For these young people, the pandemic has been harsh. Here are their hopes for the future.
By Max Strickberger
March 12, 2022 at 9:00 a.m. EST
In 2021, as the pandemic showed no signs of abating, young people across the country were dealing with isolation and altered dreams, and were trying figure out what their futures would be like. We were among them — two college students who wanted to see how our generation was coping. For six months, we crisscrossed 23 states and interviewed more than 80 young people suspended in that transitional time between adolescence and adulthood. Some returned to the homes they spent their childhood hoping to escape. Others moved across the country when their jobs turned remote. Each reshaped parts of themselves: a Navajo man became estranged from his lifelong pastor over alt-right politics; a cattle sorter on the U.S.-Mexico border struggled to make time for his newborn daughter; a lonely New Orleans waitress found a community through online gaming; a new teacher in South Dallas scrambled to provide support for her second-grade students. Yet, like us, they hung on to hopes for a future free of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. We asked members of this “Generation Pandemic” to respond to the open-ended statement “After the pandemic, I want to … ” Here is how they responded, in their own writing:
When Grant Williams at age 19 began studying film at New York University in 2020, university restrictions made socializing almost impossible. He spent hours walking the city alone, averaging 30,000 steps a day. He developed severe anxiety, lost 20 pounds and eventually transferred to a university near his family in Dalton, Ga. Nearly two years later, he still thinks about his time in New York every day: “It’s a form of PTSD.” Inspired by the therapist who cared for him, he now studies biology and hopes to become a heart surgeon.
Lindsay Cohen, 20, considered her grandfather her best friend. But when he died by suicide a year into the pandemic, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him in person — they lived in different states. In his honor, Lindsay got a tattoo of her grandfather’s initials. “I just called him Papa though.” Now a sophomore at the University of Alabama, Lindsay is working to raise awareness about men’s mental health issues; a link to related resources is now part of her Instagram bio.
The pandemic accelerated this now 27-year-old woman’s political move to the right. (She asked that her name not be used.) She believes the mainstream media has hyped the threat of covid-19. She got a tattoo of an atom on her hand to show she is not anti-science. When her Dallas catering business dried up because of the pandemic, she moved to D.C., where she says she worked for a conservative group and demonstrated outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. She is working as a waitress in Nebraska now, but she hopes one day to launch her own podcast, inspired by a conservative podcast she listens to.
“After the pandemic I want to go out more and spend more time with my family.” After immigrating from Mexico in 2017 at age 18, Fernando Padilla opened a fruit stand in Chicago’s Chinatown. When pandemic restrictions closed his business, he began driving 32 hours to his native state of Jalisco to buy bulldog puppies, which he then sold in Chicago. Fernando reopened his stand in March 2021, but was unsure whether customers would return. On his first day, he sold out in two hours. His puppy business is still his main source of income, but he dreams of opening a brick-and-mortar fruit store like the ones in Jalisco.
Unable to see friends, New Orleans native Caitlin Settle, 21, found a new community online through the messaging app Discord, where she spent hours with strangers playing video games and drinking. “I talk to these people that I don’t know, but I grew very attached to them.” They created a group chat that grew to 17 people who helped her through isolation, Caitlin says. Last year, one of those online friends, from Texas, came to visit her in New Orleans; recently, she traveled to New York City to meet two others. She now works at a mask shop, which was busy this Mardi Gras.
Couvisa Washington, 26, once made hundreds of dollars a week playing drums on a plastic bucket on a highway exit ramp in Chicago. His income evaporated when the pandemic kept tourists away and local traffic home. “You couldn’t see nobody outside.” Sometimes he would play for the whole day only to make $15. Performing was a way for him to keep busy and stay safe, however. Originally from the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago, many of his friends have died of gun violence in the past two years.
Sharon Lemus, 23, grew up in a crowded mobile home in Santa Fe. Until the pandemic, she organized her life to spend as little time there as possible, working two jobs and studying at her local community college. When everything shut down, she had no choice but to stay home. It was noisy, chaotic and stressful. Her brother and his girlfriend had a drug problem that worsened in lockdown and in 2021 they had a son. Eventually, her brother and his girlfriend moved out and Sharon helped her mom assume shared custody of their son. Now Sharon’s looking for a place of her own.
After graduating from North Carolina A&T State University, Kayla Diallo, 23, joined Teach for America (TFA) and was placed in a South Dallas elementary school. The pandemic meant she had a hybrid in-person and online teaching schedule and she struggled to play instructor, counselor and even quasi-parent. When a winter storm hit Texas in early 2021, one of her second-graders lost his home. She took him shopping for clothes and toys. Almost done with her second year of TFA, she is planning to stay in Dallas but isn’t sure if she’ll continue to teach.
This 23-year-old Native American man — whose knitted cap has a tiny bell and feather charm pinned to it that belonged to his late mother — became a father in 2020. But job shortages near his New Mexico Pueblo and a debilitating heroin dependence made parenting difficult. He eventually was able to find part-time jobs but he wasn’t making enough money, so he said he started stealing from stores to support his son: “He’s my little man, my everything."
Micah Estevan, 23, works in an auto body shop near Window Rock, Ariz., the capital of the Navajo Nation. As a child, the pastor at Micah’s church helped install running water and electricity in his family’s mobile home. Micah sometimes called him grandfather. But during the pandemic, Micah says the pastor became increasingly political and far right, going after Democrats and denigrating minority groups including Native Americans like Micah. So he stopped going to church and now explores his religious identity through books by Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevski, Japanese writer Shusaku Endo and others.
Jamie Galicia and her boyfriend, AJ, met on the first day of school at Central Wyoming College in 2019. They started dating until the school sent people home because of the pandemic in March 2020 — AJ to an apartment in Colorado without WiFi and Jamie to her family home in Idaho. They drifted apart. Months later, AJ released a song on YouTube about Jamie. They began talking again. When Jamie got covid-19, they would fall asleep on FaceTime. Eventually, AJ found a job near Jamie and they’ve shared a home with her family since then. “Sometimes I wonder if covid never happened, would we still be together?” she says.
When the pandemic reached Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, facilities there shut down. Many park employees stayed, however. One of them was Luxianna Watkins, 25. Over a thousand miles away from her older parents in rural Illinois, Luxianna felt isolated and homesick — and stuck. She worried she might never see her parents again: “They could die and I’d be stuck in Wyoming.” Luxianna expressed gratitude for her parents by writing them a six-page letter. She wanted nothing left unsaid. She now visits them every six months.
Three weeks after Shay Scott’s human resources job in Virginia turned fully remote in 2021, she decided to move to New Orleans. Shay, 26, had spent much of her childhood moving — some 40 times before college, sometimes in and out of homeless shelters. During the pandemic, however, she slowed down and had a chance to deal with an eating disorder and childhood pain: “Instead of watching everybody else, I watched myself.” At first, New Orleans felt like home but her remote work has made it hard for her to make new friends so she’s thinking of moving back to the East Coast, maybe Philadelphia. Shay says she misses the cold.
Chase Hansen, 23, is a punk rock drummer from Los Angeles who has worked as a professional welder since he was 17. In January 2020, he enrolled in community college for the first time. Pandemic stimulus checks helped him stay in school but he dropped out after three semesters: “I missed working with my hands.” He recently formed a new band and is in talks to sign a record deal. “I feel like I’ve made it in life,” he says. “I just wish there was more financial security being in a punk band. I don’t really care though, as long as I’m happy.”
Max Strickberger and Alan Jinich are seniors at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English and neuroscience respectively. They have been close friends since childhood and grew up on the same street outside of D.C.