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These college students talked to NPR about applying to schools. Now they've graduated

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

College students are graduating into a world that looks a lot different than when they started school - a pandemic, the great resignation, student debt, a possible recession. Four years ago, I spoke with three high school students as they were deciding where to go to college. Now they are officially college graduates.

MCKENNA HENSLEY: It feels amazing to be done. I know that it went just a little bit faster than I thought it was going to go.

JUSTICE BENJAMIN: It went by in a flash. But I'm also grateful that...

JOHNNY DANG: Yeah, it's just been a wild ride and a wild journey - definitely made lots of memories, definitely learned a lot.

NADWORNY: That's Jonny Dang from Rice University in Houston, McKenna Hensley, who graduated from the Ohio State University, and Justice Benjamin, who graduated from Skidmore College in New York. When they were back in high school, picking a college came down to money. Basically, whichever school offered them the most aid looked pretty good. For McKenna, that financial decision came with an altered dream. She'd stay in state in Ohio just 20 minutes from home rather than go out of state like she originally hoped. But four years later, she sees that choice in a different light.

HENSLEY: I was able to spread my wings farther than I thought that I would. One of my highlights at the Ohio State University was being able to study abroad so many times - Puerto Rico, Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Italy. So I definitely got to spread my wings a little bit more than I thought that I would, and I made the most...

NADWORNY: Yeah.

HENSLEY: ...Of the situation that I had.

NADWORNY: Johnny, you also had kind of a hard choice in picking a college. You were deciding between Rice University and the University of Pennsylvania.

DANG: Ultimately, I think I did make the right choice as well. There were a lot of different factors that came down to my decision for Rice. There were different financial reasons, but as well as just being close to home and being really close to family members.

NADWORNY: Justice, what about you? Would you have done anything different?

BENJAMIN: Certain things, like not having an idea of college scheduling, on how serious that can be in stepping out in that world and not succeeding because I wasn't prepared for it.

NADWORNY: Tell me a little bit more about that - you mean, like, your actual course schedule?

BENJAMIN: It's kind of a funny story. My first year in Skidmore, I had a 7:30 work shift because I was doing a federal work study in the freezers, like, for my school's cafeteria. And then the next two days, I had 8 a.m. labs for chemistry and biology, taking them simultaneously in the same semester, which doesn't seem like the best decision in hindsight. But I was so eager and so ready to just make my way with the world that that's kind of how it played out.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, I want to talk to you all about the pandemic. I wonder, what was it like for all of you? And maybe we'll start with Johnny and then kind of go around.

DANG: Personally, for me, going through, like, sophomore year, things were starting to really pick up and move really fast in terms of, like, extracurriculars, electives and all the things that I was - have going on in undergrad. And so for everything to stop for a second - it was definitely jarring to just suddenly lose your support system and lose your friends. But it also did give me some time to kind of just, like, pause and think about, like, what are my true passions? Like, what am I going towards? And even though at the same time it was scary and, like, uncertain, it gave some time to also think about, like, what projects did you want to continue? What projects did you maybe want to, like, start anew?

NADWORNY: McKenna, what about you?

HENSLEY: Yeah. Well, I was actually a resident adviser for my last three years of college. My job was to get everybody out, to check the rooms, to make sure the quarantine and isolation housing was all good, to make sure the air filters were all good, just to make sure that I was doing my role to make sure that everybody was staying safe and everybody was staying healthy. But quite frankly, I had no idea what was going on. It was definitely less personal...

NADWORNY: Yeah.

HENSLEY: ...Took kind of the fun part out of college a little bit 'cause now all you got to do is class, and that's what you don't want to be there for. But it definitely made me focus on - because I was at my computer all the time - do I like this content? Is this what I want to do? Are these the classes that I want to take? Because this is maybe what I don't like. Maybe this is what I don't want to work with and maybe - OK, wait; I really like this. My field is public health, which is such a broad study, but also, COVID is quite literally a big part of my major. So learning about COVID and its impacts around the world and all the disparities related to it have definitely been interesting because my field is quite literally at the forefront of the pandemic.

NADWORNY: Justice, tell me a little bit about your experience with college and COVID.

BENJAMIN: To kind piggyback off what McKenna was saying, the way my school life kind of bled into my personal life after hearing the news about coming home and things of that nature definitely kind of had me shook for the longest. And I remember being sent environmental science labs in the mail because we still had to do the labs and things of that nature - so trying to find a quiet, dark place away from moisture, away from light, away from, like, the kids of the house and things of that nature to play with mushrooms and stuff, but then realizing that the little kids want to see the mushrooms. Like, they to know what you're doing and, like...

NADWORNY: 'Cause you went home to New Jersey, right? And you have several...

BENJAMIN: Yeah.

NADWORNY: ...Siblings who are also at home in your house in New Jersey with you during this time, right?

BENJAMIN: All in different levels of school - high school, college, elementary school, all that. Yeah.

NADWORNY: So they're all under one roof. Everybody's trying to do virtual class.

BENJAMIN: Yeah - splitting some Wi-Fi, trying to try to make it work. Yeah.

NADWORNY: And so then did you let them in on your lessons, and now you're thinking maybe about teaching? Is that what I'm hearing?

BENJAMIN: If not teaching, just a lot of advocating for them and making sure that they can have access to resources. And, like, everybody wants the ability to play with mushrooms while they're young, you know, in a safe, controlled environment. And I didn't realize that until I had that, that I was, like, 21 years old loving it and loving the fact that I was able to help some younger people with it as well.

NADWORNY: Well, you know, I wonder - all of you are graduating into a pretty uncertain moment right now, right, with jobs and the economy. How much of this is concerning to you?

BENJAMIN: I think it's definitely shaken the confidence a little bit regarding my exact path in this world. And I definitely think before everything came about, I was a little more certain in my future, not to say that I'm uncertain with my future now. I just am more open to the realm of possibilities that could come. That scares me a little bit more, but...

(LAUGHTER)

BENJAMIN: ...I'm always ready for the challenge.

NADWORNY: What about you, Johnny?

DANG: It's just really - it is really scary to see so much change. And whether it be, like, you know, economy as well as, like, the political climate - right? - a lot of change has already happened. And so it's interesting to kind of, like, start stepping into, like, building your career and going to graduate school and working towards professional career, but also having to take those lessons in and take those changes in and incorporate that into what you're going to do in order to, like, adapt or relearn as well. And so I think it's just made me be extra careful about how I'm, like, approaching the future.

HENSLEY: I know for me, I bought myself a little bit of time with grad school. My program is two years, not sure how much it's going to change, but hey, I at least have two years.

NADWORNY: Pushing off that inevitable, like, I got to get a job.

HENSLEY: Yes. Yes, definitely pushing it just back a little bit. But, I mean, I'll come out with another degree. So, hey. I'm not saying that I'm untouchable in graduate school, but I feel a little bit better in here.

NADWORNY: Well, what a wonderful conversation. Thank you all for joining me. That was McKenna Hensley. She just graduated from the Ohio State University. Johnny Dang graduated from Rice University in Texas. And Justice Benjamin graduated from Skidmore College in New York. Thank you so much for being with me.

BENJAMIN: Thank you.

HENSLEY: Thank you.

DANG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ PREMIER'S "DOOMP DOOMP DOOMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.