Malcolm McClymont, 18, in front of his family home in Oakland, CA. The Bishop O'Dowd graduate will be attending Purdue University this year as a freshman. Credit: Jason Nguyen

The end of August marks the beginning of the academic year for many college students in Oakland. Any other year, for incoming freshmen, it would be a time of leaving home, spreading one’s wings, and asserting a greater level of independence. But starting college, like so many other aspects of life during the pandemic, looks very different in 2020.

For this story, two college-bound Oaklanders, Jason Nguyen and Jared Medina, teamed up to interview and photograph other young people from the Town who, like themselves, are navigating the transition from high school to college and young adulthood during the pandemic. They produced the story for The Oaklandside during their summer internship at YouthBeat, a local nonprofit organization that provides Oakland teens and young adults digital media training, professional mentorship, and employment opportunities. Jason wrote the intro and took the portraits, and both authors contributed interviews.

Back in March, I naively thought that this whole pandemic would just be an extended spring break. I never expected I’d be taking my AP tests, which I’d spent the entire year studying for, and completing my high school journey at East Bay Innovation Academy, all from the comfort of my home. Yet here I am, at my family’s house in the Laurel District, still sitting in front of my laptop. 

Jason Nguyen will be spending his first semester at Pomona College taking classes online from his home in the Laurel District. Credit: courtesy of Jason Nguyen

I started taking classes this week, remotely, at Pomona College. I’d originally enrolled at CSU Long Beach but decided late in the summer to commit to Pomona. I keep emailing CSULB to officially un-enroll but haven’t heard back from anyone—I guess their offices are probably flooded right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the spring; I only know that I’m going to be at home this semester doing distance learning. Whenever Pomona does reopen I’m going to be a little concerned about safety, but I definitely plan on leaving home and going there as soon as I can. 

Jared Medina graduated from Skyline High School last fall. He plans to start at Berkeley City College in the spring semester. Credit: Jason Nguyen

Jared, my co-author for this article, just graduated from Skyline High School and is navigating his own path to college. He tried to enroll at Berkeley City College but had some problems—he told me the online system wasn’t easily letting him select his classes for the semester, even though he was admitted back in late-May. Then he had a really hard time finding an actual person or counselor to help him since the campus is physically closed. So he decided to postpone college until next semester when he’s hoping he’ll be able to attend in person. Until then, he’ll be working—he just landed a job and is currently being trained at UPS. 

The pandemic is affecting us both in different ways, and we know it’s impacting a lot of other college-bound youth in Oakland as well; disrupting what is usually an exciting rite of passage. We wanted to know how others are experiencing the moment, so we interviewed four students about how their college plans this fall have changed, and what they’re doing to cope.

Sophia Hawkins, 18, Oakland Technical High School graduate and Drexel University freshman

Sophia Hawkins in front of her family home in Oakland. The Oakland Tech grad will be leaving for Drexel University in September. Credit: Jason Nguyen

My school decided to develop a hybrid style of learning, so half of my classes will be on campus and then the other half will be online. So it’s kind of a half-and-half approach and I’m leaving in September. I’m not worried about the safety of in-person courses, I just don’t want to get COVID from being on an airplane. I feel kind of wack, to be honest. I have no choice but to do the year online; it’s like you either come in person or you’re not in the school.

My home life has been pretty decent. I’ve had a couple of mishaps, like living exactly right next to your mom is not fun sometimes, but we’ve worked through our issues. I feel like I got closer to my mom and my older brother. We used to not spend much time together because I’m usually at school and my older brother has to work a lot, but now when he’s off work we watch movies together and stuff. It’s cool.

I go out with my friends but we don’t do stuff that we’re not supposed to be doing. We like to drive around and then we go to viewpoints and stuff and just sit in the car. Throughout this quarantine, I’ve been able to expand myself as a person. I’ve seen a lot of personal growth and have been forcing myself to deal with a lot of internal issues that I had. This also showed me people who I should not have in my life anymore, so I’m very appreciative of that. I watch a lot of YouTube videos about adulting and I’m gonna start watching videos about how to file taxes and start applying to a couple of jobs once quarantine is over. Getting my own income is really what I’m focused on next.

Leia Barnes, 18, Holy Names High School graduate and Lehigh University freshman

Leia Barnes in front of her family home in Oakland, CA. She’ll be attending Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania this fall. Credit: Jason Nguyen

I had a lot of plans canceled because of COVID. I was planning my classes and grad day trips; and then, of course, graduation was canceled. I also had a job as a counselor and that got canceled. I was going to take a trip with my friend and then that didn’t happen either. 

For the fall, I am going to have to leave earlier for in-person classes (at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) and then come back after Thanksgiving, where all classes will be online. It’s kind of annoying, but at this point, I’m just over it. I wanted to spend more time with my family before I went off, but my uncle and my grandma, they’re both high risk. So I can’t see them like that. I can drive over to her house and sit outside but it’s still, like, not spending the time that I thought I could spend with them. I’ve always been independent—I’ve been a counselor for three years and I’ve had to take care of the younger kids—so I feel pretty okay about it. I’m more worried about my dad being independent for the first time in like 30 years. 

Jennifer Nguyen, 17, Oakland Technical High School graduate and Berkeley City College freshman

Jennifer Nguyen, 17, will be taking classes at Berkeley City College and living with her family in Oakland. Credit: Jason Nguyen

I already knew that I was going to go to Berkeley City College, but I didn’t expect that I was going to stay home and do college at home. Since this is the summer before everyone leaves for college, I was hopeful and expected to do a lot of things with my friends, and have lots of memories and all that. I feel I’m on hold. 

I usually don’t interact a lot at home with my family, so I’ve been kind of trying to do that more. But it’s been kind of awkward for me, especially when George Floyd died. There was a lot of controversy at my home, lots of arguments happened, and it was a hard thing since I couldn’t go anywhere else. We had differing opinions and I couldn’t do anything about it. I’ve been trying to be more proactive with what I want and setting my boundaries up—having my own space in my own home—because I’ll be an adult going to college. But then I’ll still be living at home, compared to my peers who are going off to live in a dorm by themselves. It’s all been very draining, but in the end, I’ll be fine.

Malcolm McClymont, 18, Bishop O’Dowd High School graduate and Purdue University freshman

Malcolm McClymont, 18, graduated last year from Bishop O’Dowd High School and will attend Purdue University this fall. Credit: Jason Nguyen

I have two types of days: the weekdays and the weekends. On weekdays, I have summer classes through Purdue that start at 10:15 a.m. Eastern Time, but in Pacific Time it’s 6:15 a.m. so my days start pretty early. I’ll usually make some breakfast and then do classes for the entire day. Some of it can be a bit boring, but it can be interesting at times. One class I have is this engineering course, where the goal is to build a car using this thing called a microbe. It’s going pretty well so far; that’s probably my favorite course of them all. The classes have also been a really good review of calculus. I missed a lot of the important things (last spring) because of COVID, so it’s been a really good way to review and make sure that I’m ready for college-level calculus.

Since the course is online instead of in-person, after completing my homework or completing my course for the day, I can just go online and play games with friends and also work. I’ve been keeping up with some people from O’Dowd, some from Purdue, and some from UC Davis. We play video games a lot. It’s pretty fun. I feel like being able to meet these guys online is super helpful for establishing a few small friend groups, especially since they’re from all over the country. 

College is one of those things that you gotta kind of experience in person to truly get the full experience. I feel deceived, considering that I’ve been working towards being able to go to college for quite a while. Purdue has a lot of plans for precautions but even with that, it might not be enough because all it takes is one person to screw it up and that’s it—we’re all screwed.