Enrollment has dropped at colleges and universities throughout Pennsylvania. Some local high schoolers, though, have post-graduation plans that could help offset the decline.

Forced to navigate nearly two years of disrupted learning, a group of five seniors at Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12, University Preparatory School spoke with PublicSource about their aspirations and the ways the pandemic has impacted their high school experience.

The pandemic further motivated 18-year-old Jamir Jackson to apply to college. He intends to study criminal justice or cybersecurity at a four-year school instead of seeking an associate’s degree, which he previously planned to pursue. 

Several students said they’ve learned how to be more independent. Though Laniah Walker, 18, could’ve decided not to attend her online classes while at home, she made sure that she woke up, logged on and kept up with her assignments. 

Student Laniah Walker stands and smiles against the brick exterior of Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12, University Preparatory School.
Laniah Walker, 18, said she gained self-discipline and greater independence during the pandemic. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

The self-discipline she’s gained has helped prepare her for college, she said, where she’ll have a larger workload and less oversight from her professors. 

“It helped me push through, keep going with my work and keep my grades up because I always wanted to go to college. I didn’t want my grades to drop because of a worldwide pandemic,” Walker said. “I felt like I just needed to work hard to keep it up.”

Walker is planning on attending a four-year school, and so is Darnell Jeffries, 17. The pandemic helped him start preparing for college, and he’s considering studying sports management at Robert Morris University. 

Attending high school during the pandemic was a challenge. For Jayla McCoy, 18, not being able to take classes in person and spend time with as many people as she once could was difficult, and her grades also started to drop. Walker felt she didn’t learn much in her online classes either. 

“I was just here to pass the test. I wasn’t here to learn,” she said. 

Whereas previous graduating classes were able to enjoy all four years without pandemic-related disruptions, this year’s class had a traditional high school experience for just their first year, with some semblance of normalcy returning in 12th grade.

“They have memories. We don’t,” McCoy said of the previous classes. 

Jamir Jackson, a senior at Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12, University Preparatory School, stands and smiles against an exterior brick wall.
Jamir Jackson, 18, plans to attend a four-year college and study cybersecurity or criminal justice. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

“And there’s no one to blame,” Jackson said. “You can’t blame the teachers for it; you can’t blame us for it. It’s just, you know, part of life, I guess, and you just got to deal with it.”

Jackson hopes that college professors will understand what high school students have gone through, and that they’ll help them when they need it. Walker would also like colleges to be considerate when viewing grades from the past two school years. This year’s seniors are not like those who graduated before the pandemic, she said.

“We went through a lot,” McCoy added. “Don’t go too hard on us.”

McCoy wants to earn a degree in nursing from a four-year college. She encouraged students to avoid letting others stop them from pursuing their post-graduation plans, whether that’s attending a four-or two-year institution or going to a trade school. 

The five students stand outside of the entrance to Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12, University Preparatory School, with the school's name visible on the building in the top-left.
The class of 2022 has faced nearly two years of disrupted learning due to the pandemic. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

The students also said they find that having support and self-motivation is important to doing well in school. If you don’t believe in yourself, you can’t achieve your goals, said Victor Robinson, 17. 

“Whatever you’re going through, you got to find a way to keep your motivation up,” Walker said. “Have short-term and long-term goals, so you’re always trying to reach for something.”

Jackson knows that he and other students may face challenges in achieving their post-graduation goals. But, he said, the seniors have already overcome hardship. 

“We’re all still here,” Jackson said. “Incoming seniors: All it takes is courage. Just remember that.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.

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Emma is a higher education reporter for PublicSource. In her role, she collaborates with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on strengthening higher education coverage in local communities. Emma...