From COVID to Commencement

COVID shaped their college experience; their Boettcher Scholarship framed their future.
Bailei Shaw, 2021 Boettcher Scholar

In spring 2020, the pandemic had just begun, and the world was adjusting to the “new normal.” 

At the time, Taylor Harris was a high school senior whose basketball team had made it to the final four – a proud accomplishment during his final year on the team, and he was now ranked among the top 20 high school basketball players in Colorado. He thought spring break would be a brief pause before the semi-finals, but he never went back to school. The pandemic had canceled in-person classes, and of course, his varsity basketball season. 

Taylor Harris, 2021 Boettcher Scholar

But then a bright spot: he received a thick, white envelope from the Boettcher Foundation. 

Receiving the Boettcher Scholarship 

“It was the middle of COVID, it was tough,” Taylor remembered. “But then my entire family came into my room with a package. My dad opened it without saying anything and just gave me a nod. We all celebrated, and I cried. It was the best day of my life.” 

2020 Boettcher Scholar Sachi Rohilla shared that same feeling. “Long story short, it was the best day of my life,” Sachi said. “My parents were ecstatic because it relieved financial pressure and helped to narrow down my school choices. I didn’t want to go out of state, but I had really good scholarship opportunities elsewhere. The scholarship allowed me to stay in Colorado.” 

Scholar Bailei Shaw said about receiving the scholarship, “I am still in shock to this day.” 

Four years have passed, and Taylor, Sachi, and Bailei are about to graduate college. And while in-person classes have resumed, college dorms have re-filled, and office hours are again face-to-face; COVID has shaped each of these students’ college experiences, the way they view their Boettcher Scholarships, and their plans for the future. 

COVID’s impact on the college experience 

Taylor attended Colorado College, where he was able to play basketball and make friends quickly thanks to the smaller class sizes. But within two weeks of arriving on campus, his dorm was forced into a two-week quarantine. As a college athlete, these quarantines happened frequently. A teammate would inevitably get sick while on the road for an away game. During his freshman year, Taylor spent 51 days alone in a sequestered hotel room. 

Add that to his challenging workload – Taylor is a triple-major in neuroscience, Spanish, and molecular biology – and it makes for a unique college experience. 

“I have learned a lot about being responsible and disciplined,” Taylor said. “That’s a skill that I think will translate to my future work environment.” 

Sachi chose to attend the CU Boulder for its beautiful campus, tier one research facilities, and the mentorship opportunities. “Coming into college as a freshman during COVID was difficult,” said Sachi. “I went from being a straight-A student in high school to losing it because I wasn’t used to the Zoom format, and I was taking hard classes without in-person instruction. I felt very isolated.”

Sachi credits the Boettcher Scholarship and the additional support it provides, such as an on-campus mentor for getting her through that challenging transition. “Not every student gets that and it’s a huge benefit of the scholarship.”

Bailei grew up in a multigenerational household and wanted to stay close to her large family, which led her to attend University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Especially with the timing of COVID, this also allowed her to continue to help care for her nieces and nephews. Weeks away from graduating, Bailei is increasingly more appreciative to be part of the Boettcher community. 

Sachi Rohilla, 2021 Boettcher Scholar

Becoming part of the Boettcher Scholar Alumni community 

“The feeling of being a Boettcher Scholar almost never sets in. Still sometimes when I get together with other Scholars, I am in awe,” she says. “Everybody can agree that Boettcher is an amazing opportunity and to be part of this ongoing community post graduation is really special. It’s a lifelong thing – that is invaluable, even beyond the financial support.”

In preparation for graduation, Sachi and Taylor have tapped into the Boettcher community to network and find mentors among the multifaceted Alumni. “The Alumni are giving back to us in ways that can be even better than the financial benefit,” Sachi said. 

In terms of their plans after college, the desire to always give back – an innate characteristic of Boettcher Scholars – combined with their experiences during COVID have played a significant role in what they plan to do next.  

Sachi has spent her college years focused on psychological research, after seeing the impact that isolation during COVID can have on mental health, especially on underrepresented communities. As a result, she plans to attend medical school and become a psychiatrist. 

Taylor’s curiosity about the brain and cognitive function stemmed from his little brother’s autism and epilepsy diagnoses, which led him to major in neuroscience. After graduation, Taylor will put his interest and education to use as a clinical researcher in an epilepsy lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After his two-year position, he too plans to apply to medical school. 

Bailei will continue to give back to her community as she applies for graduate school and “settle into real adult life.” 

And though they haven’t yet donned their caps and gowns, Sachi, Taylor, and Bailei are already envisioning the ways they will pay it forward as Boettcher Scholar Alumni. “I am really lucky to have had the support, and I hope to provide the same support back one day.” Taylor said. 

That’s the spirit of Boettcher. 

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