Recent high school graduates who were headed to college this fall are facing another round of disappointment, adjustment, and uncertainty as COVID-19 continues to spread across Oregon.

Having already missed out on major rites of passage, such as senior banquets and graduation celebrations, three soon-to-be college freshmen are trying to adapt despite ongoing setbacks.

Tennepah Brainard, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians and the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, recently graduated from North Eugene High School. Brainard was supposed to be celebrating in Norway this summer. The trip was a graduation gift from her parents, but that plan was scuttled, or at least postponed indefinitely.

She has also had to forgo the opportunity to get a summer job after her parents decided it was too unsafe for her to start working. They didn’t outright forbid it, but Brainard said she could tell they weren’t comfortable with her working while the infection rate was so high.

Brainard sees herself as an introverted homebody, so the unprecedented impact of the coronavirus on everyday life hasn’t left her itching to get out. The seemingly never-ending pandemic news cycle, however, has worn on her.

“It’s all pretty much bad,” she said. “Not much good news is happening, and my anxiety gets worse, and I’m thinking, oh that can happen to me, that can happen to my friends or my family.”

Although Brainard tries to avoid coronavirus news, she said she’s frustrated with how government officials in the U.S. have chosen to handle the pandemic. For now, she is trying to take her last summer before college in stride, focusing her free time on playing video games with friends and starting a “Dungeons & Dragons” campaign. In the fall, she plans to enroll in the online programs of Full Sail University, with the hope of one day landing a job in video game design.

Tennepah Brainard drew this fictional character by hand before transferring it to a digital drawing program. Like many recent high school graduates, Brainard has missed out on some rites of passage during the pandemic. But she credited her art with helping her. Image credit/Tennepah Brainard

She is also expressing herself through art in order to cope with recent letdowns. She designs characters on a digital drawing app and hopes one day to introduce them to the world through a comic book or an animated television show.

“Art gets some of your aggression out,” Brainard said. “It can also be a little of an escape where you can just pour your emotions into it and then create something out of it. I like creating worlds where people can get lost in, in case they feel the same as me,” she said.

Training Alone

In Coos Bay, Josiah Niblett, a member of the Coquille Indian Tribe, spent part of his summer waiting for updates about the upcoming football season at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. Niblett intended to take the field there this fall, but the pandemic derailed his plans.

“If you want to be the best player on the field, then you have to be the hardest worker in the off-season, and you have to put in the most work when it looks like nobody’s watching.” - Josiah Niblett

Meanwhile, the Coquille Tribe, along with the eight other federally recognized tribes in Oregon, have had to cancel numerous cultural events throughout the spring and summer, and will likely have to cancel more into the fall as well, because of COVID-19. Niblett missed out on his tribe’s summer solstice ceremony, at which he usually dances.

A graduate of Marshfield High School in Coos Bay, where he played running back, Niblett expected to move to Portland in June and start training with the Pioneers. After he waited for months, the Northwest Conference decided in August to suspend all competition until the end of the year. Niblett recently got a job at a coffee stand, and he trains by himself.

“If you want to be the best player on the field, then you have to be the hardest worker in the off-season, and you have to put in the most work when it looks like nobody’s watching,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep grinding and telling myself to keep pushing.”

Niblett hoped Lewis & Clark would be a springboard to a better program. The suspended season left him with the decision either to put his dreams of one day becoming a Division 1 football player on hold, or to go to a community college in California that is continuing its football season. He chose the latter.

“I’m excited to move on to the next part of my life because college football is way more competitive and everybody’s just as serious about it and competitive about it as I am, and I’m ready to get to that level,” Niblett said.

Josiah Niblett (center), pictured with his brother Noah (left) and Canyon (right) at the Marshfield High School stadium in Coos Bay, saw his football dreams put on hold this summer. After the Northwest Conference suspended play, Niblett decided to go to a community college in California that was continuing with its season. Photo/Anne Niblett (Courtesy Photo)

Staying Connected

In Fort Klamath, Hannah Schroeder, a member of the Klamath Tribe, is spending her last few weeks before college taking care of her mother and younger siblings. The recent Chiloquin High School graduate says COVID-19 has been scary, but she’s found blessings in the midst of a pandemic.

Her sister has kidney failure, and about a week before the coronavirus hit Oregon, their mother fell into a coma due to brain inflammation from a lack of oxygen and was hospitalized for two months. Since school went virtual around the same time, Schroeder was able to babysit her younger siblings while her dad went to work.

“We are usually so busy with Youth Council, sports, powwows, all of this stuff, and we’re really involved with our community,” she said. But, Schroeder said, once the virus hit, they had to put their activities on hold because they couldn’t risk their mom or sister getting sick.

With her mom now home and recovering, Schroeder’s family is taking precautions seriously. They limit who can visit, and they have house rules regarding who can go where and when.

Hannah Schroeder with her mother, Wainanwit Schroeder, and father, Ronald Schroeder, after her high school graduation. Schroeder’s life was put on hold after the pandemic hit, but she said she’s been able to care for her family and take part in cultural events virtually. Photo/Orville Schroeder (Courtesy Photo)

“Even if they (the government) are opening everything and they say it’s OK, we’ve all decided, as a family, that the only people that should be going out are my dad and my siblings, only if we need to.” Were someone in Schoeder’s family to bring the flu into the home, to say nothing of COVID-19, it could be deadly for her sister.

“I personally can follow my own culture without having to go somewhere. … I didn’t really think about this until this pandemic, but you can have your culture 24/7. You can do it all the time.” - Hannah Schroeder

If not for the pandemic, Schroeder would have spent this summer leading events for the Klamath Tribal Youth Council, where she’s the co-president, or dancing in powwows. She is still able to participate in certain events that are now online. After dancing in one virtual powwow, she said, more than “2,000 people were commenting, liking it, friend-requesting. And we did get to make new friends and meet people and talk to people.”

When not interacting with old and new friends online, the Schroeder family sings and dances together at home.

“I personally can follow my own culture without having to go somewhere. … I didn’t really think about this until this pandemic, but you can have your culture 24/7. You can do it all the time. My Native American culture is with me all the time,” she said. This realization, said Schroeder, and the time she’s spent caring for her family, have kept her hopeful.

Looking ahead, Schroeder will start online classes at Klamath Community College at the end of September, with the hope of becoming a nurse. She wanted to go to the Oregon Institute of Technology, but with both her mom and her sister at high risk, she said she’s too worried to move away.

“It sucks because I am going to miss the experience of going to college and being around people and hanging out,” Schroeder said. “But at the same time, it doesn’t really bother me because I’ve been surrounded by my family my whole life, and I’m okay with that.”

Display art: Left photo: Josiah Niblett (center) with friend Sammy Grayson (left) and brother Noah (right). Anne Niblett/Courtesy Photo. Right photo: Hannah Schroeder (right, holding little sister Adaline Schroeder) with her family at the New Year’s Eve Round Dance in Klamath Falls. Courtesy Photo

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ContributorMelorie Begay is a member of the Navajo Nation and a freelance reporter based in Eugene, OR. Though most of her experience is in public radio, as a multimedia journalist she enjoys exploring...