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The Scoop Forum: Preparing for college in the middle of a pandemic

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The Scoop editors Kai Leigh Harrison, Hannah Daleno and Eunice De Belen held a forum with local counselors and with several of their peers to discuss what high school students can do to prepare for college. 

The current pandemic has shifted learning to online classroom settings, which has caused some concern in school communities about how effective it is. 

Additionally, students are worried that the cancellation or postponement of school programs, including interscholastic sports and other activities, could mean lost opportunities for scholarships or harm their college applications. 

The following is a question-and-answer session with the counselors who provided some reassurance that colleges are aware of the impact the pandemic is having on schools around the world and will make accommodations for it. 

Q&A session

Question by Felix Gong: Hi, my name is Felix Gong, as Kai introduced. I am a St. John's junior and I have a question. Because of COVID-19, a lot of incoming college freshmen have opted to take a gap year, and I was wondering (if) that will affect the admission rates of colleges. ... Do (you) think that will have a significant effect?

Col. Frank Flores: I can answer that for the year for the service academies. The service academies' numbers will remain the same because they are sources to commission officers into the services. So they always have to have a certain number of students come in every year, and that that number will not change. ...  It is about 1,100 to 1,200 students, roughly, per service academy. Now, when I say that, that's the total population of freshmen that come in each summer. In the end, they'll probably graduate about 800 to 900.

Jane Shiu: That's a great question, Felix, and the answer is it depends on the school. I've been attending several different virtual sessions with different colleges to learn more about what's going on with their schools and so forth. And there's a range of responses.

Some schools experience a somewhat significant number ... of students applying and receiving gap years. And as a result, they are anticipating (that the number of) this year's applicants will be slightly lower to adjust for this increase in students who took the gap year. But on the other hand there are schools that are ... actually planning to expand that incoming class. And so, overall, looking at all schools, yes, there are some schools that have had some gap years, but big picture: Students are going to get into colleges, things will work out.

But, if you have specific questions about specific universities, I encourage students to go actually to that school's websites. A lot of schools have actually listed and stated what they have done. So they'll explicitly say, "(We) have had more students take gap years. However, this is what we're doing to respond as a result," whether it be one purposely having a reduced class the following year, or take the same or purposely growing the incoming class to respond to this.

Question by Ritisha Raj Kumar: My name is Ritisha, and I'm a junior as well. And I was just wondering if and when we go back to school, are there going to be extra new protocols that can be taken so that it doesn't happen again? (Perhaps) students come at different times? Because I know I'm not the only one that would rather go back to school rather than online school.

Leah Beth Naholowaa: I can speak for GDOE (Guam Department of Education). We are more than excited to welcome back our students, but due to the executive order we can't have our students back. However, at this time that we don't have our students yet, we are preparing for our students to come back by disinfecting and cleaning the classrooms, making sure that we have the PPEs, making sure that the proper protocols are there, making sure that the posters about washing are there and can be seen by the students.

Any time the superintendent or the government says the students can come back to the classroom, we are ready. We miss the students so much, we prefer interacting with students rather than online. We want to see your faces, we want to see your faces and reaction when we ask you a question. We want to see you. You know, we want to see the students say, "Hi, good morning, miss," and we want to see the students come to the offices of your counselor. We are excited, we can't wait to see you all.

Bob Kelley: Ritisha, that's a fantastic question and the answer is, frustratingly, it's going to differ from school to school. Now as Dr. Naholowaa pointed out, the entire Guam Department of Education is one school, effectively, so they will follow all the same protocols, but among the private school sectors, you're going to find that each school is going to have a different way of addressing that concern. I think an important thing for you guys to do is to let the administration of your schools know how comfortable you are with the concept of returning.

So, Ritisha, you kind of hinted that you're not ready to come back if they said, "We're going to open up Monday," you're not ready to show up. But that might be different with Kai and Felix and Elijah and some of the other students. That's one of the things you're going to be dealing with as well for the next year, probably even longer – different levels of comfort with personal interaction. And so your school, depending on how large the school is, and depending on the administration's decisions, that's going to drive a lot of it as well.

So what do you think Ritisha? Are you ready for a full day? Are you ready for a half day (or) every other day? What are you ready for?

Ritisha Raj Kumar: I think a half day would work, where students came in at different times.

Bob Kelley: So we have some come in in the morning and some come in the afternoon.

Ritisha Raj Kumar: Yeah, I think.

Bob Kelley: Elijah, what about you, what's your thought on that?

Elijah Santos: I agree with Ritisha, I think that half days would work. It doesn't even have to be just morning and afternoon. Whatever works for our students. Every school has a different size, but we have to consider that.

Bob Kelley: That's a big element as well. How many can safely fit in a classroom at a time? Is that going to be an issue? You know, if you normally have 15 kids in the classroom and you can space them out, that's one thing. If you normally have 30 kids in the classroom, then what are you going to do? How do you get all those kids at the same time?

Felix, are you ready to come back, full day of school, ready to go?

Felix Gong: So I feel like whatever we choose to do, everyone should be on board with it, because we experienced that kind of like a hybrid school for a little while, and I just feel like that wasn't as effective. Like, some people will ... forget to turn on the camera, and because the teachers will be teaching in the front and the students in the cameras will be in the back so sometimes they can't hear, or they can't see (or) there's connectivity issues. So I feel like whatever decision we choose, the whole student body should be in support.

Bob Kelley: That's interesting because as you suggest, that is the thing that the teachers found the most challenging. Right now, all online has its challenges, all face-to-face has its challenges. But the hybrid, the teachers were exhausted trying to manage both things at the same time. And, normally, as Dr. Naholowaa was indicating, you think of a normal classroom experience. Well, it's (probably) true for some, most of your teachers are not just sitting behind their desk the entire day. They're walking around the classroom to check on that paper, they're looking over your shoulder making sure you're conjugating the verb correctly. Whatever it is they're doing, they're walking around and interacting, but when you have to stay on camera, and pay attention to those kids, it's super challenging and the teachers were exhausted at the end of the day. So that does put a big strain on them.

Back to Ritisha's question, I mean these are all the factors that you've got to come and try to figure out, and so the two of you have different views on what you're comfortable with. And so then the administration has to try to reconcile those things. So that's my input.

Oyaol Ngirairikl: Let me just follow up on that question. With respect to the restrictions you were talking about, with the pandemic, and what some of the students were talking about - not paying as much attention in class. Do you feel like students are able to be prepared (for) college, or for life after high school with this? And if I can get you and maybe also Col. Flores or one of the JROTC representatives to speak to that.

Bob Kelley: If I get most of what you're saying is, can they be prepared in spite of what the challenges that we've got, is essentially the question. ... And my answer is, without a doubt, unqualifiedly yes. And I'll tell you that there are people in the world who will look out the window and say, "Oh, it's a little bit cold this morning, I don't think I'm going to go out." My wife worked with ... about ... 25 years ago ... a co-worker who didn't show up for three days because the water was out in her village, so she didn't come to work. So there are people who will find any excuse not to perform. And there are people who will not let anything ever get in their way.

So, yeah, in St. John's we have shortened the class time by 30 minutes per each class, so obviously that means a little bit less instruction, over the course of the year. But is that going to prevent somebody from getting from being prepared for school? No, we have what we feel to be the adequate amount of class time. But then it's up to the students and it's up to others to do the extra part that they want to do. I had a unique advantage of going to a pretty lousy university and an excellent university. And I could have gotten the same quality education at both of them. It just, in one case, would have taken a lot more independent initiative on my part.

So certainly, are they able to be prepared? Yes, they are able to be prepared. Are there greater challenges this year than there were two years ago? Yes, there are. But that won't stop people who really want to succeed.

Oyaol Ngirairikl: Colonel, can you take on the JROTC aspect of that question?

Col. Flores: Sure. I think – correct me if I'm wrong – the question is, will the current pandemic make it harder for us to prepare for our (students) joining the military or the service academies? ... So, each of these commissioning sources – the Air Force Academy and ROTC – like I said earlier, have to have a certain number of students. So everybody in the world is in the same boat. The admissions team understand this.

So will it make it more difficult? It will, but it's going to make it more difficult for everyone. However, there are ample opportunities for you to really take advantage of the situation as it stands. You will have more time now to work on your nomination sources. For the service academies, the traditional nomination sources are the congressional but there's a vice presidential (and) presidential nomination. And now you have more time to look for additional sources to be nominated for the service academies.

So what I would do is take a look at all of these opportunities. Figure out what you can do with the time you have, because you do have some extra time on your hands now, and leverage the possibilities so that you can make yourself more competitive. And you're competing against other people throughout the world or in the same situation as you are, as it would be just like it is in a non-pandemic world. 

Lt. Col. S. Kellie Williams: From an enlisted perspective, I talked to a cadet yesterday who called me concerned because she wants to apply to USAFA (U.S. Air Force Academy), but she's worried about ACT and SAT scores not coming in time for her to apply for the academy. So, what should she do about maybe going enlisted, and I encouraged her to stay with her plan for USAFA. Let that be Plan A, but should the cadets choose Plan B, obviously taking your ASVAB. ...

There's going to be delays, so we're all in the same boat. I expect if ACT scores and SAT scores come in late, I imagine waivers can be applied. I know speaking from Air Force experience waivers are given all the time for extenuating circumstances. The cadets shouldn't let that fear stop them from applying one or more, or to multiple academies. But if they choose to enlist, getting those ASVAB Scores and understanding that there will be a little bit of time before they're actually able to start their education because they're going to have a full-time job on active duty.

Oyaol Ngirairikl: Thank you. Can someone from GCC speak to the workforce aspect of life after high school and being prepared for that in the midst of this pandemic? 

Patricia Terlaje: Right now we're looking at close to 25,000 people without jobs due to COVID and our No. 1 employer on the island is the tourism industry – the hotels and restaurant (workers') employers. So, the students who have just graduated are competing now with the unemployment and what we are looking at is trying to shift the focus now on, "What's going to happen in the future and how can we plan for something that we don't know?" And when the governor starts lifting up these restrictions and we are seeing people going back to work, it's not going to be the same. So we're trying to encourage our students to rethink their career goals, their paths, going back to school. ... 

Question by Hannah Daleno with The Scoop: With fewer students taking the SAT ... do you believe it may be best for a student to not take it, particularly for test-optional schools? 

Jane Shiu: There is no reason to take the SAT or ACT for the majority of schools given the fact that it is unsafe to take the exam. For my students, I do not encourage them to go ahead and schedule the time to take the SAT or ACT because they have so many other things on their plate. The majority of schools are test-optional and in fact of all the schools we have sent our St. John's graduates in the last three years, every single school is test-optional with the exception of a military academy. Several of the military academies are going toward this sort of test-flexible option, which I'm sure Col. Flores and the other military academy folks can speak to, but right now it is not worth the stress and effort and energy to focus on taking the SAT or ACT.

Schools are test-optional and what test-optional means is that the test – that a student's application without a test score will be evaluated the same as a student who submits a test score. You do not get an extra bump for having a test score. You are also not penalized for having a test score. So I emphasize to all my students: This is not something to worry and stress about right now. There are so many other things to be concerned about and worrying about your test score should not be one of them.

Col. Flores: Let me answer for the Air Force Academy because I asked this specifically last month and their message to me was if the test is available then take the test, but they understand that it might not be available and their admissions package will be considered. You won't be penalized for not taking (it) if the test is not available.

Bob Kelley: Furthermore to add into what Col. Flores just said, many of the state universities and state college public schools, their admissions is somewhat impacted by legislation. State legislation. So there may be like a state university somewhere that still says, "We will require the SAT because state law requires it" only because the Legislature hasn't gone around to bypassing that law yet. ... So you could be saying I want to go to the University of X and they're still requiring the SAT. When the time comes they may have to change that simply because not enough people have been able to take the test.

Vivian Valdes: I work in Upward Bound, it's a college prep program and we do require our students to actually take the ACT and before they can actually take the ACT we prep them. What's good about it now is that the ACT mastery prep offers an online (option) to prep our students. So I think it will be beneficial if you take it even if it's not required, because if you are looking at applying for scholarships and just what Mr. Bob was saying, some universities still count the ACT scores. ... It doesn't hurt to take it.

Question by Elijah Taylor: Ok, so my question is regarding the prerequisites in college. It's kind of just like the previous question, but are there any other changes to what colleges are looking for in the applications that students send? I'm just asking because I'm concerned since COVID-19 has been restricting a lot of extracurriculars and etc.

Leah Beth Naholowaa: I think I can tell you that you're not the only one that are worried about extracurriculars, putting this in your application to college. Like what everybody said, Jane said: Don't worry about this issue right now. However, if you're able to help via online doing your community service or whatever it is that you can do online, try to do so just so to lessen your worry. But in the meantime, like we are telling our kids, don't worry about extracurricular activities that you have not done for this semester because most of the colleges understood what we are into right now. Some of the colleges really loosen up their admission requirements because of COVID and because ... they want you to go to their schools.

We also suggest that before you apply to the school that you're planning to, check out their website, check out their requirements ... and sometimes it's really good practice to work with your counselor so that you can also check with the school that you are also planning to apply what are their requirements. Your counselor is your best bet in going to colleges that you want to go into. They are going to be your help from step one up to the time that you get accepted, so work with your counselor.

Vivian Valdes: So you know, Elijah, one thing you can do is since there's no learning service available right now and all the extracurricular, what you can do is ask yourself what can you do to help your parents right now. If, let's say, you have a sibling and your sibling needs help from you like to tutor her or him, that's something you can do. Maybe in your class if your one of the – if you're so good at this certain class you can ask your teacher, you know, offer to be one of the tutors and that's something you can add on to your essay.

Barbara Rosario: I'd like to address what Leah Beth had mentioned just briefly. With the respective high school with GW, we do have CT counselors at high schools. For GW it's Hernalin Analista, for JFK it is Rose Marie Nanpei, Simon Sanchez it is Sharon Oliveros, and Okkodo High School both Miss Nanpei and Oliveros are sharing. ... Students can be able to connect with their respective GCC counselors and so if they had emailed them regarding their request or connect with them Zoom you can be certain that our students will be assisted whether or not it is financial aid, climber program, how to apply for GCC – we will guide them from beginning to end. So, thank you for allowing me to speak and if any students have any concerns, please feel free to contact us or the GDOE counselors at their respective high schools. OK? Thank you.

Bea Camacho: I'm also a counselor at Southern High School. So I just wanted to address the idea of – you know when you're writing your college essays. So we know and I think all the universities are expecting many of the college essays to ... revolve around the pandemic and what the students are going through. But there's a way that you know when we went to our NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) conference, the colleges that we spoke with, overall they just want to hear what the student's story is. So ... I'm sure there's a way you can find to write your essays and express who you are – who you are as a person, what your goals are, what your values are – without the pandemic being the overarching theme of your essay. Alright? So colleges really want to know who you are, what you're about, what your goals are and just who you are. So just, when you're writing your essay, think about those kinds of things. Who you are and what you represent and that should speak to whoever is reading your essays. Ok? That's just my input.

Question by Kai Leigh Harrison: With the pandemic putting a strain on the economy, do you think that it will have an effect on the amount of student aid that's given in the future?

Jane Shiu: Yes, absolutely. Because it's not just Guam, like across the world families are losing their employment, people are getting sick. There's so many things that are going on right now. So there absolutely will be a greater demand for financial aid. Of course, in the colleges and colleges are also being pressed. For example, last spring semester students were sent home, schools had to refund the cost of housing and in some cases tuition, there's lower enrollment. Colleges are also feeling the pinch as well, so I'm curious to see how schools will respond.

I think it's not going to be the schools that have traditionally offered a lot of financial aid, they have strong endowments, they'll continue to have a lot of financial aid available. But it's going to be the middle tier that might not have as much, those schools I think are going to just be in a really interesting situation. Where their students need a lot of money to have support to be able to attend, but the schools may not have as much funding as they normally might.

Question by Hannah Daleno: How can I apply for ROTC for college during the college application process and without JROTC experience?

Col. Frank Flores: You don't need JROTC to get into college Air Force ROTC. Many students go to Air Force ROTC or just Service ROTC programs in college without Junior ROTC experience. It's not necessary.

Lt. Col. S. Kellie Williams: I think it's beneficial when they look at a package, all things being equal. Maybe if someone did do high school JROTC that could set them apart certainly, but I do not know if (there are) any requirements.

Col. Frank Flores: And the admissions staff will look at not only Junior ROTC experience, they will look at your extracurricular activities, (look through) sports, they'll look at the things that you've done to the community and they'll look at you as a total package for the ROTC programs.

Bob Kelley: If I could link that answer and go back to the previous answer from Ms. Shiu, this type of scholarship program – the ROTC program – is a great one that's kind of recession-proof in summer in some respects because it's something that's provided from a specific dollar amount from the government. In a related story, Guam is part of the Western Undergraduate Exchange and so this program whereby students from Guam can attend certain public universities in the western portion of the United States for a significant reduction in tuition. It's usually 1.5 times the in-state tuition. So for example UH Manoa, that would be a $16,000-a-year savings. ... While it is a financial aid program it's not tied to the recession, it's just a benefit that is given and so it doesn't matter what the stock market does. ... Some schools have a limit to the number of kids who can receive it, so that's just another way that's kind of a recession-proof type financial aid program.

Hannah Daleno: With college students being charged normal tuition prices for some colleges despite taking classes online and restricted access to school facilities, which would make up a majority of why their tuition is so expensive, how can future college students plan to get the most for their money?

Bob Kelley: With any organization that has more than 20 employees, the largest expense is almost universally salaries. That's one thing to bear in mind, that the vast majority of is going to the professors in the forms of salaries as well as everybody else on the campus. There's been a fantastic growth in the facilities.

The best answer I can give you is by looking at the definition of a full-time student. Normally, universities will charge a full-time student a set flat tuition amount, but within that definition of a full-time student there is a range of credits that you can take. So you could take ... as few as 15 credits – maybe even 12 credits in some cases – and still be a full-time student, and you can take as many as 21 credits and still be a full-time student, all for the same fee. ...

If you're talking about the maximum usage of your money, one of the things that a lot of international students do – and this is something that you guys could think of as well – if you do end up going to a university, leaving Guam and going to university in Oklahoma, you just stay. Don't come back for summer break. Stay over summer and take four classes over summer. And then with doing that you might even be able to shorten your stay by a year – again saving a year's worth of tuition. ... 

Vivian Valdes: What you can also do is look at the university that you're thinking of, what kind of programs that they can provide (to) you as a student. Like, let's say you can check out one of my TRIO family, SSS (Student Support Services), that's something that you can apply and they offer tutoring for you. The university also offers free webinars, so that's something that you can make it worth your money.

Patty Terlaje: Also, don't forget the cheaper route is the community colleges. Their tuition is significantly lower and a lot of the community colleges in the mainland as well as Guam the courses articulate to a four-year university. Like Mr. Kelley mentioned, that the standard fee – yes it's across whether you take 12 credits or 15 or 21, the fees are standard. ... Please check in to the community colleges. They're cheaper, the classes are smaller, the classes articulate to four-year universities.

Eunice De Belen: Previously, online workshops didn't have much effect in college applications, but with the pandemic do you believe that they now hold more weight?

Bob Kelley: I think this speaks a little bit back to Elijah's point a long time ago. If you're ... doing something that's good, you're moving yourself forward. So if you're signing up for an online workshop and you wanna talk about that and say, "Hey, in my college application I did this online forum here." Again, that's gonna be something that's separating yourself out from everybody else who didn't do that. ...

Eunice De Belen: Do you have any last words of encouragement or advice for students right now given the situation we're in, most especially for (the) Class of 2021 who have arguably suffered the most in terms of schooling during this pandemic?

Bob Kelley: My final words of encouragement to you guys is ... make the most of this situation, don't use it as an excuse. Find something about this that is a way that you can move yourself forward and take advantage of that circumstance. Throughout your life, you're gonna be faced with challenges and you've got the choice of giving in to them or trying to surmount them and this would be one of them.

Leah Beth Naholowaa: Stay the course, stay focused, remember your goal – your end goal. Also, this may be the time to learn new skills. I have a friend, during this pandemic he developed an app and it's now being used on our app by just being always on his phone. ... Don't look at this pandemic as a disadvantage to you in going to college, learn from this and you will be a better person because you've gone through this.

Vivian Valdes: My thing is that it's really great to have people to guide you, I think especially at this time. You find a program like Upward Bound, it's a college prep program, we empower students, we motivate and assist you to attend and succeed in college. Again, how can you survive with this thing, just gotta survive and always go back to your compelling why. Why do you want to go to college? Why do you want to do the things that you want to do?

Beatriz Camacho: I just wanted to say you know counselors we always tell (to) our students, practice some self care. The colleges are gonna want to know the whole you, the balanced you. Like Dr. Leah Beth said, now's the time to learn a new skill. Mr. Kelley said, try a workshop here and there. I'm gonna say take some time out for yourself, to pick up a book and read for fun not because it's something that's assigned to you in one of your classes. Go out and jump around in your yard. Now that we can go to the beach, go to the beach with (you know) up to five people. That's it for now. Try to have some kind of balance so you're not so overwhelmed with all the Zoom meetings and the Google Classroom. The schedule that you have (I mean), just on our end at GDOE your whole day can be filled up with Zoom and Google Meets. You know it can just be so overwhelming, so do something that's just you. Read something that you want, a book that you haven't read in a while that you may wanna re-read. Connect with family members over Zoom but just for fun not because you have to. Just try to develop that balance so that you're just not so overwhelmed because it can be really discouraging and depressing sometimes to be in this situation. But like everyone here is saying, we're all going through the same thing and what's gonna separate you from the person that makes those excuses from the person that says hey (you know) I'm gonna take this bull by the horns and just go with it.

Lt. Col. S. Kellie Williams: ... What you need to do is stay positive, keep your eyes on your goal. When you're running on the track you don't look at that one in front of you, you keep looking ahead, look (at) what's down the road. Focus on what you can do versus what you can't do, it's so easy to say but I can't do this, I can't do that. When you're drafting those memos for school tell them what you have been able to do, you've been able to do one on one assistance with your family members or with other kids in school. Would that be your focus, what you can do because it's easy to say the glass is half empty it's much better to say my glass is half full. You wanna be able to say what you can do and just focus on the positive. It's really hard but it's so important and you can convey that in your memo and any interactions that you had that things can be difficult but it doesn't mean that it can't be done. So I just encourage all of you to keep your eyes on the goal and focus and reach out to us, we're all resources for you.

Col. Frank Flores: The opportunities for success, the scholarships, the Service Academy appointments, the Merit Scholarships, those were here before the pandemic and they're still here today. All those opportunities are going to great schools, the opportunities for scholarships to get scholarship money. All those opportunities are opportunities (for success,) for your success are still here despite the pandemic and it's very encouraging to see all of you here online, looking for those opportunities. Very encouraging I think to all of us.


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