High school graduation is usually a time of celebration, excitement and planning for the future, but this year told a different story.

Rather than walking across the stage to the sound of cheering family members to accept their diploma, the class of 2020 found themselves at home — watching their big moment become a testament to these “unprecedented” times. As COVID-19 cases rose, plans for the future began to sink.

To combat the uncertainty, the McClure Foundation stepped in and gave hope back to these young adults. The organization gifted the Vermont graduating class of 2020 a free fall course of their choosing at Community College of Vermont.

In response, 600 graduates participated, roughly doubling recent enrollment. Graduates from all 14 Vermont counties took advantage of the program with half of the students being first-generation college students.

Carolyn Weir, executive director of the J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation, believes this response exposed cost as the main barrier to enrollment.

“If beginning in middle school, young people knew that they could count on college and career training being very affordable, we could fundamentally change longstanding orthodoxies around postsecondary continuation,” Weir said in an email interview.

Anna Oblak is an ambitious South Burlington High School graduate who enrolled in the free course after she was originally accepted into the University of Kentucky.

When the pandemic left her family struggling financially, her plans fell through and the McClure Foundation gave her hope in a year riddled with doubt.

“It really felt like the McClure Foundation and Vermont in general were there for me and rooting for me and they really wanted me to continue my education,” Oblak said. “It just really felt like they were deeply invested in the youth of Vermont who are moving forward and making strides to trailblaze their own path.”

The Director of the Economic and Labor Information Division at Vermont Department of Labor, Mathew Barewicz, believed this initiative will slow down the post-high school transition.

The moment of pause could help students find their true calling while giving them experience in a virtual college environment.

“It takes some of the fear potentially away from it, it exposes them to training pathways that they hadn’t considered and opportunities that might not have been what they were thinking about initially,” Barewicz said.

Beyond that, the program could have a positive impact on Vermont as a whole. When students have a better idea of the local opportunities available, they are more likely to stay and work in the state.

Barewicz said, “It gives them exposure to Vermont and just the generous souls that are around in Vermont continues to add to that Vermont brand.”

The McClure Foundation’s initiative inspired students to follow their dreams despite unforeseen circumstances positioning Vermont education as a beacon of hope at the end of a dark year.

According to Oblak, “It was really just the first steppingstone to really getting a lot of people into college and getting them excited about college and sparking this love for learning.”

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