Born a minute apart, Janiel and Jael Rosario have shared nearly everything for the past 18 years: clothes, high school friends, a love of video games, and a tendency to blast the rapper Juice WRLD’s music in their rooms.
But this fall, they were ready to embark on separate adventures — Janiel at Occidental College in Los Angeles and Jael at Babson College in Wellesley. With high SAT scores and strong academic records at Boston Preparatory Charter School, they were poised for success far away — if not in distance then in circumstance — from the collection of brick public-housing buildings near Jackson Square where they have lived most of their lives.
But amid the pandemic, their first semester of college has fallen far short of what they’d imagined. Janiel was stuck at home, logging into online classes from his childhood bedroom while contending with a three-hour time difference. His performance was so lackluster that at times his college dreams seemed at risk of collapsing.
Jael moved to Babson, but struggled to fit in on a predominantly white campus, surrounded by classmates with private school educations. Cut off from the usual clubs and social gatherings that can help students settle in and develop supportive friendships, he was unprepared for the grim isolation.
The twins’ experiences are common among first-year students who have seen their college dreams stalled by COVID-19. Many are struggling as they try to learn with limited access to campus resources like libraries and counselors. And as the Rosarios illustrate, these first months of college have been even tougher for students with few financial resources and limited family support to help them persevere.
“I expected change for me, change for the better, not only academically, but personally,” said Janiel. “I expected to be very uncomfortable during the experience and find out a lot of new things about myself . . . but this was definitely a struggle.”
First-year college enrollment took an unprecedented nose dive this fall, with 13 percent, or 327,500, fewer students attending, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which collects the data annually.
Early data also indicates that students from low-income urban high schools were most likely to sit this year out, with their enrollment in college falling by 8.7 percentage points between 2019 and 2020, compared with 6.7 percentage points for those coming from wealthier schools, according to the clearinghouse.
Whether this cadre of students will get back on the college-degree track and climb the economic ladder is a growing concern among educators and economists alike.
“Delaying enrollment makes it more likely that they will have to take more remedial courses if they eventually enroll, and it makes never attending college a real possibility,” said Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “I worry about losing a generation of potential college students and trapping many of these young adults in low-wage jobs.”
As they sat shoulder to shoulder in the living room of the apartment they share with their mother, a cook at a child care center who emigrated from the Dominican Republic before the boys were born, Jael and Janiel recounted how the semester has shaken their expectations.
College had always been the destination. In the living room, a shelf threatens to buckle under the weight of thickly crammed trophies, diplomas, and academic awards from the twins and their four older siblings. They both graduated this past spring from Boston Prep, which prides itself on readying mostly Black and Latino students from some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods for college and keeping track of them in their undergraduate years.
Janiel, who was the school’s 12th-grade representative, delivered a buoyant message to kick off the school’s graduation video in mid-June.
“We finally did it,” Janiel said, in a clip filmed in his bedroom. “We’ve finished. The work has paid off.”
At the time, he was eager to start at Occidental and his next chapter. Like his brother, Janiel was admitted early to college and knew where he was headed last December.
But over the summer, the news from Los Angeles became increasingly bleak. The infection rates kept rising and by mid-July, the college had called off any plans for in-person instruction and greatly limited who could come to campus.
Janiel was not going anywhere. Even as he and his tearful mother dropped Jael off at Babson in August, where his brother would begin a semester marked by weekly COVID tests and prohibitions on group pickup basketball games and hanging out in a friend’s dorm room, Janiel wasn’t overly worried about his academic future.
But soon after school began, he found himself struggling to focus and falling behind.
The household responsibilities that he once shared with his brother were now his alone. He picked up food and dropped off mail for his mom. Often he helped her communicate with her bosses and co-workers by text in English, since she only speaks Spanish. When water started dripping in from the ceiling of their apartment, he was the one making phone calls to the landlord.
The added stress sapped his motivation to get out of bed and watch prerecorded lectures by professors and participate in Zoom classes where conversations between students were often stilted and cursory.
“Even being in my own room, focused on my homework, I couldn’t do that,” Janiel said. “My head was everywhere. I had so many things I had to do and so many things on my mind.”
By the time Aaron Canto, the director of Boston Prep’s Persistence Project, which helps its alumni transition into college, checked in with Janiel a few weeks into the school year, the counselor was alarmed. All the momentum that Janiel had built up during his four years of high school had come to a grinding halt.
Boston Prep had planned to convert a classroom into an alumni center where students who had to attend college remotely could come to study or just talk with other undergraduates also stuck at home. After Canto’s conversation with Janiel, launching the center became a priority.
“If we waited one more week, there’s not a road to recovery,” Canto said. “I knew this is going to really impact him if we don’t open this space to allow for him to come outside of his house to be productive and get away from some of the daily responsibilities.”
Janiel groused to Canto about how an Occidental group chat had blown up over Boba tea, while he was in Boston struggling to log on to classes because his apartment’s air-conditioning unit had tripped the power.
He had to drop a music class he was excited to take, so he could focus on his economics, math, and geology courses. Occidental also connected Janiel to a therapist to help him address the emotional toll of the semester.
“I don’t want to say that I would have dropped out, but it would have been a scarier situation if I didn’t have the support,” he said.
Janiel declined to say what his grades were at the end of the semester, only that they “reflect the year” and were “not surprising.”
Meanwhile, at Babson, Jael was relishing his business classes. The twins want to one day start their own clothing line and record-producing business, and Jael felt like he was already learning so much in his classes to help him reach that goal. He knew Janiel was missing out on campus life and Jael tried to share his stories, about interesting professors and students and the uninspired and pared-down COVID-19 cafeteria menu of cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, and fries.
But outside of his classes, Jael had a harder time.
At Babson, only 12 percent of first-year students receive Pell grants, a federal marker for financial need. Black students make up just 4 percent of the college’s 2,400 undergraduates. International students make up slightly under a third of Babson’s undergraduates, but Jael knew that many first-years, especially those from the Dominican Republic, hadn’t been able to make it onto campus because of the pandemic.
“I just got overwhelmed by the fact that there’s no one else like me,” Jael said. “I was actually in my room a lot. I locked myself in there.”
Jael confided in his roommate, who encouraged him to do his homework in more public places so he could meet new people.
On a lark, he went to a study room with a 3-D printer hoping that it would be a high-traffic area where he would run into new students.
“Half an hour later this Dominican and one of his friends walked in. I introduced myself,” Jael said. “When he said he was Dominican, I’m not going to lie, as soon as he told me that, I got so much more open.”
Jael is hopeful that his new friend will introduce him to other students with Dominican roots at Babson. Next semester more international students are expected to come to campus and Jael has joined the Black Student Union as he tries to form the social connections that are a key part of the college experience.
Occidental agreed to let Janiel live in the dorms this spring after he pleaded with the school. The semester will begin in mid-January with remote instruction due to the surge in COVID-19 cases in Southern California but the college is allowing international students and some who face hardships to live on campus.
Janiel said he worries about leaving his mother in Boston on her own, and she worries about him being across the country. But Janiel said he needs to feel a part of the college community, to be in the same time zone, and to have the campus resources close at hand.
A few days before Christmas, Janiel and his mom met Canto over a video conference call and booked his ticket to Los Angeles, for which Boston Prep is helping pay.
Canto saw glimmers of the buoyant student he knew before COVID. Janiel wants the spring to be a fresh start to his freshman year.
“I’m not proud how I did,” he said. “This second semester I am killing it.”