By ERIN ROLL
for Montclair Local

For seniors at Montclair and thousands of other high schools, the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of stress to their senior year beyond taking final exams, applying to colleges or preparing to go to trade school. 

MHS 2021 graduate Maggie Borgen, who will be attending Boston University College of Communication and Kilachand Honors College and is interested in pursuing a career as a television showrunner, said she’d wanted to do a podcast for some time. 

In speaking with friends during the first part of senior year, she discovered feelings among them of lack of motivation, of no longer having a barrier between home life and school life, and of the pressures of getting college applications out on time. 

So Borgen launched Second Semester Seniors, an eight-part podcast series, in February. The final episode appeared on June 21, the week before she and her classmates graduated and only three weeks after seniors returned for hybrid learning. 

The podcast’s purpose was twofold, Borgen said: to provide an outlet for the Class of 2021 to talk about what they were going through, and to give the next class of seniors and beyond an idea of what to expect during senior year. The podcast will also serve as a time capsule of sorts about life as a student during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“When picturing a high school senior in their second semester, hanging out with friends or relaxing may come to mind. But what is it like being a senior in high school during the COVID-19 pandemic? Through interviews and audio reflections, Maggie Borgen aims to paint a picture of the experiences of current high school seniors as well as share tips for managing a very different school year,” according to the write-up on Spotify where Second Semester Seniors is located.

It soon took off among listeners, and even got national and international media attention after it was featured in The New York Times Education Briefing and on EdSurge. 

“I just realized that a lot of us are having so much stress, and we wouldn’t have realized it if we hadn’t had this conversation,” Borgen said about the idea for Second Semester Seniors.

All of the students she reached out to — both from MHS and local private schools — were enthusiastic about participating, she said. “I was grateful for the trust that seniors put into this,” she said.

Each of the participating students sent her a recording of themselves talking about how COVID-19 had affected their senior year. The students are only identified as being from New Jersey; their schools aren’t mentioned in the episodes. 

Setting her microphone up on top of her SAT study guide, because it seemed “appropriate and was also just the right height,” Borgen got to recording. 

One of the biggest recurring themes with the students’ stories, Borgen said, was that of resilience: trying to keep up with college applications and dealing with the other stresses of schoolwork and senior year amid a time not ever experienced before. 

The podcast also features one faculty interview, with MHS guidance counselor Gina Testa, who presented a faculty member’s perspective on the college application process. 

“I feel like in past years, students would have their lists, and they would follow through,” Testa said in her episode. This year, however, Testa said students made a lot of last-minute changes in their college lists.

“There’s lots of last-minute panic, almost,” Testa said in her episode. “Because they’re not being as social as they usually are, they have lots more time to sit and ruminate on things, and I think that’s why they’re sort of getting panicky.”

Testa said her favorite part is being a part of students’ journeys, and celebrating with students when they get into that special college. “Being a small guiding force in their lives is the most rewarding part of my job,” she said. 

Of course, not all students planned to attend four-year colleges. Some may opt for two-year colleges, take a gap year or enter the military or workforce, and Borgen said she wanted to have the podcast reflect that. 

Besides college and post-high school life, Second Semester Seniors tackled other key issues the students faced amid the pandemic, such as mental health and self-care. Borgen offered several tips for listeners, like creating playlists of different kinds of music, journaling, reading, meditating or finding a creative outlet like singing, dancing or playing an instrument.

She also urged listeners to talk about their feelings to a family member, friend or other trusted person.

Borgen also warned of distractions, like watching a lot of YouTube videos. “I think that it’s important to really kind of tune in and ask, are these distractions really helping me feel better, or is it just something to do with my time?” 

One episode was an audio journal of the first day back at MHS, more than a year after the school closed for the pandemic; Borgen recorded herself on that first day June 1. 

“I haven’t used my backpack for school since March 2020,” she mused as she got ready for school the night before. 

Second Semester Seniors came to an end on June 21. That’s how it should be, since it was supposed to be about this semester’s seniors. But there is the possibility that other students may do similar projects about their own classes later on, she said. 

“This podcast has been a very important part of … different milestones over the past few months,” Borgen said in the epilogue.