The Crunch, Crack, Ouch of 2020 - Don't Panic.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. My running distance was ticking up without injury. I know I’ll never be the fastest, but running has saved my soul too many times to skip a day. It didn’t seem unreasonable to start planning a new goal, envisioning what my future runs might look like. With the pandemic, staying at home, and masking up, it seemed like the perfect time to challenge myself. That is precisely what I was telling my husband on a late summer hike; and then came the Crunch.

Gravel and weak ankles have been my opponents for years. With the number of twists my ankles have had, one might think I am part human and part Gumby. Ice packs and ace bandages are always on hand. I’ve learned the difference between the twists that will sideline me and the ones I can lightly push through. This one definitely made me think my new 2020 goal may need to be put on hold. The pace of our hike slowed as I reassessed the swelling and the pain, preparing myself for what the impacts would be. That was Sunday. Monday, beating the sunrise with coffee and ready to get to work, I plopped down on the couch. The quiet would soon be complemented with tapping the keyboard. I leaned left to grab my laptop - a simple enough task even without the caffeine kick. As I reached toward the side table my body slipped and fell into the arm of the couch. Crack. It was a “What-the-heck?” moment as I heard my ribs crunch and felt a wave of unfamiliar pain. I want to say I yelped “Ouch,” but my guess it was more guttural. My next thought was, “Don’t Panic.” Activities like running, which I love and which seem integral to managing and adapting to 2020, appeared in jeopardy in that moment.

This personal story is no different from most high school students' experiences in switching to Staying at Home, distance learning, pass/no pass grading, canceled standardized tests, virtual APs. I will stop here because you get the picture -- you’ve been living it, after all. With all of the changes in 2020, the path to college may have felt like it lurched into unknown territory. And yes, additional flexibility and patience have been required, and reading the tea leaves probably seems murky even for families who have been through the college journey before.

There’s been a lot of focus on the high school class of 2020 and the significant adjustments and impacts that jolted them from the traditions they wanted to experience. However, the classes of 2021 and 2022 are experiencing what may be more than growing pains as they’ve been sidelined and continue to adapt to shifts and continual adjusting schedules in classroom learning, applying to colleges, expectations, and social life. Many of the shifts have stemmed from a desire to support students -- from sports practice being called on or off and moved to a virtual pod or a chalked circle, to colleges adjusting expectations, deadlines and test and essay requirements. Is it making things up as we go along? Maybe. While what I see is flexibility in the world around us, I also see students experiencing a continual stream of unknowns with limited tools for interpreting what they hear and in navigating their path to college.

Questions like these plagued students and families in 2020:

  • How will my application be reviewed without a test score?

  • How many schools should I apply to?

  • Is it true that more students from the class of 2020 will take up spots for the class of 2021?

  • Will I be able to be on campus, and if so, will I be confined to my dorm?

  • What does “grace” mean during the application process, e.g., more application flexibility, delayed deadlines, more supplemental essays to write?

For other students, 2020 has shed light to clarify what they want and what is important to them, and to help them prioritize and learn how to advocate for themselves when being pulled along by external structures or when the activities that once gave their lives structure have dissipated. If ever a group of students feels "crunch," "crack," and "ouch," it is the current students moving from high school to college as they are caught in the temporary and long-term shifts of applying to college.

What remains the same is the importance of striking a balance between adhering to the engaging things that provide happiness while figuring out how to move beyond a comfort zone. When the message that is drumming in everyone’s ear is to stay at home, this can feel challenging. While distance learning and online experiences are far from perfect, they may offer something that some students may not have tried in ordinary times. This is not a call to do more, like early pandemic mentions of Shakespeare writing King Lear during the plague (yes, I'm guilty here -- I did mention it). It’s time to take notice of the opportunity for newfound intentionality despite all these setbacks.That may look like:

  • Digging into classes in or outside of school. Balanced course load and rigor = success.

  • Volunteering virtually.

  • Plowing through a stack of books that have been hiding in the corner of your room.

  • Writing the first draft of a novel (just because NANOWRIMO has come and gone doesn’t mean your ideas have gone Poof!).

  • Starting to plan out your upcoming summer with a plan A (in-person) and plan B (virtual).

Recognize that the crunch, crack, and ouch of 2020 is temporary and continues to require patience and motivation - (for me, a new running playlist helped.) Take advantage of the 10-10-10 rule to see ten months out and that in-person college visits, on-campus classes may be right around the corner. Helping students envision what fall 2021 and 2022 may look like and interpreting what some of the 2020 shifts mean when applying to college will have even greater importance in the future. Framing this historical time will come when we can look back and evaluate the impacts on higher education and what changed. It may include contextualizing admissions notifications this year, being aware that college-specific essays and test-optional policies may be here to stay, and coming to the realization that the strength and abilities in students are more than a standardized test score.

What’s the plan for taking on 2021? Is it time to review what is working and what is not? Do goals or plans need tweaking? Do students need to look beyond their backyards, back fences, and computer screens to retool or reinvent themselves into a renewed version of themselves? The crunch, crack, and ouch of 2020, while glacially slow and painful, does not mean students should put off looking toward the future and making plans that will ultimately lead them to their college destination. While the future and the college path have often felt certain and lock-step, there has always been room to craft an individualized journey. And in so many ways, 2020 has provided a refined lens to reflect and build on that knowledge. While our call to action in 2020 was to sit on the couch, a renewed perspective in 2021 may heal the crunch, crack, and ouch we've all been through.

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