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Leadership Conversations on the Pandemic’s Impact on College and Career Success

by Melissa Fries

Making Waves Education Foundation » Resources » Leadership Conversations on the Pandemic’s Impact on College and Career Success

Recapping leadership conversations on topics ranging from basic needs to financial fit to career development and more

As executive director of Making Waves Foundation’s college success program, known as CAP, I was pleased to host several conversations with leaders from across the education and nonprofit sectors throughout 2020-2021. Focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on college and career success, we covered topics ranging from better meeting the basic needs of students to overcoming barriers in career development.

We discussed the disparities at elite universities as well as the importance of forming community partnerships. We gained insights into the financial aid process and the concept of adapting a growth mindset. Finally, we closed the year with student perspectives from a Wave-Maker alumni who is completing his law degree.

Below is a snapshot of our conversations, including several opportunities, challenges, and resources in supporting students with college and career success during the pandemic and beyond.

Financial Fit

With the average cost of college at over $35,000 per year in the U.S., understanding what a student and family can pay out of pocket for college and how much debt the student and family can take on are imperative to the college decision conversation. In January 2021, the article Helping Families Find Their Financial Fit with Joshua Lachs, CEO of Moneythink, and guest host Ivette Chavez, Making Waves Foundation’s director of financial services for CAP, discussed how important finances are when students consider where to go to college.

“The system, unfortunately, is set up as some sort of puzzle where students and families — especially first-generation and lower-income students who may be working with fewer resources — need to piece together complicated, nuanced bits of information, all without being able to reference the picture on the puzzle box,” Joshua said about the financial aid process.

We also discussed decision-making during the pandemic. “Whichever option students and families take now, keep in mind that there are tradeoffs that need to be weighed,” he shared. “According to a 2018 report, college graduates will earn an average of $900,000 more than the typical high school graduate over the course of their working lives. We know that college graduates are less likely to face unemployment and more likely to have senior level jobs, be homeowners, have better health, and be more financially savvy. For just these reasons alone, going to (an affordable) college is a financially smart option in the long run.”

Read the full Q&A: Helping Families Find Their Financial Fit

Basic Needs

In February 2021, I was pleased to talk with Dr. Rashida Crutchfield, associate professor of social work at California State University, Long Beach, about Addressing Basic Needs on CSU Campuses, Before and After COVID-19. Dr. Crutchfield’s research has been instrumental in creating CSU’s response to basic needs insecurity, before and during the pandemic.

“Our students are experiencing trauma as they’re experiencing food insecurity, homelessness, and housing insecurity, and then our staff are experiencing vicarious trauma as they’re supporting our students as best as they can,” she described.

Dr. Crutchfield shared that the pandemic only exacerbated the hardships faced by students. “In July, we collected data and found that incidences of homelessness for students who were already seeking basic needs support on their campuses escalated. Students who were living check-to-check to provide their rent have really struggled. Some students who had support of their parents have been able to go back to their parents, but their whole household is then struggling,” she shared.

She added: “…it is untenable to think that our students are not getting the food that they need or having a place to sleep at night and still trying to get a degree. Our students deserve better. Our communities need our students to graduate. When our students get a degree, they give back… our CSU students are coming back into their communities and contributing their tax dollars and contributing their brilliance and their talents back into us. We need them now more than ever. And that investment, that return on investment is what we need to recover our economy.”

Read the full Q&A: Addressing Basic Needs on CSU Campuses, Before and After COVID-19

Coalition to Support Students

In April 2021, I discussed Leveraging the Power of Coalition to Support College Success with fellow Northern California College Promise Coalition members: Janae Aptaker, director of Stockton Scholars; Patrice Berry, executive advisor in the City of Oakland Mayor’s Office; Mia Bonta, CEO of Oakland Promise; Lorna Contreras-Townsend, advocate; Meredith Curry, manager of Northern California College Promise Coalition; and David Silver, director of education at the City of Oakland.

The Northern California College Promise Coalition, or NCCPC, did not have a pandemic in mind when they came together in 2019, but joining forces put the coalition in a unique position to support students across the region through the hardships of COVID-19.

“With more than 47,600 students and 12 counties represented, we’ve found that people want to engage with NCCPC, as members and as partners,” Meredith shared.

“We can leverage scarce resources, data-informed research, best practices, and real-time insights and put them to work for our students. We can do more when we do it together,” she shared.

In terms of taking action together during the pandemic, Patrice shared: “We saw that there were dozens of resources from many different organizations available to students, but we noticed that in order for students to find them, they would have to jump from website to website. 

The COVID-19 Resource Guide was created to aggregate what we thought might be the most relevant resources and organize them in a way that was more easily navigable. Partners from across the area weighed in, including NCCPC members, as well as the student services offices at some of our partner colleges.”

Read the full Q&A: Leveraging the Power of Coalition to Support College Success

Financial Literacy

In April 2021, we reached out to Tim Ranzetta, co-founder of Next Gen Personal Finance, for our article on The Urgency of Now: Financial Literacy for College Success. Tim shared more about how financial literacy can impact students’ college success, especially given the economic and social impact of COVID-19.

“One important and surprising fact is that the students who struggle the most with student debt—with the highest percent of students not making payments—are those with balances under $5,000 who don’t complete college,” he shared.

“Students need to be sure that they are doing everything they can to prepare themselves academically for college because college completion is key to being able to manage your student debt,” he said.

Tim’s advice for students and families?

“Plan, plan, plan,” he said. “Students need to map out a four-to-five-year plan on how they will pay for college. Taking a piecemeal, year-at-a-time approach can lead to surprisingly high loan balances.” 

Read the full Q&A: The Urgency of Now: Financial Literacy for College Success

Glaring Disparities at Elite Universities

In June 2021, I was pleased to introduce Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, for his discussion on The Glaring Disparities that Elite Colleges Miss and the barriers that first-generation, low-income students face at highly selective colleges and universities. I was doubly pleased to be joined by Enrique Romero, who is a Making Waves alumnus and graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Based on his personal experiences and research, Dr. Jack described the student populations at even the most progressive, well-meaning colleges and universities as being “depressingly unequal and highly stratified” and generally failing to recognize and address how this leaves those from the lowest economic strata at sea once they arrive on campus. When low-income, first-generation students arrive at colleges and universities from often poorly resourced public schools, they are “doubly disadvantaged,” he shared. In addition, full financial aid typically covers only 65 percent of true college expenses.

“It’s disgusting that some students with full rides have to sleep in their cars,” he shared.

To make real progress, colleges and universities must invest far more in housing, food, and professional development as well as enhanced mental health services for the least privileged students, he shared, while also noting the importance of mentorship for students, providing the following advice: “I would get [students] to learn the importance of asking for help and of enlisting others to help with their success story.” 

Read the full Q&A: The Glaring Disparities that Elite Colleges Miss: A Discussion with Dr. Anthony Jack

Growth Mindset and Career Planning

In July 2021, we reached out to Therea Atta Ifogah, senior director of community impact and partnerships at Management Leadership for Tomorrow, for a discussion on Adapting a Growth Mindset and Persisting, Even When the Going Gets Rough. Teresa described Management Leadership for Tomorrow as “the secret weapon for over 8,000 Black, Latinx, and Native American students and professionals who aim to be leaders in the corporate world and tech industries.”

Theresa discussed how first-generation graduates become first-generation professionals and “must maximize college to build networks, access internships, and enhance their leadership profiles through meaningful campus engagement.”

She also noted the importance of awareness, exposure, and preparedness. “Exposure is the process of learning about oneself through different experiences, usually involving a fair amount of trial and error,” she shared. “Some people do not like to try new things for fear of difficulty or failure. But truly high performers adapt a ‘growth mindset’ through exposure to unchartered territory, and they persist even when the going gets rough. College offers plenty of opportunities for exposure to new people, courses, activities, and cultures.” 

In terms of adjusting career planning during the pandemic, Theresa shared:

“Career planning may feel like a distant priority or even a luxury… We are all dealing with stress at a higher level than usual, so it’s important to take each day as it comes. In times like these, you can take care of present circumstances while still keeping the endgame in mind.”

Read the full Q&A: Adapting a Growth Mindset and Persisting, Even When the Going Gets Rough

Career Development During COVID-19

In September 2021, Courtney Arguello, lead career and alumni coach at Making Waves Foundation, continued the career development conversation as she discussed how Setbacks in Career Development Aren’t a Reflection of Your Capabilities.

While the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 faced unprecedented challenges, Courtney shared: “Wave-Makers have remained resilient in balancing work, school, and other responsibilities, while still moving forward in developing a vision for themselves beyond college graduation.”

She also shared practical advice.

“My hope is that students do not lose sight of the importance of also developing the soft skills: the ones that are transferable, regardless of the job they are in or what their major was in college.”

These include the core competencies outlined by the National Association of Colleges and Employers as well as adaptability, resilience, and empathy.

Courtney’s work is bridging the career development gap through a framework of career exploration, career exposure, and career experience to create more opportunities and access to resources and educate and empower Wave-Makers to have agency in their own career development. She emphasized the importance of reaching out for support.

“The job search process can feel like a job itself. Have patience and be kind with yourself along your journey and try to avoid comparing yourself to others – everyone’s experience is going to be different! Beyond some of the soft skills mentioned above, it’s important to remember that setbacks or rejections aren’t a reflection of your capabilities! Stay authentic to yourself, reach out for support (there is a whole community of people who want to help you!), and stay persistent – the right opportunity will come, even if it takes a while to recognize it.”

Read the full Q&A: Setbacks in Career Development Aren’t a Reflection of Your Capabilities

Holistic Approaches to Student Success

In October 2021, I had the opportunity to discuss Student Success in Challenging Times: Leveraging Partnerships, Virtual Mentorship, and Holistic Approaches with Sylvia Gillies, manager of college and career success, and Missy Rae Magdalera, college outreach and retention officer, both from Stockton Scholars—an organization that provides place-based guaranteed scholarships and ‘wraparound support’ to boost college and career success.

The duo emphasized the importance of partnerships and adapting their programming to meet student needs during the pandemic. “We had to turn our attention to the disproportionate rates of mental health issues that were impacting our students, as well as their loved ones. A lot of programming became focused on de-stigmatizing mental health concerns and treatment, as well as ensuring that students had adequate social support intact to maintain their academic success,” Missy Rae shared.

Sylvia added: “We also began to increase our outreach efforts to organizations so we can expand our mentor pool. This takes intentional research into organizations that have a philanthropic or volunteer arm of their organization.”

Read the full Q&A: Student Success in Challenging Times: Leveraging Partnerships, Virtual Mentorship, and Holistic Approaches

Student Perspectives

To close 2021, I was thrilled to hear from Natan Sebhatleab who shared about his Student Perspectives in College Success: From First-Generation College Graduate to Law School During a Pandemic. Natan has been a part of the Making Waves community for more than a decade as he was a part of the 4th Wave of students in our San Francisco program. With coaching and financial support from Making Waves, Natan became a first-generation college graduate after earning his undergraduate degree from Claremont McKenna College. One of more than 500 Making Waves Foundation alumni, he is now on his way to becoming a lawyer as a student at one of the world’s top places to study law, New York University (NYU).

Despite the challenges of the pandemic and remote learning, Natan shared:

“I’ve had an incredible time learning about issues ranging from affordable housing and land-use to global corruption. I’ve met an incredible community, particularly among the Black students at NYU through our student group BALSA. I’m currently doing an externship at the Treasury Department in the Office of General Counsel for international affairs. I’m looking forward to graduating in May.”

Natan also shared how he navigated additional challenges in career development during a pandemic as he secured a job after graduation at a law firm in New York.

Read the full Q&A: Student Perspectives in College Success: From First-Generation College Graduate to Law School During a Pandemic

More Resources

Thank you to all our excellent contributors. Moving forward, we’re excited to share more college and career success resources on our website, where you can search by the categories and topics that interest you most. You can also sign up to receive emails with our latest news, resources, and opportunities here.


With a unique focus on college attendance and graduation, Making Waves Foundation supports historically underrepresented and underserved students in pursuing their dreams. Making Waves Academy is a public charter school in Richmond, California, educating more than 1,100 students and Making Waves Foundation’s college success program, known as CAP, provides coaching, scholarships, financial literacy, and career support for more than 500 college students as well as a network for more than 500 Wave-Maker alumni.