Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

The college class of 2024 reflects on their unique college experience

Six graduates pose with diplomas
Six college graduates of the class of 2024 shared their experience with MPR News. Alyssa Schmidt (top left), Abdul-Hakeem Mustapha (top middle), Aaliyah Demry (top right), Genesis Maravilla Fernandez (bottom left), Thea Wangsness (bottom middle) and Abby Vela (bottom right) all received their college diplomas.
Courtesy photos

The class of 2024 may be one of the most unique college classes. Many of them were high school seniors in 2020 and didn’t get a high school graduation.

They then entered college in the height of the pandemic, starting school entirely online. Additionally, they were experiencing fallout from the murder of George Floyd, increasing climate disasters and most recently campus protests surrounding the Israel-Hamas war.

Despite all of that, the class of 2024 has a diploma in hand. MPR News producers Aleesa Kuznetsov and Josh Cobb talked to several college graduates across Minnesota who reflected on their college experience.

  • Alyssa Schmidt, University of Minnesota Twin-Cities

  • Aaliyah Demry, St. Cloud State University

  • Abdul-Hakeem Mustapha, St. Cloud State University

  • Genesis Maravilla Fernandez, University of Minnesota Twin-Cities

  • Abby Vela, University of Minnesota Twin-Cities

  • Thea Wangsness, University of Minnesota Twin-Cities

To provide more insight on the class of 2024, Evan Johnson joined MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer. Johnson is the associate director of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Minnesota's MLK program and is also an academic advisor.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: It is college graduation season and the class of 2024 may be one of the most unique of college classes. Many of them were high school seniors in 2020 and didn't even get a high school graduation. They then entered college at the height of the pandemic, starting school entirely online.

Despite all of that, the class of 2024 has a diploma in hand. We talked to several graduates across Minnesota to reflect on their college experience and talk about what's next. Here to join me as we listen to those voices is Evan Johnson. He's the Associate Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the University of Minnesota's MLK Program. And Mr. Johnson is also an academic advisor. Welcome to the program.

EVAN JOHNSON: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.

CATHY WURZER: I'm excited to have you here. I know you've been an academic advisor at the U since 2019, just before the pandemic. You know, it's even hard to remember back those, what, four years or so. What was it like having to navigate the pandemic and those years-- these years following with all the students?

EVAN JOHNSON: It was a drastic jump because I've been doing academic advising eight years total across different institutions. And you kind get used to a pattern or structure-- [AUDIO OUT] --and the fact that on so many levels, you are not just having to adjust modality, but also really think more intentionally and thoroughly on how you want to holistically support and advise students when an entire landscape, socially, politically, medically has changed.

It very much required needing to be adaptive versus reactive, and not try to take into account what students are naming that they need. So that was a really big thing to where having a lot of close engagement with students due to the high-touch structure of our program and that we teach our own FYE class, that did give me a close proximity that I'm fortunate to continue to have in directly engaging with students and aiding to be an anchor as they still very much figured out collectively what this next new normal stage of their college term.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. You did a lot of good work. I want to listen to some graduate voices right now. This is University of Minnesota grad Alyssa Schmidt and Saint Cloud State graduate Aaliyah Demry talking about how the pandemic affected their academics.

ALYSSA SCHMIDT: I became really lazy and was not doing good study habits. Also on Zoom, it's like they didn't require you to come to class all the time. When you were on zoom, you could literally just be on your phone scrolling on Instagram. I feel like I wasn't as dedicated to school as I should have been.

AALIYAH DEMRY: My grades started to go down drastically. I didn't feel like I was learning anything at all. I can definitely tell that some of the teachers were drained.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. Evan, I've heard that from other students as well, just was so easy to kick back and just take your foot off the gas. How did you help students get through that?

EVAN JOHNSON: A big part of assisting students with that was very much affirming that their perspective is real and-- [AUDIO OUT] --we're not realistically going to have the same capacity that we used to have prior to this landscaping shift. And that was a thing to where-- affirming to students that you trying to adjust to feeling like this isn't worth your time, or ranging to that you're trying to be proactive but modality-wise, in-class assignment-wise, you're naming that instructors are trying to figure things out as well.

A lot of it was also emphasizing grace and acceptance, and that that isn't a reflection on your capability as a student entirely, as well as the instructor, and trying to remind the importance of intent and impact. And knowing that there is truth in that we really need to adjust how we do education, both in curriculum and in structure because the pan-- [AUDIO OUT] --that yes, while things have maybe worked before, it's not serving us the same way as best as possible anymore.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering, when students got back into the classroom, was their ability to learn still affected by having to be on Zoom for more than a year? How did that go?

EVAN JOHNSON: I still experience directly from student feedback that there were lingering effects because part of what the institutional message was, was that boom now '21 to 2022 academic year, you're back in person. It's now back to normal. And folks are like, hold up, like, wait a minute. I'm still dealing with a domino ripple effect still.

And there's a lot of unrealistic expectations around the positionality that college students have. And that's like a larger dynamic that's been long standing in education. So that was a big thing that students were able to pinpoint and name the x-- [AUDIO OUT] --normal and what that means as a college student, but also highlighting that's not going to be the same landscape or layout anymore. And they were being very vocal, as they should be, about not wanting to be tied to some of those unrealistic or past serving expectations.

CATHY WURZER: We have a couple other students who want to hear from here. We're going to talk about the social impact of the pandemic with University of Minnesota graduates Abby Vela and Genesis Maravilla Fernandez.

ABBY VELA: While we maybe had the easy way where we didn't have to wake up early, we also forfeited having really tangible connections with people. It's really hard to now go out and have extracurricular activities, or be a part of organizations when we didn't really have the opportunity to do that.

GENESIS MARAVILLA FERNANDEZ: I think my expectations were drastically different than they ended up being, especially just from films. Growing up watching Welcome Week, you get to interact with all these people. You get to meet your lifelong friends. Starting out, my first year is the complete opposite, and alone with no roommate, wearing masks, having to interact through a glass wall or through a screen was very different than what I thought it was going to be. I didn't feel like college was worth it anymore because I really attached college to that college experience.

CATHY WURZER: I think some people, older adults, do not understand this, that many younger folks still struggle with how to connect to people because of this. I mean, students really felt like they were robbed of a really key experience in college. What do you think about that, Evan?

EVAN JOHNSON: I very much agree with what students were naming about this huge disconnect socially, emotionally, and structurally, because there is a reason why college campuses are physically designed the way they are, because it's allowing students to connect in physical spaces, whether that's the union, different classroom study sessions, the labs to use equipment tied to what hands-on learning and things they're trying to do. So there's a whole lot of intentional resources that students were not able to engage with and plug into in the same depth.

Yet from the outside perspective, there's a disconnect from us from earlier generations only looking at it from our past lived experience and not recognizing how this student's generation, one, is drastically different. And the only way for us to better understand their perspective and circumstance is to center and honor the truth of what they're telling us very blatantly and directly.

CATHY WURZER: By the way, I'm curious now. Going into the future here in these next few years after these young people have graduated from college, will they need to catch up on social skills? Do you think that they will-- How might that, this ground-shaking experience, change them moving into the future in the workplace?

EVAN JOHNSON: I think to some extent, yes. But a big part of it is understanding that us being aware and mindful of students naming that they feel they're kind of playing catch up around their confidence and self-agency, and their understanding of how they want to socially and emotionally connect, we can honor the truth of that and not come into it from a deficit mindset and think that means that they're incapable, or not valuable members of society now, since they have a newfound social capital in graduating to fully plug into the careers and experiences that they're wanting to do.

It requires us to have empathy, and empathy that looks at things from a deeper point of how I need to be aware of the way that I move through the world, and how that might contribute to the barriers, and dynamics, and friction that you are running into versus from a place of apathy.

CATHY WURZER: I understand. Thank you, by the way, for that for that answer. Another thing that marks the time these students were in school was, well, several things. The fallout after the murder of George Floyd. Other big events, climate disasters, the war in Gaza most recently. There's a lot that has happened. Here is how Saint Cloud State graduate Abdul-Hakeem Mustapha and U of M grad Thea Vangsness said it impacted their time.

ABDUL-HAKEEM MUSTAPHA: You know, a lot of things were happening at that time, especially with George Floyd. Like that, honestly-- so I was a part of the Council of African-American students. We all had to go home. We all kind of had to deal with it ourselves. We couldn't really meet in a space where we could on campus and talk about what's happening in our backyard, literally.

THEA VANGSNESS: And I think it is harder to focus on schoolwork when there are all of these different things going on. It just feels less important, or just not the thing that you're going to be able to prioritize all the time.

CATHY WURZER: That was Thea Vangsness and Abdul-Hakeem Mustapha. How do you help students navigate life, school when so much is going on outside the classroom?

EVAN JOHNSON: Yeah. A big part of the grounding way our program focuses on supporting our students is an understanding of identity development, and how if you don't know how these dynamics and components are compounding, folks, places, and spaces are going to tell your story and try to dictate where you go for you, about you, around you, and sometimes through you, minimizing your existence, which, for a lot of us, is a form of resistance.

And so a big thing that I think students were very aware of is that I'm being asked to ignore the reality of how these larger societal things are directly interconnected and impacting me, my community, and the community of others across difference that I also value and care about. And that is just as important as trying to learn and empower myself through my academics as best as possible. They're not mutually exclusive.

CATHY WURZER: We're getting to the end of our conversation. This has been absolutely fascinating. I want to ask you about research that's showing that Gen Z, even Millennials, are moving back home. And evidently, that's the case with Alyssa and Genesis. Take a listen.

GENESIS MARAVILLA FERNANDEZ: So I'm definitely more comfortable staying at home than I would have been in high school. I probably wouldn't believe that I'd still be at home.

ALYSSA SCHMIDT: Like four years ago, I would have been mad at myself for moving home. And even last year, I was like, I do not want to move home. I'll figure something out. But now, I don't feel guilty at all moving back home.

CATHY WURZER: Hmm. It seems like it is more accepted for folks to move back in with their parents after college. It's almost like a place of refuge, you know? Alyssa doesn't have a job lined up. I'm curious as to what you think when it comes to post-graduation plans of some of these students?

EVAN JOHNSON: Yeah. It is totally reasonable and valid that students are recognizing that there's benefit to going back home and connecting with their familial support team, and others around them who can give them a place to land, to springboard from, and connect, as well as give guidance since a lot of folks might be having shared experiences and things that they're also navigating through.

What those students are naming is really attacking the idea of individualism, and the myth of meritocracy, and the importance of having a village since a lot of these things are beyond our control and there's a benefit if we're doing sort of a reach one, each one, teach one kind of support, versus leaving everyone else out there to just fall into this myth of pull yourself up by your bootstraps when there are a lot of structural and logistical pieces with class, age, geographically where you are, that these things can really dictate the probability of options and stuff that you're trying to plug into.

CATHY WURZER: Say, I need to ask you this one final question. It's relatively simple. Do you have a piece of advice you'd give to the class of 2024?

EVAN JOHNSON: Continue to speak truth to power, because as an educator, I am tired of generationally us saying that children are the future, yet we often don't fully value or engage with them as such. And we can't keep telling young people that they can change the world and not expect them to try, as well as take our accountability as existing generations to help them in those efforts.

CATHY WURZER: Evan Johnson, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

EVAN JOHNSON: Likewise. Thank you very much.

CATHY WURZER: And thanks for the good work you're doing on behalf of all the students. Evan Johnson is the Associate Director for Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion at the University of Minnesota's MLK Program. He's also an academic advisor.

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