The Class of 2024?

As colleges and universities in New York City weigh whether to hold classes in person or online this fall, their prospective students weigh the next chapter of their lives.

In American society, high school and college are often two very important life chapters.  Even before the first one is finished, students await and prepare for the next. Turning the page is often a joy. 

But these images tell the story of students who, thanks to the danger of the coronavirus, are pretty much confined to the four walls of their rooms during one of the most significant transitions of their lives. Within these four walls, they finish one life chapter and wait to see if they’ll start the next in the same place.  Free movement, both social and physical, is on pause. 

Like higher learning institutions in much of the rest of the nation, New York City’s universities have shifted online. Whether they will do so next year is unclear. So around the world, incoming freshmen to these universities are waiting for a decision. They have dreamed of a college life where social interaction overflows from night to day, over and over again, and of the vibrant city that could become their new home. But this promise is waning. The path, several of them told me, feels like a dreamscape. 

In this photo series I sought to capture this point of uncertainty.  New York City universities have yet to determine whether they will continue remote learning for the Fall of 2020. The students have questions, hopes, and fears for their future, and they face them in isolation.

You Can’t Plan For Waiting

In Irvine, California, Brooke Linlahn Nguyen planned for everything leading up to attending her dream school, New York University. She applied early decision and can recall the moment she received her acceptance, during high school yearbook class in mid-December. “I read my decision and I was jumping up and down. My whole class, like, ‘What is going on?’,” she said. “So that was a really fun moment.”

After committing as an early decision student to NYU, Nguyen aligned the next six months to arrive at the moment in August in which she’d embark across the country to start school. While most rising freshmen graduate from high school in the spring, Nguyen purposely closed that chapter early.

Photo © Aryana Noroozi

Since January, Nguyen has been taking courses at Irvine Valley Community College to transfer to her economics major curriculum at NYU, which would begin in September. Until the coronavirus arrived, she felt ahead. But the 18 year old admits that she could never have planned for a pandemic.  Now her decision will be determined by whether or not NYU offers in-person classes or distance learning. If NYU is remote, Nguyen says, she will not attend, as she could continue to receive online at a more affordable cost at community college instead, before transferring to a University of California school. For now, all she can do is wait.

“I genuinely loved high school. But then there was a point where I felt like, in a lot of my extracurricular extracurriculars, I was sort of like plateauing. Like volleyball, I wasn’t really getting better. I didn’t think I was going to make varsity. And then with yearbook, I didn’t get editor in chief. That was a sign that I’d reached my peak. I’ve always stayed at high school because of the people, because of the extracurriculars, because I love being there. And since I was only staying for the academics, I might as well finish early. I could get started on college credits. It was just kind of a logical option,” Nguyen said.

And even with all of Nguyen’s preparation she still has found herself at a fork in the road.  “I’m not sure which one of these (classes) are going to count because I took a lot of classes this semester that would only count towards my NYU degree and not towards my degree if I stay at community college and transfer to a UC,” she said.   And so she waits.  The waiting period is eerily still. Nguyen says she can’t do anything about planning her next chapter until she receives an official answer from the university.

“It’s just been really unsettling, getting news updates and feeling like ‘oh, no, it just keeps escalating.’  There hasn’t been a ton of good news, especially regarding college, since this all started,” she said.

A Hard Way to Learn

In mid-April, 360 miles up the coastline in Carmel, California, Anjali Golechha was completing her senior year of high school when she was officially told she would never physically be coming back to her school. Now the 18 year old waits for word regarding long-distance learning in the fall. She will be studying chemical engineering to pursue a career in designing cosmetics—somewhere. At the moment she wants to pursue a chemical engineering program at NYU, but if learning is remote, she says, she will probably end up attending another university in California, as hard as that decision may be.

Golechha can’t help but think about the upcoming transition, though it seems distant from the four walls inside of which her life has been crunched since mid-March. She understands social isolation is completely necessary to public health, but has questions about what it will mean for her as a student, both socially and academically. She can’t imagine her room serving as the vessel for her college chapter.

Photo © Aryana Noroozi

Golechha recalls watching her older sister’s transition to college and hearing about the experience. She questions if her own transition could even be comparable, if learning is remote.

“I feel like when you go to a place and you meet new people, you need to meet them physically and develop that emotional connection. But if you’re online, it’s gonna be kind of hard, or maybe just obscure, considering we’ve never really done that before,” Golechha said. The physical experience is more than just moving somewhere, she notes. “It’s how you meet people, how you go about things,” she said. “You’re not going to get the full college experience, especially your first year, which is probably one of the most important for transitioning and growing and becoming more independent without your parents.” 

Golechha also worries about how online learning will affect her chemical engineering studies. After two months of online classes in high school she already feels that it is not a style of learning she benefits from. “I feel like I’m someone who has to be in that academic environment and hearing the professor talk to me, rather than hearing it through a computer screen,” she said. “You just focus better when you’re actually there.” 

Goleccha is trying to keep her options open between two schools in New York and California. She says both have excellent chemical engineering programs and feels inclined to head to the big city, but if California reopens sooner and classes remain online for New York City universities, she will have to make a decision.

Living in Limbo

In Singapore, 20-year-old Ryan Sun also faces decisions as he considers his longtime professional dream. For the past two years, he served his mandatory military conscription. Last month he was on his way to the military base when he found that he had been accepted to NYU’s music business program. As an electronic music producer, he says that it would be a complete waste if he didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity. So he committed to NYU for now, he says. But like other students, Sun says he remains in limbo. He thinks it will be nearly impossible to study remotely because his major requires almost all classes to be conducted in recording studios and production suites.  

If learning is remote, Sun could defer for a year, but he says he is concerned that at age 20, after serving in the military, he will already be behind his American classmates.  He calls himself a senior citizen.  “I’m waiting to see if classes will be online before I make my decision. I don’t even know what I can do, this is something that’s really out of my control. If classes do go online I might just have to suck it up and just go with what they have in store for me,” Sun said.

Photo © Aryana Noroozi

But Sun has another worry about coming to New York, one that will still be there even long after the virus is gone. “In the back of my mind I am still quite skeptical and worried about problems I may face—not just corona but racism, because I am Chinese,” Sun said.

On May 1 he did the only thing he thought he could—made a commitment to NYU. Right before we spoke, Sun said that he was having a conversation with his mother about the decision: “She is worried and was even crying a bit. I do feel bad, but I assured her that I’d be okay.  But I still am worried for myself.”

I asked him about waking up everyday to the same uncertainty.  “Yeah, no, he doesn’t feel good at all. But, I mean, it’s something that’s beyond my control,” he said. “And what I can do personally is to mitigate the effects of that. If I have to take a gap year then I’ll do it, but hopefully that doesn’t happen. Every day, I do feel uneasy about it.”

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