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The Hilltop


Howard’s COVID Class of 2024 Prepares to Graduate

Despite facing COVID-19, racial tensions, and campus issues, Howard’s Class of 2024 found community, advocated for change, and now graduates.

Graduates of Howard’s 2024 class double as the high school class of 2020, whose last graduation was affected by the pandemic. They now reflect on their experiences. (Chandler Kinsey/The Hilltop)

The class of 2024’s tenure at Howard University was marked by unprecedented and tumultuous times.  Students graduated high school and entered the university during the COVID-19 pandemic and increasingly unstable and uncertain times. 

Students said they came to Howard for multiple reasons, such as hearing about the school from others, the prestige of the institution and wanting to find a supportive community.

“I always wanted to go to an HBCU. I was [also] looking for a school that was up to academic par with what I wanted, and Howard was like the perfect place for that,” Monyell Sessoms, a senior political science major and history minor from Fayetteville, North Carolina, said.

Howard hosts a diverse student body comprising people from more than 45 states and 70 nations.

“Every time I came here, I just felt like I saw really cool-looking people. Like whoa, there’s so many different kinds of Black people. I think Howard’s the place that shows that blackness is not a monolith,” Sessoms continued.

Jenesis Finks, a senior political science major and women, gender, and sexuality minor from Mililani, Hawaii, was drawn by the idea of community. 

“I was a military kid. I moved around a lot, and I was never really in a predominantly Black place,” Finks said. “I wanted to come to Howard to kind of boost my Black experience.”

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By the time students arrived on campus, the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent racial tensions cast a shadow on the world and made HBCUs a focal point. 

Applications to HBCUs increased by about 30 percent between 2018 and 2021, according to PBS.  

Monetary support to HBCUs also increased, with notable philanthropist McKenzie Scott donating $560 million to various HBCUs and the Biden-Harris administration’s initiative to support HBCUs.

For many students, the racial reckoning affirmed their decision to attend Howard. Abigail Joseph, a senior psychology major and chemistry and human development double minor, felt inspired by what she saw.

“It made me want to come here [even] more. To see people advocating for everything, in such strong voices, was the first time I’ve ever heard that,” Joseph said. “It was really inspiring, and I was like, I’m gonna be around people who are going to advocate for me, or the people around me, and justice. I want to be one of those people.”   

The beginning of the 2020 to 2021 academic year was also marked by instability. Howard’s annual Accepted Students Day was held online, and hecklers shouting racial slurs “zoom-bombed” it. Courses were also held online for the entire school year. 

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Tadj Adams, a fifth-year senior political science major and philosophy minor from Cleveland, said it was complicated to be a student then.

“Being in your childhood bedroom 300 miles away from campus, thousands of miles from some of your college friends. Being stuck in a room; you’re going to bed at 5 am, you’re waking up at like 10 to go to class, you go back to bed,” Adams said. “You’re going downstairs, and you see CNN on the TV, and they have a counter of everyone dying from COVID and you just do that every day.”

The online modality was challenging for many reasons. Students dealt with time zones and cultural differences. Finks took classes from Hawaii, which is six hours behind EST.

“I was doing everything about six hours before most of my classmates. It was very difficult. I had classes as early as three o’clock in the morning. I took tons of naps. It also stifled my social interactions because during that entire freshman year, I did not make a single friend or talk to many people. My mental health wasn’t the best. It was pretty difficult. I really don’t know how I got through it,” Finks recalled. 

International students, who comprise about 4 percent of Howard’s student body, also dealt with time zone differences. 

Efosa Osagiede, a senior honors computer information systems major with a cybersecurity concentration from Benin City, Nigeria, said it was a tough ordeal.

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“It was very tough and that’s an understatement. I was in Nigeria, which is five hours ahead. Sometimes I’ll be in classes up until 11 pm [or] 12 am. Then, I would have to do my assignments too. So my sleep schedule was messed up, going to bed at like 5 a.m. every day. And then being disconnected from other students, even at some point from my family because our schedules weren’t aligned,” Osagiede said.

Students arrived at Howard’s campus in the Fall of 2021 when the university switched to a hybrid modality. Many issues marked their return, the main one being housing. Students were placed in both on-campus and off-campus housing several miles from the campus. 

Dorms reportedly had mold, mildew, and pest infestations and often went without utilities. In early September, the campus experienced a cybersecurity attack that canceled classes and left the wi-fi network down. 

“It was kind of jarring that when we came back, the school wasn’t actually ready for us. The accommodations for students weren’t fully there. And you could really tell. That partially triggered the protest,” Finks said.

Dissent over housing issues on campus culminated on October 12, 2021, in the now-dubbed Blackburn Takeover, following a town hall with UGSA that administrators did not attend, a group of students took over the Armour J. Blackburn University Center. 

Students set up tents, air mattresses, and food distribution and occupied the building for a record 34 days. 

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Cece White, a senior English major from Indiana, thinks that the George Floyd protests primed students for the Blackburn protest. 

“I think not being on campus, and also in the aftermath of George Floyd and all of these other things going on, really built up maybe some sort of tension that got released,” White said.

The class of 2024’s unique struggles were also compounded by commonplace hurdles for college students, like paying for college and graduating on time.

Howard’s diversity also includes socioeconomic status. The majority of Howard students receive financial aid. However, the university has increased tuition by 7.5 percent for two consecutive academic years. The estimated cost of attendance for the 2023-2024 school year is $55,704. Some Howard students have to hold a job alongside their studies to afford their education. 

White feels like working and attending school has impacted their relationship with the university.

“People don’t understand the weight of being poor. It changes your whole sphere. It’s not just, oh, well, maybe you need to work harder. It’s like I don’t have relationships, I don’t have a life. There are several different Howard experiences,” White said. 

Another aspect of returning to campus was finding community after social isolation. 

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Sessoms is the founder of Howard’s Skate Club, which promotes skateboarding and skate culture to Howard students. 

“I had a full understanding that you have to make the most of where you’re at. So I wanted to come in with full intentions of making the most of the Howard environment, a new opportunity to meet people and connect with others that I would not have connected with before,” Sessoms said.

 Sessoms and Joseph both also credit Howard Twitter for finding a community. 

“Majority of the people that I spoke to from Howard met them on Twitter. One person randomly made a Discord. I watched a video on how to use the app. It turned into us playing ‘Among Us’ every night. Now I live with two people from that group,” Joseph said. 

As their time on campus ends, some students reflect on what their college experience could have been like without the pandemic.

“I personally feel like my time was really cut short. It really only feels like I’ve had two years here,” Joseph said.

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Finks said she had come to terms with her experience. 

“I feel like we kind of all collectively had to mourn whatever we lost during COVID. For some people, that was family members, it was friends, and for a lot of us, it was normal school experience,” she said.. “So it took me a long time to kind of stop focusing on why this was happening to my class specifically because it was happening to everybody. I had to mourn a normal college experience in order to acknowledge that this is what I got and be okay with that.” 

Senior advisor Mikeisha Best commended the Class of 2024 on their strength.

“The Class of 2024 is extremely strong, and they are troopers. They went through a lot, from COVID to what they went through personally. They made it a little bit easier for those who come after them…But this has been an overall smooth graduation. I’m very proud of their strength and their tenacity and the way that they were able to pivot,” Best said.

As the Class of 2024 prepares for their first in-person graduation (for some) and enters the real world, they feel excited and nervous. 

“It’s kind of surreal. I don’t really know what to expect. And something that I keep telling my friends is like, it hasn’t even hit me that I’m graduating yet. I guarantee once I’m there, I am going to be like, dang, but right now, I’m just kind of going through the motions,” White said.

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Copy edited by Alana Matthew


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