also empowers BIPOC communities and eliminates institutionalized obstacles that prevent them from thriving socially, economically and politically.
This story about the guidance gap was produced by was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Pamela Melgar is a second-generation Guatemalan immigrant born and raised in Miami, a student at Tufts University in Massachusetts and a CollegePoint virtual adviser.