‘I wanted more memories’: young people reflect on a year lost to Covid | Life and style

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For Timothy Chang, 21 was supposed to be a seminal year.

He couldn’t wait for his college graduation, surrounded by friends and family, and was looking forward to finally securing a job and living independently.

But when Chang looks back on 2020, he won’t think of graduation memories or moments with friends. Instead, he’ll remember a time when Covid hung over everything.

“It feels like I’m missing a chunk of my life,” he said.

For more than a year, lonely lockdowns, economic turmoil and a global recession have disrupted a generation of teenagers and young adults at critical moments – holding their independence and personal development hostage.

Now, after a historic vaccination campaign, the US is accelerating toward a renewed sense of normalcy, with Americans relishing busy social calendars and no more masks in some states. But for young people, robbed of the touchstones, opportunities and connections they once associated with growing up, it is bittersweet.

The Guardian spoke with young people who were navigating important life stages during the pandemic. These are their stories.

‘I feel kind of cheated’

Buying a tuxedo, renting a limo – in Charlotte, North Carolina, AJ Lawrence was excited for the quintessential moments of senior prom.

“Memories,” he said. “I wanted more memories.”

His mom will never get to help him pick out a suit for the dance, or see him receive his high school diploma with all the pomp and circumstance. So, even though he’s not big on attention, he let her throw him a drive-thru graduation party to mark the occasion.

“She missed out on some stuff, too,” he acknowledged.

Lawrence spent last summer mostly at home. The two-week paid internship he lined up at an accounting firm was rolled back to a two-day virtual leadership conference, and his family’s first travels in years – a beach trip to Florida – got cancelled, too.

Finally, he started his first year at North Carolina State University in August, where he moved into an apartment suite with three other roommates. In his classes, it hit him that he was actually living through a pandemic, as he sat in crowded rooms where he couldn’t see anyone’s faces behind their masks. He and his housemates took all the health regulations seriously, wearing masks and sanitizing.

A sign is posted at the entrance to Hinton James dormitory at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in August 2020. Photograph: Gerry Broome/AP

But they got sent home anyway, mere weeks into the semester, as Covid clusters derailed the university’s safety plans.

“I like to joke around and say it was just like another summer camp,” says Lawrence.

As an artist, he thought that he would meet new people, get hands-on help, and practice alongside the watchful eye of teachers at college. Instead, he spent his first semester working from his kitchen table at home, sitting in front of a computer screen for five hours every class.

When he finally returned to campus in the winter, his teacher and many of his peers hadn’t come back yet.

“I’m kind of bad at socializing,” Lawrence said, lamenting the loss of in-person interactions where he may have had a better chance at meeting people.

“It’s been hard to make friends through a computer screen.”

‘It was just fear of everything’

Liz Siegfried gets sick a lot. During the pandemic, she’s assumed it’s Covid-19 every single time.

Tonsillitis, colds, runny noses: once the symptoms hit, Siegfried would quarantine inside her room and not let anyone see her, sometimes convinced she’d already exposed her entire family to the deadly virus.

“How do I make sure that no one gets hurt? How do I make sure everyone’s OK?”

Liz Siegfried, 19, is a sophomore at the University of Vermont working towards a double major and double minor. When shutdowns were being implemented last year due to Covid-19, Siegfried began isolating herself and moving away from actively meeting new people. She said there was a noticeable change in her stress tolerance, and had increased anxiety. She noted that working at the National Alliance on Mental Illness as well as a change in weather and checking in on her feelings have all helped. JOHN TULLY for The Guardian
Liz Siegfried, 19, is a sophomore at the University of Vermont. When shutdowns were being implemented last year due to Covid-19, Siegfried said there was a noticeable change in her stress tolerance, and had increased anxiety. Photograph: John Tully/The Guardian

Covid-19’s uncontrollable arc has been a nightmare scenario for Siegfried, a college student at the University of Vermont who knows she’s much better at taking care of others than she is herself.

Since March last year, she’s sacrificed a job at a local grocery store; worried about losing friends from a distance; and at times become a shut-in, too anxious or afraid to attend in-person events or classes.

“It was punch to the gut,” she says, talking about the pandemic. “My world was crashing down. It was fear of everything – fear of touching things, fear of seeing people.

“The thoughts spiraled.”

Although she wasn’t a germaphobe before, the health crisis made her one. At some point, she stopped touching doors and started dousing her phone in hand sanitizer. She wiped down her car often, and became concerned that surfaces as seemingly benign as a coin could carry disease.

“There’s things I don’t even realize I’m doing out of fear anymore because I’ve been doing them for so long,” she said.

It’s been hard for her to live with the fact that a large chunk of her university experience has been co-opted, even with so much of her life left. “You’re told countless times, ‘College is the best years of your life,’” she says. “But then you’re afraid to live.”

The university’s hardline rules to mitigate Covid-19’s spread – where students could be kicked out for violations – made matters worse. Siegfried wasn’t allowed to see her next-door neighbor or have visitors other than her roommates. She couldn’t even practice for her American sign language class outside without the risk of being yelled at or fined, because it’s impossible to make the necessary facial expressions while wearing a mask.

“I cried a lot in the fall. I was in my room a lot. I would try to forget about the stress and the world around me by just immersing myself in some activity,” she said.

Even with the vaccine, Covid has forced her to recognize that she could pass along some bug to her loved ones – and they could die from it.

“I don’t think that this is something that I’m ever gonna stop thinking about,” she said.

“I want so badly to just flip a switch. But this fear, this panic, the trauma of the past year – it’s not something we can ignore.”

‘It was hard to move on’

In the end, Chang decided to opt out of his virtual graduation ceremony.

“It would be more upsetting,” he says, remembering his reasoning. “I didn’t want to go and have thoughts like, ‘oh, this is the memory Ill have of my graduation.’”

Chang had signed a lease in Boston, pre-pandemic, and as he entered the workforce post-college, he desperately tried to find something even as the job market flatlined. Finally, he landed a contract role working with Excel sheets and data – a godsend, all things considered.

Flash forward two months, when his contractor called to tell him he was being let go. Budget cuts.

Timothy Chang poses for a portrait near his place of work, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, on April 2021, in Boston, Massachusetts.
Timothy Chang poses near his place of work, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, in April 2021, in Boston, Massachusetts. Photograph: Kayana Szymczak/The Guardian

“When I heard that, I felt like this has to be, like, some kind of joke,” Chang said.

His days began to feel empty, devoid of purpose or meaning.

“I would wake up and realize, ‘I don’t have to go to work today.’ And I would just think, ‘what do I do now?’” he remembers.

Eventually he got a new job. But after his experience last fall, part of him still worries it won’t last.

“There’s just, like, that anxiousness in the back of my head,” he explains.

Even as his work life improved, Chang – who is Korean American – dealt with yet another concern: rising anti-Asian hate. As prominent figures such as Donald Trump capitalized on the virus to spread xenophobia, calling it “the China virus”, Asian people were being verbally attacked, spat on and physically harassed.

Chang wondered whether his grandparents could go on walks or to the grocery store without someone hurting them.

“It’s not hard to think it could happen to me,” he says.

‘I was doing so well’

For four years, Enzo Zaccardelli had been planning his dissertation at Ohio State University on refugees and migrants in Italy, hoping to create an integration model that could be applied globally.

But when he hopped on a Zoom call last winter, his adviser broke the news: because of Covid-related travel restrictions, he might have to ditch his research and start anew.

Zaccardelli worries that the displaced people he desperately needs to interview have already been pushed out of their small Italian town, rendering his topic moot.

“The very thing I wanted to study is now kind of gone,” he said.

Zaccardelli envisaged a career full of hands-on fieldwork that helped people. But because of the pandemic, his research funding was frozen, and there was little he could do from within the US.

So, last summer, he took a job disinfecting protective wear for doctors instead of traveling to Italy. In the fall, he taught his own course, an introduction to cultural anthropology. Then, last semester, his adviser finally addressed the elephant in the room: Zaccardelli needed to reconsider his research.

Jolted out of denial, he wondered what on earth he would do next.

As he watched his passion project slip away, he even started to consider dropping out of his PhD program altogether.

“I didn’t really have a backup plan,” he says. “’I was doing so well.”

‘We don’t have anything’

After Alejandro Roldan’s wife suffered a miscarriage, he knew the pandemic wasn’t the right time to try again.

He no longer had health insurance. His family’s savings were depleted. And he barely got to see his wife because of their competing work schedules.

Alejandro Roldan for The GuardianAlejandro Roldan, a hospitality employee, photographed in Los Angeles with his former place of employment, Chateau Marmont, in the background, on 04/06/21. Address: 8221 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90046. CREDIT: Damon Casarez for The Guardian.
Alejandro Roldan, a hospitality employee is hoping to be called back at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. Photograph: Damon Casarez/The Guardian

But Roldan just wanted to make her happy. He wanted to help her forget, even though he knew that wasn’t going to happen.

“I’m just working hard for my wife,” he said. “Whatever she needs, I’m there.”

For years, Roldan never said no to anything at Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles’s notorious, star-studded hotel where he cleaned carpets, vomit, drugs – whatever the venue required.

So, in March last year, when the Chateau sent a mass email firing almost everyone, Roldan’s manager told him he’d rank among the skeleton crew the hotel was keeping onboard. In exchange, he’d have to take on an incredible range of responsibilities, from gardening to cleaning and maintenance.

“OK,” Roldan said.

Then, his superiors reneged: they no longer had a position for him. He could apply once things returned to normal – just like anybody else.

As the economy tanked, he started taking long shifts for his father’s painting business, where he made $100 a day. There, he caught Covid-19 and passed it along to his wife.

For weeks, they stayed quarantined in their room, afraid they’d infect his mother-in-law.

After Roldan finally recovered, his cousin got him a different gig as a bar back. He made good money but worked early into the morning, so he rarely saw his wife. And eventually, his hours were cut there, too.

He’s been searching for a new job but mostly wants to be called back at the Chateau, especially now that California has reopened.

After so much pain, he’s just trying to piece his little family back together again.

“For the year,” he said, “I’ve been losing a lot.”

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