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Through this series, we examine the disproportionate financial toll of COVID-19 on Black and Latino communities, including how it has affected individuals, families and businesses.

West Charlotte High Student Uses Pandemic Hurdles As Fuel For College Dreams

DeMarcus Kilgo has his sight set high on becoming an electrical engineer.
DeMarcus Kilgo
DeMarcus Kilgo has his sight set high on becoming an electrical engineer.

Like many students in Charlotte, before 2020, DeMarcus Kilgo lived a pretty normal life of a high schooler.

“I was running track. I was working, doing school,” Kilgo said. “I used to come from track practice and go to work, get off work and do homework. And then you finish homework, go to sleep, wake up, go to school.”

Kilgo, an honors student at West Charlotte High, lost two family members to the virus. He said the COVID-19 pandemic has increased his workload and weighed on him a lot mentally. Nonetheless, he’s excited to start college in the fall. Initially, he wanted to attend UNC Charlotte, but after deciding to study engineering, he chose to attend North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, a school that graduates the most Black engineers in the country. It also offered him the most in scholarships.

DeMarcus Kilgo
DeMarcus Kilgo, a senior at West Charlotte High, plans to attend NC A&T State University in the fall to study engineering.

The National Student Clearinghouse reports that historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, have seen a decline in enrollment since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But there’s been an increase at A&T, said Todd Williams, the school's associate vice chancellor for university relations.

“We went up to 12,753 students this past fall, which was a couple of hundred more than the year before,” Simmons said.

But some smaller HBCUs, like Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, have seen a decline in enrollment. Rhonda Moses, who heads JCSU enrollment, said the school went from almost 1,500 students enrolled in 2019 to a little over 1,300 in 2020.

West Charlotte High School counselor Anthony Wright said he’s noticed a decline in students applying for college.

West Charlotte is nearly all minority with 80% of students being Black. Wright said students don’t want to take on the extra debt or they’ve had to work to support their families, causing many to put off attending college or skip it altogether.

“They had to step up and help in the household to be able to keep the lights on, a roof over their heads and keep things as normal as possible, you know,” Wright said. “Some are supporting elderly grandparents because mom, dad is not around.”

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that Black undergraduate enrollment declined 7.5% last fall, followed by white and Latino students at roughly 6.5% and 5.5%. The largest dip was among Native American students at 9.6%. Overall, undergraduate enrollment decreased 4.4%, with freshman enrollment seeing the biggest drop. The data also showed that community colleges saw a 19% decline in freshmen enrollment.

Black and Latino enrollment was down 8% last fall at Central Piedmont Community College, says Chris Cathcart. He’s the school’s vice president of student affairs.

DeMarcus Kilgo with his mom (pictured on the left) and two sisters. Kilgo lost his mom to the COVID-19 virus in January.
DeMarcus Kilgo
DeMarcus Kilgo with his mom and two sisters. Kilgo lost his mom to the COVID-19 virus in January.

“I would say the trend, of course, is that our Black and brown men are the ones that are being hit more,” Cathcart said. “Females are persisting at a little bit higher rate.”

Things were slightly different at UNCC, where the university saw a small increase in Black students for fall 2020. Overall enrollment at public, four-year schools decreased nearly 2%, according to Clearinghouse.

The pandemic changed Kilgo’s life forever. In January, he lost his mom to the virus, a few months after losing his great aunt. But he hasn’t let his loss deter him from accomplishing his goals — like going to college. Instead, he said he lets it motivate him to keep going.

“This is a hurdle that's meant to be stepped over, and I just seen it as that,” Kilgo said. “Like one thing my mom and my dad always pushed me to do is stay educated and do something with your life, do something that you want to do. My mom and my dad always encouraged me to do the best I can do. Why would I stop my life because somebody that pushed me to do something just passed? They wanted me to do it so why would I just stop doing it?”

Prior to the pandemic, Kilgo ran track. He split his free time between his job at Jack in the Box and playing video games, a hobby that stemmed from his love of coding. He said he’s looking forward to this next chapter of his life and has plans to become an electrical engineer with dreams to one day work at Duke Energy.

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Gracyn Doctor is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity for WFAE.