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Staff and students share how distance learning brings added challenges to the college application process

The college application process is stressful in and of itself, but the class of 2021 had a pandemic thrown into the mix. In interviews with Pamplin Media Group, students and staff reflected on these unique challenges.

Lyndi Tucker, the College & Career Center coordinator at Wilsonville High School, said she's not a school counselor but works closely with the counselors to prepare students for life after high school.

"I like to say I'm a resource person … I do a lot of different things," Tucker said.

She coordinates informational sessions, PSAT and SAT tests, and helps students with college applications, personal statements and financial aid applications, like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The class of 2021 is the 16th graduating class Tucker has worked with. She said the process of planning for life after high school starts in a student's freshman year.

"In junior year is when we, in earnest, start talking about (college)," Tucker said.

She said Wilsonville High School's class of 2021 got the short end of the stick when school closures sweeped the state last March.

Much of the focus of school staff was on the current graduating class of 2020, leaving early preparations for the class of 2021 on the back burner.

"We admit that this year's class kind of got ripped off," Tucker said. She added that they hit the ground running in the fall, like they do every year, in getting students the information they need to apply to college.

"We tried to make sure this year that we hit the same benchmarks or timeframes that we have done in the past," she said. For students, that meant figuring out in September where they wanted to apply and how to do it.

"We are trying our best to meet their needs and their families' needs," Tucker said.

But logistically, that wasn't as easy as it had been in the past.

Tucker said the SATs were a barrier early on in the application process. Last spring, test dates were canceled time and again as shutdowns continued and the pandemic raged.

"Most students, they hit the fall and they started freaking out that they hadn't taken their SAT," Tucker said.

Eventually the majority of colleges and universities decided to go "test optional" or "test blind," meaning not having a test score wouldn't be held against students on their applications.

Still, many families wanted their children to take the test. "We had students actually traveling out of state to take the SAT," Tucker said. COURTESY PHOTO: HALLE ISAAK - HALLE ISAAK

WHS senior Halle Isaak wasn't one of them.

Though she didn't find it worth it to go out of state to take the test, she knows students who did. A friend of hers went all the way to Colorado to secure an SAT score in their application.

Even without SAT scores, Isaak got into all the schools she applied to.

Though it's hard for many families to feel secure about, Lakeridge High School counselor Lee Brown said when colleges and universities make their application "test optional" or "test blind" they mean it.

"People can't envision an application process without a test," he said.

Lakeridge High School senior Sara Shallenberger traveled to Bend and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to take her test. SHALLENBERGER

"The unfortunate thing is that you can never really say that testing doesn't matter, and that's the rub," Brown said. That's because there's no way to actually know if colleges won't give favor to a student who has that added measure in an application.

On top of stress over test scores, Tucker said, it's hard for students to know what to plan for. Students don't even know if some of the colleges they're applying to will hold in-person classes in the fall or whether they would feel safe to attend if classes were in person.

"They're trying to plan for their life in the unknown," Tucker said.

Issak and Shallenberger both agree on the difficulty of picking a school without being able to visit the campus.

The hard part for Isaak now is deciding which school to go to without having visited any of the campuses — that and financial aid.

"It's really hard to narrow down where I want to go because I haven't been able to see any of the campuses," she said.

Isaak has been able to tour a few campuses in Oregon, but not her out-of-state options.

"All of the schools I applied to in California, I haven't been able to see them," she said.

Isaak was supposed to tour them last April but it wasn't possible with state lockdowns. She's hoping it'll be safe to tour some in February or March.

Shallenberger said colleges are doing what they can to give prospective students the information they need to make a decision. They've created virtual tours and offered information sessions hosted by current students.

Shallenberger said another hard part of the process was the admission interviews. In a normal year she'd be able to visit the campus, have a tour and meet face-to-face with an admissions staff member for her interview. Now, the interviews are over Zoom, making it harder to get a read on the admissions staff.

Through it all, Shallenberger is grateful for the counselors at LHS.

"Counselors are truly heroes in this process. I don't think that any of us could get through without counselors," she said.

Tucker said the biggest challenge at WHS was getting the important application information to a student during distance learning.

"We had to come up with new ways of getting the same information out to students and their families," she said.

Tucker said this meant video tutorials, Zoom info sessions and lots of explanatory documents shared through Google Docs.

"We had to make sure that everything we put in writing is very explicit and very clear," she said.

And in a normal year, if Tucker saw that a student hadn't applied for college or filled out other necessary information, she could physically go wherever they were in the building and help them do it. Distance learning creates a barrier to that instant connection.

"If they haven't done the FAFSA I go find them, and now I send them email after email and I call them," she said.

Distance learning has been a barrier in more ways than one.

Every fall, over the course of six weeks, Tucker hosts between 50 and 60 representatives from colleges and universities across the country during information sessions for seniors.

This is where students hear specific information about colleges and gain helpful insights to the application process. It's also an opportunity for students to meet the person who will potentially read their application.

Turner said student turnout for these is usually high.

This year, she was able to invite even more representatives than usual because the Zoom format allowed for more flexibility in schedules. On the other hand, student turnout was much lower than usual.

"For my UO visit I think I had five people show up," she said. She's had over 50 students attend that session in previous years.

Tucker heard from several representatives that it's something they've been seeing from many schools, not just WHS. She said she gets it — students don't want another reason to have to sit in front of their computer.

This hasn't been the case in many of the LHS information sessions.

"For our financial aid night, we had more participants virtually than we ever had in person," Brown said, adding that they had a big turnout for their testing information night as well.

Tucker said when it comes to how many students are applying to college at WHS, numbers are down just a little so far, but she's optimistic they'll be on par with previous years at the end of the application season.

Brown said in any given year, LHS sends out around 1,500 college applications per senior class. With a class of 280 this year, he said application numbers are looking similar to years prior.

"We have been pleasantly surprised by how well it has gone," Brown said.

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