Doralee Heurtelou is one of those students who always had a plan for college.
“I always wanted to go to Howard or Temple in fall and experience homecoming and experience first coming to the school and having the freshmen experience,” she said.
But when the pandemic hit, so did reality.
"To have that dream be shattered, it sucked a lot," Heurtelou said. "It was a very, very sad moment, because not only do I not know what's going to happen in the next couple of years, but I don't know what's going to happen for the rest of my life because of COVID.”
Last spring, Heurtelou was finishing her final semester at Arlington High School while taking classes at Middlesex Community College, part of a state-funded dual enrollment program aimed at helping more students access college.
She had been accepted at both Howard and Temple universities, and was waiting to hear if she would receive a scholarship.
As the first wave of the pandemic hit, she doubled her hours as a receptionist at a nursing and rehab facility in Arlington: working 26 hours every week and two 10-hour shifts every other weekend.
“I definitely need to work to pay for college. I need to work to help around because right now, my mom and I are the only ones to have a stable job bringing in money,” Heurtelou told WBUR in May.
Her mom is a nurse in Newton caring for patients with COVID-19. Her dad, an airline mechanic, had his hours cut during the first wave of the pandemic as airline travel declined.
As the fall semester neared and there was still a lot of uncertainty about what campus life would look like, Heurtelou decided to keep taking classes at Middlesex.
"I don't want to be spending Howard and Temple tuition to be at home," Heurtelou said in August.
She's not alone.
Last semester, over 600,000 Massachusetts residents changed their college plans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Two-thirds of those students canceled all plans to take college classes in the fall. The biggest reasons: being sick with or worried about COVID-19, and not being able to pay for courses because their income was affected by the pandemic.
Jonathan Keller, senior associate commissioner for research and planning at the state Department of Higher Education, is worried about big dips in first time enrollments, particularly among low-income, Black and Latinx students.
“The big concern is: Are are we going to permanently lose this first time cohort? Will they come back?” he said.
Heurtelou does not want to lose the momentum she has worked so hard to build. Part of the reason she wanted to attend Howard or Temple is because of her experience as a Black Haitian-American woman in a predominantly white district.
“For the first two years of when I was at Arlington High School, I was completely silent," she said. "I didn't talk to anyone at all.”
Her family had just moved to Arlington from Cambridge. She was in a new school, and she felt very isolated. Only 4% of Arlington High students were Black. There was only one Black teacher at the time.
“I remember the first day of school freshman year, I walked into my science class. I didn't know where to sit. I saw everyone with their friends because they all went to Ottoson [Middle School] the year before. So everybody already knew each other," Heurtelou recalled. "I felt totally, totally isolated. I felt like I was the only Black student. So I remember I was sitting at a table and when I sat there, no one talked to me.”
By her junior year, Heurtelou connected with the mentoring program Leaders of Tomorrow, run by the Boston chapter of the National Black MBA Association.
“She's a person that just has a significant amount of potential," one of her mentors, Billy Noiman, said. "And I think she's also slowly realizing that potential within her.”
Noiman worked with Heurtelou on her college applications. Through the program, Heurtelou met Howard alumni and participated in college tours.
She said the program helped her find her voice. She co-founded the high school's first Black Student Union, and began calling attention to inequity and racism at the school and in Arlington.
Like many others, she was galvanized last spring by the killing of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. She and other Black alumni led a rally in front of Arlington Town Hall.
“I am tired of fighting the same fight. I am tired of repeating the same thing," Heurtelou told the crowd. "I am only 18 years old and I have seen death after death of my Black people. Trayvon Martin was 17 years old, just one year younger than me. Tamir Rice was 12 years old.”
She had to pause, overcome with emotion. The crowd cheered her on.
“It is time for us to change," she said. "I do not want to cry anymore. I do not want to fight the same thing over and over again. I want to fight for change.”
Heurtelou hoped to continue that activism in Washington, D.C. or Philadelphia in the spring semester.
But by the fall, as she was preparing to apply as a transfer student to Howard or Temple, Heurtelou worried they wouldn't accept all her credits from Middlesex.
Her mom advised her to consider a state school.
"I was thinking the same thing as well, I just didn't want to say it out loud and believe it," she said. "When she said it, I was just like, yeah, she's right. There's really nothing I can do about it.”
Heurtelou enrolled in UMass Lowell this semester. Under a state program, all of her college credits transferred, putting Heurtelou on track to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in two years.
This segment aired on February 2, 2021.