As two young journalists, we know from personal experience how the lives of our generation have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began this spring. As we navigate major life transitions during this period of uncertainty, one of us just graduating college and the other entering her senior year, we wanted to know how other young people were dealing with these uncertain times.
Read about how people around our age have been especially moved by this earthshaking year in their own words here.
This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.
— Sanya Kamidi and Anjali DasSarma
A safe space
I went to private school growing up and often found myself in the group of non-white kids who didn’t quite fit in. At least, that’s how I framed my circumstance at the time. My identity itself was at odds with the uniformed environment around me. This reality bred loneliness.
I became a wallflower and stopped sharing meaningful things about myself with other people out of fear that they would not understand my story.
But being silent was not a sustainable solution to my social problems, so I set out to create a safe space for people who feel left out. Over the past five months, I have been documenting the spellbinding life stories of young people in marginalized groups across the city.
This project coincides with the national push for social justice, because it spotlights the experiences of residents who have intersectional identities. The project is called Orphan We.
Orphan We is a digital library now brimming with video stories that humanize people who are often pushed to the edges. Sharing life stories makes them feel more connected during these distant times.
I make the stories public, because it gives people in different stages of life a space to convene and hone their authentic voices through storytelling. This deep level of sharing promotes healing within us and fosters great empathy among us.
— Tehya Jenae, 22, Baltimore
In what became the first of many quarantine therapy sessions, my therapist and I revised an old phrase: You can always go home, but that doesn’t mean you should. As the world came to a screeching halt because of the pandemic, home was the only place to go for most students, myself included. Once there, I spent two months in Zoom classes before quietly graduating into a world of chaos.
My mental health began to crumble in March, as it became clear I wouldn’t be returning to campus. For weeks, I would slip away in my car, drive to a parking lot and try to make sense of my emotions and the world in phone calls with my therapist. I had no privacy at home. I didn’t dare speak about my anxiety or familial frustrations there. With nowhere of my own, I felt like a child again. Any independence that I had gained in college was gone. I even started to question if I could call myself a “real” adult. (My parents voted no.)
I began to, and still do, have anxiety constantly, even of my fondest university memories, which now only serve the purpose of reminding me that permanence is fleeting. Normalcy can be snatched away in an instant. Unfortunately, our relationships are hinged on normalcy. So many of mine failed during this pandemic. Others are severely strained. This only adds to my anxiety.
I am 21 and should be moving to Boston to attend graduate school. Instead, I have begun the next chapter of my life the way I ended the previous one: On my computer in my parents’ basement. I don’t ignore that privilege. My parents are happy to have me until I can leave again. Many don’t have that option. Even with the mental suffering I have endured, the realities of others in this pandemic are so much harsher that I am ashamed to complain.
“The rest of our lives have been put on hold, but time continues to move forward, somehow imperceptibly and glaringly at the same time.”
I can’t help but see a waste of youth everywhere. The rest of our lives has been put on hold, but time continues to move forward, somehow imperceptibly and glaringly at the same time. I am disheartened, discouraged by the lack of compassion and willingness to cooperate that I see in people around me. What is the point of planning for the future when people can’t take the necessary precautions to ensure we don’t needlessly die? I’ve stopped trying to write my future in stone.
— Darian Rahnis, 21, Taneytown
Defending young voices
I woke up on March 13 only to find out that my SAT administration for the next day was canceled and that my school would be transitioning to distance learning. I wasn’t worried at first because I didn’t think the pandemic would last this long. Then, as the months went on, the dominoes kept falling. It started with my standardized tests, then my summer internships, and now, my senior year.
With all of these changes, the one thing that has stayed constant is my passion for journalism. As editor-in-chief of my school’s newsmagazine, I take pride in my duty to amplify underrepresented voices. As soon as the protests for racial justice began, I began investigating possible sources of inequality at my school, where there is a lower percentage of Black and Hispanic people than in the surrounding community. I decided to utilize our platform to investigate this issue further as well as collect student stories about race and diversity. It resulted in overwhelming support for the minority students who decided to speak out and I was elated to see my reporting making a difference.
Another issue that I care deeply about, censorship, became a topic of national conversation this spring and summer following high-profile incidents, including the since-reversed suspension of a Georgia high school student who photographed a packed hallway to show concern about the potential spread of COVID-19 and the on-air arrest of CNN reporter Omar Jimenez, one of hundreds of reported obstructions to journalists covering anti-police brutality protests. As a student leader for New Voices, a nationwide movement to restore the First Amendment rights of student journalists, in January 2020 I testified in front of a Virginia House subcommittee in favor of a New Voices bill. Since it was passed only with protections for college journalists, I will once again be fighting for high school journalists across Virginia and the nation. The incidents that unfolded over quarantine inspired me to continue fighting for students’ First Amendment freedoms.
Looking back, I’m not the same person I was seven months ago. During quarantine I’ve experienced lows, like canceled opportunities and the passing of a classmate, as well as highs, like finding more time for my passions and my family. Most importantly, I’ve continued to tell important stories while also discovering my own along the way.
— Pratika Katiyar, 17, Fairfax, Virginia
Looking inward and outward
Wake up, do some research, eat lunch, write articles, work out, dinner, sleep, repeat. From the moment quarantine was announced this spring, I knew that this ordeal would not be over by mid-July, as some initially projected, and I definitely did not want to wake up at the end of summer wondering “What did I do? Where did the time go?” and living each day as a seemingly-permanent Groundhog Day. That being said, my goals for a paradoxically productive quarantine were twofold: work on myself and work for my community.
Like many others, I have always been restless. Knowing I would be stuck at home, I decided to redirect my energy someplace else, which is why I turned to working out. I used the extra time at home to develop both a healthy body and a healthy mindset, learning to focus on my personal goals to tone and become stronger. Even though there were times when my mind would unwittingly wander into the dreaded area of my insecurities, I gradually realized I had to listen to my body and focus on my own development in order to eat healthier and live happier.
At home in the Philippines, my friends and I recognized that there are several communities facing difficulties far greater than we could ever imagine living through the pandemic. Instilled with a passion to serve, we felt the need to make the most of our time and use our resources to give back to the country, also hoping to compensate for our government’s deficiencies, which is why we established Project Nineteen. Project Nineteen is a nonprofit organization that aims to help marginalized communities in the Philippines drastically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, we had to get creative on how to raise funds and organize relief packings from our homes. Fortunately, Zoom came to the rescue, and we used it to have our weekly meetings and were even able to host a successful virtual game night fundraiser! Through our initiative, we sent goods to jeepney drivers, farmers and security guards who were having trouble making ends meet due to the economic shutdown.
Living through a historic pandemic is an experience that I never anticipated, but it did make me grateful for the time I have to focus on myself, bond with my family, and find ways to make a difference in society.
— Michelle Limpe, 19, Philippines and Baltimore
Focused on the future
Just five months ago I was 10 pounds lighter, narrow-minded and self-absorbed. Now, I have realized beauty shouldn’t be confined to one standard. I know the deep truths about my country, and that life isn’t about you, it’s about your relationship with God and what you do in life to show that.
I wanted to be a neurologist, study the brain and make groundbreaking work, but I now know that is not the path for me. I have come to realize myself more, that I tend to make the wrong choices in what I eat, what I say and in what I do. I know that I like to speak my mind even if it gets me in trouble and that I am passionate about saving the world through my voice. I understand that without money and fame in this materialistic world, your voice is your most powerful weapon, and can get you a long way.
Writing is my passion and writing my own column in the New York Times, writings that would truly make a difference in the world, is my dream. I want to be an activist through my stories, and show all sides of the truth and all of its backgrounds. I have mapped out my future for the next seven years and it has changed numerous times — and who is to say it will stay the same. The pandemic has pushed my mind to think more about my future and who I want to be at the end of my life. I know I want to be right with God and follow the rules of my Christian faith. I have started to read the Bible, something I never did before. I have started to feel God’s presence in my life, something so wonderful and peaceful, nothing in this world could amount to it. I try to do my part in the conversation of racism by educating myself and then others. Racism is taught in our society and to help end it, I want to educate the future generations through my writing, and change the thought process of my superiors.
— Cheyenne DeGross, 16, Silver Spring
A little help from our friends
This wasn’t the ideal start of my freshman year of high school that I had been imagining since grade school. But with all the challenges we have faced in the past four months, I am glad that we were able to overcome this challenge and create a new way of learning that is functional and effective. In the month of March, I was sitting in a classroom, thinking about how amazing these final few months of middle school were going to be. One week later, I was being told I will never be returning to that campus as a student ever again. All the work and preparation we had put into that final year ended in a flash. As we all faced this pandemic, we all didn’t overcome this individually, but as one.
Once we all faced this national crisis at once, challenges began to arise. Luckily, I was able to see past that, and to overcome this rough time. Once everything was shut down, keeping myself mentally and physically in shape became an issue. I struggled to create new ways to stay active. With the help from our neighbors, my brother and I created socially distanced workouts for ourselves and other neighborhood kids who also struggled to stay active. This gave us all the opportunity to bond with each other, get to know everyone better, and ultimately create a better friendship.
Another issue that arose was the education system. I struggled to stay focused while taking online classes, because I genuinely was just not used to it. I watched my grades fall and sink lower than where they have ever been before. I decided one day to reach out to a friend and ask how he’s been maintaining his schoolwork and it turned out that he had the same struggles as I did. We called up more friends and this seemed to be a common issue. With hard work and dedication, we were able to work together as we studied, eventually boosting all our grades. This pandemic has brought some times that we never thought were imaginable, but as we go through this time, we have truly become better people.
— Billy Dingell, 15, Reston, Virginia