Jess Gonzalez, left, Alexander Mam, Izaias Pérez, and Jose Hernandez Diaz wait for commencement ceremonies for Aurora’s William Smith High School. Graduation was held May 17 at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver. The senior class was in its freshman year at the start of the pandemic.Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post

The class of 2023 were freshmen when the world shut down in March 2020.

Now poised to enter the adult world, they’ve been shaped by the pandemic and everything that followed. 

Their academic careers and social lives were upended. They lived through the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed. They questioned their futures amid economic uncertainty and wondered about the value of a college degree as the nation debated student debt relief. 

The choices the class of 2023 make about their future are inevitably tied to their experience of the last four years.

“When we started school, there was a lot of energy and a lot of hype around college,” said Seline Mesfin, 17, a DSST: Montview student in northeast Denver. “As time went on there was a gradual lessening of this energy and motivation. It became less of how do I push through this next year and more of how do I get through day by day by day.”

For Mesfin, the pandemic solidified that she wants to go to college. She’s considering Yale University, Colorado College, and Pomona College. 

But many students are making other choices. It’s too soon to get solid numbers on the class of 2023, but college enrollment dropped by about a million students from 2019 to 2022, according to National Student Clearinghouse numbers. In Colorado, the class of 2021 was less likely to go to college than those who graduated in 2020. 

“In different ways, the pandemic put our own lives in perspective, and our own values and motives and made us consider what really matters to us,” Mesfin said.

Chalkbeat talked to over a dozen other students across the state about their plans after high school. Here are five of those stories in their own words, as told to Chalkbeat Colorado. The pieces have been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Jerilynn Arnold, 17

Montezuma-Cortez High School | Will go to Pueblo Community College

I grew up in a really hectic situation. Both my parents are alcoholics, so I was teetering on the edge when I was very young. My life never really revolved around my education. My life always revolved around getting through the day.

Jerilynn Arnold, holding a fan, and her sister Aliysha. (Photo courtesy of Jerilynn Arnold)

College really wasn’t an option growing up. I didn’t get serious about school until the end of my freshman year. I moved in with my grandmother. I was around the age of 14. 

But that’s when COVID hit. I did not do well because I wasn’t used to online learning. I really didn’t pick myself up until my senior year.

I wanted to go to Fort Lewis College. I wanted to start my own life as an adult and move out. I’d be living on my own, get a job, and go to college. But I’m also really scared of going out into the world. I’m Native American and you don’t find a lot of us out there. I wanted to be close with my community.

My heart broke a little when I got the email saying I was rejected. It hurt. I let myself feel it. But I also said, “you know what? It’s not the only option.” I have backup plans. I told myself that if I do a year or two at community college and I get myself back up, then I can switch to a four-year. It’ll all work out. It doesn’t matter where I go. I just need to get the education that I hope to get. I’ve decided on my career in nursing.

The most exciting part about college is I am going to be on my own after all the ups and downs. I will still have the support of my family and I am still going to have the support of my tribe. But it’ll be up to me — what I do and where I go from here.

Isenia Fregoso, 18

Central High School | Will stay in Grand Junction to attend Colorado Mesa University

Neither of my parents went to college, but it’s something they’ve wanted for me. Even since elementary school, it’s never not been a choice.

But my parents are not going to be able to help me with money. I do have a couple of scholarships, but a lot of the scholarships I have are one-year scholarships and not renewable. And because of my dad’s income, I don’t qualify for any Pell Grants even though I don’t have the funds to pay for college.

My biggest goal is not having loan debt. I’ve heard different stories, like two of my cousins. They both have considerable student debt. They’re struggling to pay it off. I do not want to leave school with all that debt.

Photo courtesy of Isenia Fregoso

I knew if I tried to get into an Ivy League or CU Boulder or CSU Fort Collins or any of the bigger schools in the state that I’d have to seek out loans.

By going to college in my town, I can live at home and I’ll save a lot of money. I didn’t even apply to any other colleges. I just applied to Colorado Mesa University. 

At the end of the day, considering finances is a hard decision.  I feel like I’ve done the work to get into any college and it almost feels like I don’t have options.

Jakob Manchego, 17

Fowler High School senior | Will apprentice with K.R. Swerdfeger Construction as a welder

Halfway through my senior year, after applying to a few colleges, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was a little bit stressed. I thought about going to work with no further experience. I knew I didn’t necessarily want to go to college because I am more of a hands-on learner.

Photo courtesy of Jakob Manchego

At my school, I feel like they do push college a lot. They’re big on seeing kids being successful after high school, which I get. Once the Tulsa School of Welding came and talked to our class, they inspired me to go into welding.

It was my dad who really ended up putting me on this route. He’s been in the trade industry his whole life. He’s helped me a lot in deciding if I should go to trade school or do an apprenticeship where I can get paid to also learn. And that’s what struck me. I like the idea of making money while learning.

It’s a four- to five-year apprenticeship and you have to go to class. But it’s not like school. It’s a couple classes and they train you. My sisters are really successful — my sister is a registered nurse and my other sister has gone into law — and I want to be successful as they are.

I am grateful. Eventually with welding being a really high-paying job, it should pay off.

Lily-Ann Smith, 16

Estes Park High School | Will graduate early to attend Denison University, a private four-year institution in Ohio

Photo courtesy of Lily-Ann Smith

I am graduating two years early. My mother is very, very sick. And my father just a couple years ago was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

I wanted to be in a position to fight for custody of my sister in case of my mother’s passing. I can be emancipated if she happens to die, but for my littlest sister, she’s only 10. She has eight more years to go.

College never really was the goal. I wanted to be financially stable. I want to go into global commerce and I want to work for a big international company.

I want to make sure that I will be ready.

And I knew that if I didn’t figure out how to pay for college myself, I wouldn’t go. I’m the first in my family to go to college. So the whole college process was me trying to figure out everything by myself. 

Luckily, I have the QuestBridge scholarship. I got to apply to 15 schools for free and rank them. My top choice was Denison University. They had some of the best financial aid.  I have free room and board, and I also have tuition covered.

I just hope that by getting a college education, it will help show my sisters that if they really want to do something, they can actually do it.

Jonathan Sykes, 17

East High School | Will attend Morgan State University, a historically Black university

I decided on Morgan State University. My goal is to study physical therapy, as well as try to walk onto the football team. The school also has that community culture I want.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Sykes

The vast majority of my family went to an HBCU. When I went to Howard University’s homecoming, I got to be exposed to my own culture. Being from Colorado, there’s just not as many African American people. Being there definitely gave me a sense of hope. It gave me a feeling of belonging. 

The last couple of years, we’ve had some real challenges around race as a country. I feel like now more than ever, we need to stick together. We have to spend this time uplifting each other instead of tearing each other down.

I’ve always wanted to be at a place where I could feel safe — a place where people would understand me, and a place where I didn’t have to explain every single thing I did. I wanted to be in an environment where my opinions and my thoughts mean something to other people.

My brother also attends Morgan State. He’s a senior. He has so many amazing stories about the people he’s met. It’s a community that is loving and supportive.

I’m really excited about it. I just want to go stay on track and graduate and be as successful as I can be. College is a privilege. Not everybody gets a chance. I want to make the best of it.

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.