This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
You can find Siani Ross’s personality in her prom dress — the one she likely won’t wear this spring.
Ross, 18, a senior at Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia, designed the gown herself: the emerald green fabric, the detachable train, the flowery, textured pattern.
“Every little detail,” Ross said with a chuckle.
Her dress is the result of a measured and meticulous mind. So, too, are her accomplishments as a track athlete and star student who applied to over 20 colleges.
Aliah Harris is, in many ways, her opposite.
Also a senior at Robeson, Harris, 18, is loud, plucky and outrageously likable. She’s far less sure of what her future holds — and totally unafraid to tell you.
“Me, I’m a talker,” said Harris. “When I be on that podcast, they be loving me.”
That podcast is the glue that binds this unlikely pair.
Harris, Ross and a third Robeson senior, Kayla Daniels Redden, co-host a radio show through Bridges to Wealth, a program that pairs University of Pennsylvania students with Philadelphia high school students in after-school clubs to teach them about entrepreneurship.
The podcast was originally about business and finance. Then the pandemic hit, and it quickly shifted to address the pressing questions facing high school seniors.
“‘When should I go to bed? When should I wake up?’” said Gregory Nesmith, a Wharton student who works with Bridges to Wealth and also co-hosts, putting himself in a high schooler’s mindset. “‘Should I still go to college next year? Is there even a college?’”
The show goes out on Facebook Live as an audio stream and a handful of podcasting platforms — reaching a few hundred folks an episode, Nesmith said. Each contains an interview where the students pepper an expert with questions about the foggy future facing the Class of 2020.
Starting top left and moving clockwise: Gregory Nesmith, Siani Ross, Nichole Renee, and Aliah Harris. (Courtesy of Gregory Nesmith)
They and their classmates should be prepping for prom and graduation and college. Instead, they’re grappling with decisions that should be settled by now.
Public polling shows lots of seniors are reconsidering their options in light of the pandemic. Roughly one-sixth of high school seniors who previously planned to attend a four-year college say they’ve shelved those plans, according to one survey.
Aliah Harris is one of them.
Although she’s been waitlisted at a couple of schools and is still waiting to hear back from others, Harris doesn’t feel prepared, mentally, for college.
“My senior year stopped abruptly. I still feel a little childish,” Harris said. “I really don’t feel ready to take that next step.”
It’s more a psychological hurdle than a logistical hurdle, she explained. She doesn’t want to feel like she’s rushing into the next phase of her life. She’s mulled the idea of a gap year — or perhaps a half-gap-year. It could make more sense to enroll in community college when 2021 starts, she thinks.
Harris wants to take real estate classes until then, but nothing is set in stone.
“I feel like I’m being pushed into adulthood,” she said, “Like they just threw me in there.”
(Courtesy of Gregory Nesmith)
Siani Ross faces a different kind of crossroads. She’s headed to college, but the pandemic reordered her preferences. She’s been accepted to several out-of-state schools — Fisk University, Louisiana State, Virginia State — and she originally wanted to leave home. But now doesn’t feel like the time. She missed her chance to make some campus visits and she’s worried about cost.
Her in-state options — Temple, Penn State and others — feel like the safe route. How can she take the leap of faith and travel to a school a thousand miles away when that school might not know what its own future holds?
“Colleges are still scrambling around to get themselves in order — not just the students,” she said.
Ross and Harris represent two plots on the wide spectrum of senior uncertainty.
Their mentor, Wharton student Gregory Nesmith, can relate. He’s a senior, too — at least until Wharton holds its virtual graduation later this month.
Nesmith, 44, just finished his final classes at Penn — 27 years after he first showed up on campus.
A School District of Philadelphia graduate, Nesmith left Penn just shy of graduation back in the 1990s. He moved to New York for a corporate job, never revealing that he’d hadn’t received his college degree.
Decades later, he came back to finish what he started. When he realized his long-awaited college graduation ceremony would be canceled, he was devastated
“The one thing I was looking forward to the most was my parents seeing my walk across that stage and hearing my name called,” he said. “After all the twists and turns, one of the things you love to do is make your parents proud.”
That holds true whether you’re 44 years old or 18.
Graduating school right now can feel unfulfilling — not quite what it should have been. But for Nesmith, Harris and Ross, there’s some comfort in going through it together.
They meet weekly online to plan future podcasts, and exchange texts daily, said Ross.
It’s helped her feel productive — like there’s still some forward momentum in her fading high school career.
She’s even excited to get that custom-designed prom dress, which is en route from a shop in Canada.
“I’ll find some way to wear it,” Ross said.