Alumni Launch Into Adulthood and College Amid the Pandemic

From closed schools to empty grocery store shelves, nearly every aspect of how society functions shifted with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Months later, people are still grappling with what it means to find joy and keep going in an unstable environment. The UCLA Lab School class of 2014 is no exception. Most class members had planned to begin college during the fall of 2020. With no forewarning about how long shutdowns would last, many looked at the introduction of online school positively: opportunities for sleeping in, less time spent in class, maybe an extension of spring break. Then the reality set in and they found themselves adjusting in ways they hadn’t expected.

Yuuki Okubo (’14) played basketball for Crossroads School pre-pandemic and plans to attend Oberlin College after deferring for a year.

Yuuki Okubo, who had planned to spend the fall playing basketball for Oberlin College, was confronted with a choice about his collegiate career: join Oberlin’s class of 2024 but shorten his eligibility because of the canceled basketball season, or defer and maintain his ability to play for a full four years. Facing this choice in May, when everything seemed unsure, he talked about it with his family and coaches for a couple of months and then decided to take a gap year. Now he spends most of his days training.

“March to July, I was stuck at home,” Yuuki said. “The morning would be basketball. The afternoon would be strength and conditioning. Other than that, I was in my room, bored.”

After figuring out how to obtain a driver’s license during the DMV shutdown, Yuuki now drives 45 minutes, each way, to his trainer’s gym in Carson. Although the gym and its members follow COVID-19 mitigation measures, he said, “There are 10 to 15 guys that get together and play… It’s a risk because I don’t know where the other guys have been. I’ve been going and basically risking my health for basketball, but I’m willing to do it.”

More mundane things have changed for Yuuki as well, including his sleep schedule. Instead of waking up late, as he usually does in summer, he has been using the full day. Something else that is new for him: losing track of time. “Every day is the same exact day, Monday through Sunday, nothing to do except work out. I have all the time in the world,” he said. To fill some of his time, Yuuki has been training younger kids who play basketball. He’s finding ways to use what he knows to help others, “basically me passing down what I know… I like teaching other people and helping other people out,” he said.

Kara Smale (’14) attends online classes at UC Berkeley.

Small but special moments have become some of the most important and memorable during the pandemic. Kara Smale happily remembers a drive-through celebration of her graduation from Windward School, where she got out of her car during the car parade and was photographed with a cardboard cutout of her Head of School. These smaller moments of humanity create some unique experiences and memorable connections. They’re especially important to Kara, who said she has struggled with missing her extended family. She had plans to visit her newborn baby cousin, for example, but cancelled in order to observe physical distancing measures.

Kara now has started at the University of California, Berkeley, where she’s taking online classes. She said she’s getting used to the seemingly ubiquitous struggle of spending long stretches of time on the computer every day. For her, online classes are drastically different from in-person, and “it is very tough to be in class for a lot of hours and then do my homework on my computer. It’s a lot of looking at the computer,” she said. Still, one of her more positive experiences about college was realizing she “actually like[s] college more on the computer than high school on the computer,” she said.

Cody James-Cardenas (’14) attends Sarah Lawrence College at their New York campus.

Stories of time apart from loved ones are common these days, but Cody James-Cardenas, another graduate who faced the reality of virtual college, said that this summer he found he “got to spend a lot more time with [his] parents and enjoy the time I had with them.”

Like Yuuki, Cody went “back and forth on going away to school.” Opting to forgo more time at home, Cody decided to attend Sarah Lawrence College on campus in New York. The build-up to arriving, including a mandatory 14-day quarantine, made move-in feel “much more dangerous, it was much more of a risk than it would’ve felt normally,” he said. “It’s an emotional risk and educational risk, going to college, and then you have a health risk on top of that.” On making friends in this physically distanced and masked world, Cody has found that “you have to be open and willing to let yourself be a little bit vulnerable, especially during this time, especially on Zoom.”

Through it all, Cody said he has had time to reflect on his education, how lucky he has been to have 12 years of continuous schooling. “A lot of kids are losing out on some of the best times they are going to have in their adolescent years,” he said. “I bet it’s really hard on little kids. We can do [Zoom] because we are adults now, but for a 5-year-old child to sit still? At that age all I wanted to do was go play.”

Cody’s reflections illuminate facets of the pandemic: gratitude and perspective. The UCLA Lab School Class of 2014 launches into adulthood and begins a new chapter of what comes after high school in a time unlike any other. With the values of compassion, kindness, and empathy they learned at the Lab School, they are finding ways to adapt and grow.