Work by high school senior Mary Kate Clancy, who would rather take a gap year than attend an arts program virtually. Credit: courtesy the artist

For Vincenza Handzel, a senior at Jones College Prep, dancing isn’t just a hobby—it’s a passion. She began dancing at the age of two, and is now setting her sights on Pace University in New York City, where she hopes to double major in dance and communications.

Handzel’s application process, already described by her as being “double the work” than that of non-arts applicants because of supplemental application materials like a portfolio and a required audition, has been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now high school seniors throughout the city must balance their collegiate dreams with an ever-uncertain future.

Applying to collegiate arts programs often involves supplemental materials like self-tapes and portfolio submissions. For those interested in the performing arts, the option of in-person auditions is no longer a safe reality given the pandemic.

“[For] audition spaces in general, there’s about 100 dancers in one audition space and with COVID happening, even with masks on, that’s just too many bodies in one space,” says Ariana Everett, a dance student at the Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts).

Students have remarked that completing their senior year virtually has created something of a communication barrier between them and school counselors, leaving them feeling as though they have to navigate the application process alone.

“I am basically doing this stuff almost entirely on my own, because I don’t have the kind of support that I would have had if I was attending school in person, especially because counselors are so busy all the time,” says Eemaan Butt, a senior at Lane Tech interested in graphic design. “So I have even less time to talk to my counselor about how to apply. I remember at the beginning of the year I felt really overwhelmed and I felt like I wasn’t gonna be able to do it on my own.”

High school senior Eemaan Butt is interested in pursuing graphic design in college
High school senior Eemaan Butt is interested in pursuing graphic design in collegeCredit: courtesy the artist

Students also have to consider what freshman year of college will look like for them if the pandemic is to persist into the fall of 2021. For those interested in pursuing a hands-on arts education, the prospect of continuing a virtual education has cast doubt on the value of college.

For Charlie Hancock, a percussionist at ChiArts hoping to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London, learning music in an isolated, virtual setting lessens the overall experience.

“In this school year, there’s no interaction between musicians, and it’s kind of hard to grow if you’re only playing with yourself,” he says.

Hancock says that the current reality of virtual school has led him to reconsider college altogether.

“I’ve been thinking about if I really even want to go to college,” he says. “I think I do, but it’s been weird just being out of [in-person] school and kind of living my own life outside the classroom setting every day. It’s kind of made me realize that I like having the freedom a lot, and I would love to just go and get to work and like, make money, and live my own life.”

Mary Kate Clancy, a senior at Whitney Young Magnet High School, is similarly interested in international programs. She describes her list of schools as being a 50/50 split between schools in and out of the United States. Clancy, who is focused on both illustration and printmaking, also expressed doubt over the value of a virtual college education—especially an international one. Instead of taking online classes and missing out on the experience of actually living overseas, she says she would more likely defer or take a gap year until it is safe to travel again.

In addition to missing out on the traditional college experience, some have wondered if the high price tag attached to four-year universities will ultimately be worth potentially learning in a virtual setting.

“I know it’s like if I pay that much money to go to school, and then get sent home in less than a month because coronavirus is spreading . . . I know I’m going to feel really bad about it,” Butt says. “And just like really angry about it. But at the same time, I really don’t know if I can take a gap year or not. So I really don’t know what I’m going to do if in-person learning is not a thing next year.”

However, some students remarked they would continue with arts programs in a virtual setting, despite the setbacks associated with continuing e-learning.

“I would still continue entering the conservatory program just because I feel like it’s still learning, regardless if I’m in-person or not,” says Aaron Sanders, a voice student at ChiArts. “I still want to learn more.”

Despite the challenges and uncertainty associated with pursuing the arts on a collegiate level amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing remains: the passion of these young artists and their individual crafts.

“It’s bittersweet in a sense,” says Sanders. “Because you can go to school and you could do it completely [virtually] and it’s not the experience that you would think you would have. Growing up, as a kid, everybody has their own thought of what college is going to be like. And then it’s like now, everything that you thought was gonna happen is not happening. So it’s weird but I feel like I would try to make the best of it.”   v