Cherry Hill East High School graduate Alicia Cosenza was scheduled to attend one of the best musical theater colleges in the country, Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. At least that was her plan until COVID-19 hit.
“I was just ready for more,” Cosenza said. “Ready to move to a new environment with new people and begin honing my craft.”
Like many universities across the country, Texas State is offering a combination of in-person classes, hybrid classes, and online classes for students in the fall of 2020. In Cosenza’s case, all of her classes will be online.
Cosenza knew she wanted to be a part of the musical theater program at Texas State years before her college search started.
“I was looking up ‘Legally Blonde’ songs when Beck Middle School did it because my sister was in it,” Cosenza said. “I came across Texas State’s Legally Blonde on YouTube, and so I watched it. Then I spent hours and hours watching their videos and I just fell in love with the program.
She started to deeply research the program and liked what she saw.
“They focus on teaching you how to survive as an artist,” Cosenza said. “They teach you how to file your taxes as an artist. They focus on mental health and nutritional health in order to keep a sustainable career, and that was something that was really important to me because I don’t want to just get into the real world and not be prepared.”
PREPARING TO APPLY
Getting into a program wasn’t as easy as Cosenza makes it seem now. She spent the fall researching, applying, and auditioning for 20 schools, which meant preparing songs, monologues, and developing a signature look that would help her stand out during auditions. Cosenza worked with several coaches to help her prepare for grueling monthslong admissions and audition processes.
Melissa Daniels McCann has been Cosenza’s vocal coach for several years and was one of many coaches who helped her through the application process.
“I’m a very conservative teacher, meaning I’m very conservative about my student’s vocal health,” McCann said. “When I’m teaching voice, I’m not just teaching them how to sing. I’m teaching them how to learn. I’m teaching them how to practice, and most importantly teaching them how to conserve their voices and secure their voices for situations like [auditions].”
From a young age, Cosenza focused on becoming the best performer she could be with a dream to make it in the business. Cosenza was a dedicated student, receptive to classical technique even as her peers preferred more popular styles, McCann said.
“Alicia ate her broccoli,” she said. “She learned the foundation of voice and she took it very seriously. I remember even in seventh or eighth grade, we were working on classical art songs, which isn’t fun for a seventh-grader.”
Throughout Cosenza’s college auditions, she was also active in the theater and choral programs at Cherry Hill East High School. She was president of the Thespian Society Troupe 213 and was cast as the lead in the spring musical, coincidentally a production of “Legally Blonde.” In addition to theater, she was also part of several choirs including an a cappella group known as Stay Tuned.
Auditioning for a high school choir or musical is one thing; auditioning for college is a whole different story.
Cosenza flew down to Texas twice throughout her audition process. One weekend trip included auditions for 16 different schools over three days.
“You need to mentally prepare yourself for this process because it is intense,” Cosenza said. “You’re going to go through the ringer. It’s mental stamina. It’s going to be rough and you can’t read into anything.”
Alicia’s mother, Stephanie Cosenza, traveled with her to Dallas for the auditions.
“One of the mornings they had coffee with the directors so you could walk around and talk to the different directors from the different schools,” she said. “I got to meet [Texas State musical theater head] Kaitlin Hopkins and she was super, super nice. Very informative. And you could just see that these kids are her babies. That was clear as can be.”
Alicia Cosenza took a second trip for another round of auditions, and she made sure to find time to visit the campus.
“My dad and I grabbed a rental car and drove four hours to San Marcos, Texas and we toured the school,” she said. “I immediately fell in love with it.”
Hopkins told the Cosenzas that, usually, Texas State only takes 12-14 musical theater students each year. Alicia knew she had to find a way to stand out during her auditions.
“All these programs see hundreds and sometimes even thousands of kids who are aspiring musical theater artists,” she said. “What I did was assign myself a staple, which was the color I wore to all of my auditions. So in my headshot, my prescreens, and all of my live auditions I wore emerald green.”
The color worked, and admissions staffs from multiple schools recognized Alicia Cosenza throughout the process. But there’s more to an audition than standing out in a crowd, and she and her mother remained realistic about their odds.
“My husband was like, ‘She’s going to get into 50% of her schools,’” Stephanie Cosenza said. “And I’m like, you’re ridiculous. You don’t know how this process works. She’s going to be lucky if she gets into maybe 25%.”
The Cosenzas grew nervous as rejections started to arrive, and Stephanie Cosenza began to wonder if her daughter would get in anywhere.
“Thankfully she got one early acceptance, which made us sit back and relax because if every other one came in as a no, she’d have that school,” she said.
Though Alicia Cosenza had been accepted to a college, the audition process continued and she didn’t want to become complacent. Midway through the process, she switched up her audition material, changing her songs and her monologues.
“You have to stay fresh,” Alicia Cosenza said. “If you get bored with your work you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
When the letter from Texas State arrived, Alicia Cosenza hadn’t received the response she was hoping for, but it wasn’t another rejection.
She was wait-listed. Although disappointed, her vocal coach, who had been through the process before with other students, wasn’t worried.
“I wasn’t concerned,” McCann said. “In my experience, every one of my students that’s been wait-listed to a school they really wanted to get into, they’ve gotten into it.”
Alicia Cosenza’s sister Arielle had doubts.
“I was really, really worried when she got wait-listed,” she said. “I didn’t think she was going to get in.”
But weeks later, Alicia Cosenza got the phone call she had been waiting for. Hopkins called and told her she was accepted into the program.
“My dad is super excited,” Alicia Cosenza said. “My mom is not so happy. She’s happy for me that I got into the program, but she’s made it clear that it’s not what she wanted. She doesn’t want me leaving to go so far, which I understand. But I’m excited.”
DREAMS DEFERRED BY COVID-19
The Cosenzas were preparing for Alicia Cosenza to leave when their world was upended in March. The spring musical at Cherry Hill East was entering its second and final week, when the school announced it would close and move all classes online.
Cosenza never had her final show.
“It was really difficult,” Alicia Cosenza said. “I struggled with understanding how four years of preparation for your senior show can just get completely ripped away. I had a lot of trouble grasping that.”
She also didn’t have her final concerts, proms, or graduations. But she also didn’t know what COVID-19 would mean for her fall plans.
“When you see them work so hard, and Alicia has worked incredibly hard from when she was younger to reach this goal, and then to be slapped with this where she can’t feel like she’s moving forward,” McCann said.
Although Alicia Cosenza had dreamed of chasing her career in Texas, preserving her safety and financial stability pushed her to decide to stay in New Jersey this fall.
“To students like Alicia, it’s devastating,” McCann said. “It’s hard to think ahead when you’re just starting in this career.”
Fortunately for Cosenza, the decision to stay in New Jersey wasn’t as difficult as it could’ve been, thanks to the class schedule she was given.
“It was difficult to make the decision because it was actually a choice for [my family],” Alicia Cosenza said. “We all talked and decided it might not be the smartest idea to go. Personally I feel like I would’ve been OK on campus, but [Texas State] is doing all of their classes in a hybrid setting and it just so happens that all of my classes are online.”
Though she wanted something resembling a college experience, social distancing and isolating so far from her family was not what she had in mind.
“I would be moving 22 hours away from home just to be locked in a dorm room for three months,” Alicia Cosenza said. “I couldn’t really justify moving in to sit in a dorm. It just made more sense for me to stay home, wait it out, and hope that we can go back in the spring and be in person for our classes and have somewhat of a normal college experience.”
Stephanie Cosenza said that, to her, no location is more safe than another.
“Would [Alicia] be any more at risk if I sent her to go to school in Texas than she is going off to work everyday?” she asked. “Is she any more at risk if I send her off to Texas than me going to the supermarket or going shopping every week and coming home and potentially bringing it to her?”
Though Alicia’s plans to attend college have been temporarily deferred, they aren’t entirely dashed.
“It sucks that I have to wait,” she added. “But I know it will make being there in person so much more special.”
While Alicia Cosenza is home this fall, she will continue to stay focused, working with some of her coaches like McCann.
“She’s a pro,” McCann said. “She’s already working on the auditions for the musical at her university.”
For now, Alicia Cosenza remains optimistic that a return to normal will arrive sooner rather than later.
“Right now [Texas State] is planning on doing the spring musical in person for a live audience,” she said. “It will take a while to get back to normal, but I think eventually it will.”
Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.
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