TATIANA TORRES HAD everything stacked against her. She spent most of her time in high school learning from home after an accident left her with persistent headaches and sensitivity to light.

She had just returned to Heritage High School in Brentwood full-time when the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools.  Despite these challenges, she will transfer this fall as a junior to UC Berkeley to major in political science. She had completed her general education credits in just one year at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg.

Torres graduated from Heritage in June 2022 and enrolled in Los Medanos College after she was unable to get into any of the universities she wanted to attend. She was accepted into an honors program there and flourished, despite taking many of her classes online.

“Academically, it wasn’t too difficult,” Torres said. “However, this year was much more difficult than I anticipated because of life challenges. It caught me off guard and I struggled for a bit, but I was able to bounce back.”

Torres is one of 12 California high school seniors from the Class of 2022 that EdSource followed through graduation and their first year as an adult. Five attended a university, five attended a California community college, one took a job and one student — who planned to sleep in his car while attending UCLA because he couldn’t afford rent — could no longer be reached.

An accident sent Tatiana Torres home for most of high school. Despite that, she managed to complete her general education units in college in one year.

Graduating from high school and going to college, or beginning a career was particularly daunting for the Class of 2022, which had spent more than a year studying from home during COVID-19 pandemic school closures.

The new adults struggled academically, especially with math, and socially due to their prolonged time out of school. Some of the students interviewed changed long-held plans to attend colleges far from home, and one decided not to attend at all.

Students’ college and career choices impacted

They are not alone. A newly released national survey of 1,500 seniors in the Class of 2023, by ACT Research, shows that nearly half said the pandemic affected their decision on at least one college or career-related choice. More than a quarter of the students said the pandemic changed their mind about which college to attend and 1 in 10 reported the pandemic made them question whether to attend college at all.

Although most of the students changed their decisions about college or career because of financial difficulties, declining grades and doubt about college tied to the pandemic, others changed course because the school closures gave them time for self-reflection or to discover new interests and priorities, according to researchers.

“[T]his year was much more difficult than I anticipated because of life challenges. It caught me off guard and I struggled for a bit, but I was able to bounce back.”

Tatiana Torres, Los Medanos College student

Torres took advantage of her time at home to start a nonprofit to help younger children struggling with mental health issues during the pandemic. She created the website calm-4-you after talking to a 5-year-old neighbor who felt confused and guilty over not being able to be with her friends and classmates.

Three of the other 11 seniors who were part of the EdSource Class of 2022 project started businesses, some with a goal of creating multiple streams of income for themselves after they graduate from college and start careers.

“We were all at home during our most important years of high school. Because of this, a lot of students have this independent go-getter mindset,” said Gannon Peebles, a 2022 graduate of Edison High School in Fresno. If I don’t know how to do something, I’m going to try to figure it out before I ask someone.”

Navigating the college system isn’t easy

After more than a year of distance learning, many of the students found holes in their knowledge and struggled to keep up with their studies — particularly in math — when they arrived at college. Some students had problems scheduling their classes or learning the needed study habits to get them through college coursework.

Miles Fu’s problems started after his first semester at American River College in Sacramento, when he was unable to get an appointment with a counselor to discuss which classes he should take in his second semester. He struggled to choose classes, picking them without first considering things such as the length of time in class each day. On Thursdays, for example, he scheduled classes from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. He found himself exhausted after two-hour classes and couldn’t keep up with the required reading.

“The whole year is foggy in my brain,” Fu said. “I did not pass all my classes, and there has been a lot of scrambling to figure out what I need to do next.”

Fu can’t say whether school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to his difficulties in college.

“I may have absorbed my high school material better and that may have carried into college,” he said. “I may have learned study habits sooner. It’s possible I would have been better off (if the closures never happened).”

Miles Fu learned he was interested in rangeland ecology after taking a series of field trips to ranges and nature preserves.

College wasn’t all bad this year for Fu. He discovered an interest in rangeland ecology after talking to people who manage rangeland and natural preserves. He would like to earn an internship that allows him to learn more about the career.

College freshmen eagerly jumped into campus life

Despite the struggles of adapting to college and catching up academically, the new freshmen were ready to make up for everything they had missed out on socially during high school.

Peebles said the pandemic experience made him more outgoing when he moved to New York to attend Columbia University last fall. He enjoyed his time there so much he returned to Fresno for only a quick six-day visit before returning to New York earlier this month to take summer classes and a coveted summer internship with Sumeru Equity Partners, a private equity firm with offices across the country.

Even the thick smoke from a fire burning in Canada didn’t stop Peebles from jumping on public transit and enjoying all that New York had to offer when he returned.

“There is never a dull moment in this city,” he said.

Gannon Peebles, of Fresno, was worried about meeting new friends when he left for Columbia University in New York. It hasn’t been a problem.

Peebles, a straight A-student at Edison High, faltered in math his first semester at Columbia. He attributes his problems with math to not having a full year of in-person calculus during high school.

“It’s actually the opposite of what I thought,” he said of his expectation for college. “Going into college I thought academics would be doable and social life would be challenging. Will I be able to have a friend group and have fun? Looking back on it, my friends turned out amazing and academics the first semester were challenging, but went well.”

Jennifer Tran, a political science major at UC Berkeley, is active in student government and is often either traveling or on Zoom calls advocating for bills she has written either as a member of GENup, a student-led social justice organization, or the Youth Power Project, a nonprofit educational advocacy organization. Tran also is helping to launch the National Student Board Member Association.

Despite the busy schedule, Tran understands work-life balance and has set the weekends aside for fun. She recently moved out of the dorm and into a house with six other students.

“I definitely am getting the whole college experience,” she said. “COVID restrictions are getting a lot looser now. I do feel a little more free.”

Victor Contreras of Elk Grove broke his ankle in November when he was hit by a car while bicycling near San Diego State University, where he attends college. After the fracture healed, he was back on his bike as part of the university racing team and took a spot on an intramural basketball team.

Contreras said the COVID pandemic school closures made him more excited about leaving Elk Grove and meeting new people in college. He dived into the social life on campus with enthusiasm, although he struggled with math and other subjects during his first year. He expects he probably would have done better in college academically if it hadn’t been for the COVID-19 school closures.

“Now, I’m more outgoing, definitely more active as a result,” Contreras said. “I feel like my sense of humor has been impacted (positively).”

Making the most of COVID

Making friends and fitting in on campus was a major concern for Payton Zarceno, who had attended Mt. SAC Early College Academy in West Covina before moving to The Hill at UCLA, the university’s residence halls.

Zarceno decided to make the pandemic a learning opportunity. She spent the majority of her first year in college working with student organizations on student retention.

Payton Zarceno visits Unidad Park in Filipinotown in Los Angles in early June as part of her internship with the Samahang Teaching Through Experience Program. (Courtesy of Payton Zarceno)

“(This) allowed me to learn more about the issues students face at UCLA that had been exacerbated by the pandemic,” she said. “Getting involved with these organizations really impacted me socially and personally because these organizations introduced me to so many new friends and faces.”

Tran found her niche as an education advocate during the pandemic school closures. She wrote or advocated for more than a dozen legislative bills to aid California students as the policy director for GENup while attending Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove. Now she is making her mark at UC Berkeley, where she is studying public policy. Tran is planning to add education as a second major next semester.

She recently became one of two Berkeley undergraduates selected for a Travers Fellowship at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco this summer. The Commonwealth Club is the nation’s oldest and largest public affairs forum, according to the university website.

Tran said the COVID pandemic prepared her for the University of California strike that pushed students back into distance learning for weeks, as well as for the virtual lobbying she has been doing as part of her work with GENup and the Youth Power Project.

“It definitely changed how I think of education,” she said. “ I think it’s kind of normal for me to miss classes now. I am able to catch up virtually.”

As part of the Youth Power Project, Tran also helped to write a bill that would offer a Presidential Award for civic engagement to U.S. students, as part of the President’s Education Awards Program. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has signed on as author of the bill.

Jennifer Tran, second from left, and other UC Berkeley students visit U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., center, in his office in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Jennifer Tran)

Peebles is confident the Class of 2022 is moving beyond COVID and is back on track.

“I think people have figured it out,” he said. “I think that by now it is more normal. We have all kind of evened out academically.”

This article is part of EdSource’s Class of 2022 series, which followed the progress of 12 seniors as they dealt with the aftermath of COVID-19 school closures during high school and their first year of college.

This story originally appeared in EdSource.