UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi

Seasons of change: How challenge and crisis will shape the pandemic generation

Students by the hundreds were streaming through Sather Gate on a brilliant morning last week, en route to class, or the library, or the familiar comforts of the Free Speech Café. It was such a pleasant scene, so familiar, and yet for Brianna Rivera, a UC Berkeley senior in English, it was skewing a little strange.

She was walking to her first class of the semester, English 165, which will look at the classic 19th century novel Jane Eyre through the lens of Black women writers. A promising class, for sure, and yet she was struck — shocked, actually — by the masses of humanity.

“That’s a lot for me, after having been in isolation for 18 months,” said Rivera, president of the Senior Class Council. “You want to get back into the swing of things, but there’s something kind of holding you back. It’s like, you’re having to reconcile these three people — the person you were before the pandemic, the person that you were during the lockdown, and the person that you’re becoming now.

“It’s a little weird.”

No doubt thousands of students, staff and faculty are feeling something similar. Like Rivera, we are all children of history — struggling to come to terms with the acute crises of the past 18 months that climaxed the two tumultuous decades that opened the 21st century.

Students, faculty and staff, in a series of interviews, said that these months have been deeply stressful, and often traumatic. Young adults, just coming of age, are trying to navigate a period of acute political turmoil, environmental stress and threats to people of color, all while living long periods in near-isolation to protect against COVID-19 infection.

Rivera was born in 2000, a year before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Her family struggled during the Great Recession of 2008; they lost their home and moved across the country. She attended five different grade schools.

Brianna Rivera on UC Berkeley campus

Insecurity is a fact of life for many students, dating to their earliest years, says Brianna Rivera, president of the Senior Class Council. “Sometimes you think, ‘Oh God, the sky is falling!’” she explained. “But when is it ever not falling, you know?” (UC Berkeley photo by Neil Freese)

Other students have had similar journeys through insecurity and loss.

For Stephen Hernandez, these months have shaken the foundations of his life: He tried to stay in Berkeley when the pandemic started, but then went back to his family in Southern California. When his family fractured because of the stress, he came back to Berkeley. He and his girlfriend split. He managed to finish his degree in history, but it was not a time for celebration.

Kyra Abrams maintained her studies in technology policy and continued her leadership work with the Black Student Union and in student government. When George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minn., she helped to organize a summer of protests demanding police reform. Today, she asks, why would we want to go back to normal?

On this beautiful morning, many people on campus were weighing their own questions about normalcy. Most of them were wearing masks, even outdoors, to protect against the delta variant. From the base of the Campanile, the view west to the Golden Gate Bridge was obscured by a veil of grey smoke from wildfires up north.

The Class of 2022: a generation marked by history

Every generation faces challenges, and most every generation is asked to make sacrifices. But only occasionally is a generation defined by its challenges and the gravity of its mission. Put another way: Who ever speaks of the trials of Gen X? Or the tribulations faced by children of the ‘80s?

But suppose you were born in 1920. By the time you were 22, you would have experienced the aftermath of WW1; the final wave of the Spanish Influenza pandemic that killed over 600,000 Americans; the Great Depression; the rise of fascism in Europe; the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II.

Or, suppose you were born in 1952. By the time you were 22, you would have lived through the Korean War, the escalating threat of nuclear annihilation; the rising civil rights movement; the election of youthful President John F. Kennedy; the assassinations of Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King and Kennedy’s brother, Robert; the Vietnam War; convulsive, generation-defining protests; the birth of the modern environmental movement; Watergate and the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Donald Trump addresses militant protesters before they marched to the U.S. Capitol.

President Donald Trump addresses militant protesters before they marched to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Video image via Channel 9 News Australia)

These are generations distinguished in modern American history for the challenges they endured, and it might seem that they could never be matched.

And yet, consider those born in 2000, some of them students walking on Sproul Plaza who will turn 22 next year. They have lived through the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; the Afghanistan War; the Iraq War; the founding of Facebook; the first iPhone; the Great Recession; a plague of mass shootings; the election of Barack Obama, the first Black U.S. president; the election of Donald Trump and two failed efforts to impeach him.

But in the past 18 months, history seemed to double down:

A pandemic and the shutdown of the Berkeley campus in March 2020; the murder of George Floyd in May, followed by a summer of protest; September skies filled with wildfire smoke; and the Bay Area landscape painted a surreal, hellscape orange. And then, after a fiercely destabilizing election season, a violent right-wing mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, determined to block the transfer of power.

For extended periods, it’s felt as if the fundamental structures of nature and society are quaking. It’s been apocalyptic.

informal portrait of Charles Henry, professor emeritus of African American studies

Charles Henry (Photo courtesy of Charles Henry)

How does someone who’s 21 or 22 make sense of this world that they’re soon to inherit?

“Each generation has to find its voice,” said Charles Henry, a retired Berkeley political scientist who was a front-line participant in the movements of the 1960s. “Democracy is never a given. It has to be fought for — and it’s a constant fight.” 

That’s true, of course. But it’s also true that, during these months, the struggle was personal, too. Students, like many others, literally lived in fear — afraid of catching the virus, afraid for their families and friends, afraid of losing their jobs. Isolation only sharpened their despair.

In the days before classes resumed, Rivera said that she and her friends, with only slight irony, think of themselves as a new Lost Generation.

“Sometimes you think, ‘Oh, God, the sky is falling!’” she explained. “But when is it ever not falling, you know? A 21-year-old like me — we’ve grown up with a lot of insecurity. … It’s your life. You’re kind of staring at this big void with the hope that something good is going to come out of it. That gets a little intense, sometimes.”

Kyra Abrams, now a senior at UC Berkeley, speaks at a 2020 protest calling for police reform

After the police murder of George Floyd sparked international outrage in May 2020, UC Berkeley senior Kyra Abrams braved the COVID-19 risks and helped organize major protests in Oakland. Abrams is the chair of the campus Black Student Union and chief of staff for the ASUC academic affairs vice president. (Photo by AgitatePhotography 2020)

Acts of courage, woven with struggle, pain and loss

Perhaps it’s a cliché, but in this case it’s true: In a time of crisis, communities came together to achieve extraordinary accomplishments.

Through vast collective effort, the university stayed open. Instructors pivoted to Zoom and innovated. Most students stuck with them, innovating in their own ways to make online learning work. Researchers and science students kept labs running. Cooks kept cooking, and police kept policing. Administrators at every level coordinated the response at every level of government to keep the university on mission — and to keep the community safe.

Yes, there were breakdowns. Remember the summer 2020 campus surge of coronavirus in off-campus housing? And not everyone had the laptops they needed to connect to Zoom courses. For some, food and other basic needs were in short supply.

informaal portrait of Kyra Abrams, against a sunset

Kyra Abrams (photo by Xavier Abrams)

But there were also the private acts of commitment and courage needed to answer the crisis.

Abrams vividly recalls the first days of the pandemic lockdown, as stillness descended over the campus. Visits to friends and colleagues at the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center became impossible. Back at her family home in San Pablo, she worried about her grades and wrestled an overarching melancholy.

Soon, though, she came to realize: She liked remote learning. Her academic energy came into focus. And when Floyd was murdered, she moved quickly into action. She helped to organize protests, helped to make sure that masks and hand sanitizer were available to the marchers. One protest in early June 2020 drew thousands of people, and Abrams was among the speakers.

People were working from home, or they’d been laid off — but that made the protests bigger and stronger. “COVID allowed that,” Abrams said. “People had a lot more freedom.”

Hernandez, too, took a difficult situation and turned it into success. He was working on his history thesis in early 2020, a paper on the old Aliso Village public housing complex in L.A.’s Boyle Heights area, long a destination for immigrants. He was beginning to interview for post-graduation jobs.

But when the campus closed, all of that stalled. He returned to his family’s home in the Inland Empire. His parents were there, working at the house. One of his brothers and his wife, along with their two children, were living there, too. Sometimes, two other brothers joined them.

It was a hot summer, over 100 degrees many days. In such tight quarters, with everyone trying to work, the pressure built — and then a fierce argument led to a rupture in the family.

Hernandez pushed on, finishing his thesis and graduating last December. Then, he landed a job — at a supermarket. “Even though I have my degree, I’m working at a damn market,” he recalled recently, with an uneasy laugh. “It’s like, what am I doing living with my parents? What am I doing?

informal portrait Stephen Hernandez, a recent Berkeley graduate in history

The pandemic posed major challenges for history student Stephen Hernandez, forcing him to move back with his family in Southern California. Despite loneliness and an uncertain future, he persisted in his studies, got his degree last December — and started an important new job last week. (Photo by UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design)

The parallel pandemic: isolation and loneliness, day after day after day

Kiyoko Thomas

Kiyoko Thomas (UC Berkeley photo by Jeremy Snowden)

Rivera, Abrams, Hernandez — all of them returned to their family homes as the campus shutdown took hold. They appreciated the security, but each struggled with separation from their peers, with loneliness.

Hernandez finally left his parents’ home and came back to Berkeley with his girlfriend. But the relationship didn’t survive. Rivera remarked, in frustration, that she hasn’t made a new friend in two years.

Faculty members said they frequently saw students in their classes struggling with isolation. Sometimes, the struggles deepened into anxiety and depression. That might be compounded for Asian students, who felt vulnerable to the rising incidence of anti-Asian harassment and violence. Or, combine that with financial stress or a lack of family support, and the risk of hunger and homelessness spikes.

At the university’s Basic Needs Center, requests for emergency housing support doubled during the pandemic, said Director Kiyoko Thomas. In the past year, the center has distributed $1.4 million in emergency financial aid for food, shelter, health and other needs.

Kusha Murarka, a psychologist with the UC Berkeley health services

Kusha Murarka (UC Berkeley photo)

For six or eight months after the pandemic began, students adjusted and adapted, said Kusha Murarka, a psychologist with the University Health Services. But around the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, she started seeing something new in her clients: grief — a profound sense of grief for all they’d lost.

“It was not only the COVID pandemic,” Murarka said. “It was pandemic upon pandemic upon pandemic. … Anti-Black racism, anti-Asian hate, political chaos with the election and what came after. And then the natural disasters that we’re constantly bombarded with, something happening in some region of the world.

“It’s cumulative — cumulative stress, cumulative trauma.”

And, she added, “This is not how college is supposed to go.”

Crisis, trauma and the path to resilience

It is a simple point, but it merits close consideration:

Our experiences change us.

portrait of UC Berkeley economist Ulrike Malmendier

Ulrike Malmendier (Haas School of Business photo)

Our experiences shape our behavior for better and worse, in ways that are sometimes profound, sometimes subtle. Some lessons are easy, and some are not. Sometimes we  choose the lessons, sometimes the lessons choose us. Even without textbooks or midterms —  this is how we learn.

Ulrike Malmendier is a scholar in behavioral economics at the Berkeley Haas School of Business and the Economics Department. Her research has examined how financial turmoil early in life can shape a person’s attitudes and decisions for a lifetime.

In effect, Malmendier said in an interview, crisis rewires the brain. And such effects will inevitably extend to the pandemic generation.

“I haven’t yet studied the Class of 2022,” she said, “but my bet is that there will be some implications in risk attitudes, in social behavior, in job choices and career path that will be detectable years and decades from now.

“This generation has been through a lot,” she observed. “They have had repeated, traumatizing experiences. That will be deeply ingrained … and particularly hard to undo and rewire.”

But Malmendier sees a caveat: Crisis can also be a path to resilience.

“If you can say, ‘I made it through a once-in-a-century pandemic. I was able to continue my education and graduate and get a job,’ then becoming aware of your resilience and your ability to take things in hand and shape your life — that can be very powerful.”

The gorgeous days of August: endings and beginnings

Think of those generations born in 1920 and 1952. They endured wars and depressions, pandemics, extraordinary social turmoil. They were changed, but in time, they emerged to make monumental contributions to science, government, art, the environment. They reshaped the nation and the global order.

Their accomplishments were imperfect and inevitably fell short. Their work always needed correction and refinement. Still, remarkably, the crises of their youth seemed to propel them toward problem-solving and progress.

Faces arranged in a circle (clockwise from top): Brianna Rivera of UC Berkeley; Tia McClenahan of Diablo Valley College; Jackson George of UC Davis; and Phoebe Tang of Gonzaga University

Confronted with isolation and intense loneliness, UC Berkeley senior Brianna Rivera made a “marriage pact” with three high school friends — a promise of long-term companionship and mutual support. Clockwise from top: Rivera; Tia McClenahan of Diablo Valley College; Jackson George of UC Davis; and Phoebe Tang of Gonzaga University. (Photo by Jackson George)

Think now to the students who have converged on campus at Berkeley again, on a morning in late August 2021. The delta variant, the wildfires, systemic racism, anti-democratic politics — it’s still an uneasy time. But with the students’ return, they have banished the stillness and restored to campus a familiar, humming energy.

Brianna Rivera is back, and she’s thinking about the future and the importance of stability. In the time away, she and three high school friends found a creative way to counter loneliness: The made what they call a “marriage pact” — a promise of long-term companionship, mutual support, and maybe some way to work it for tax advantages. After graduation, she plans to take her English degree into a field with lucrative, and stable, possibilities.

“A lot of my peers, including probably myself here, we’re trying to find jobs that will consistently pay the bills and continue to be relevant in the world that we live in,” she explained. “Unfortunately, that cuts off things like the arts. In this moment, what’s relevant is finance, health care and big tech consulting.”

Kyra Abrams is excited for the opportunities created by the return to in-person university life. She’s starting her second year as chair of the Black Student Union, and she’s already working to get it back up to full speed. On the side, she’ll be working as a supervisor on the Student Technology Help Desk. She’s applying to Ph.D. programs where she can dive deep into the field of information policy.

The last 18 months have been difficult, she said, but a valuable learning experience. As a community organizer, she had to innovate. As a critic of police practices, she moved beyond police reform to study the possibilities of abolishing police departments.

The move to remote learning 18 months ago proved to her that when systems and people need to make massive change, they can do it. “It’s OK to change things,” Abrams said, “and if the change doesn’t work, it’s OK to adapt.”

And Stephen Hernandez? He was in a Berkeley bar some weeks ago, visiting with a friend who works there. He happened to meet a university human resources supervisor, and they got to talking. Hernandez shared his story, and his résumé.

Last Wednesday, as life returned to campus, Hernandez arrived at Wurster Hall to start a new job on the administrative staff at the College of Environmental Design. After months of loneliness and worry, he’d finally caught a break.

Now, he’s excited to be in a place that can nurture his interest in buildings, geography and culture. His window looks out on a bright, busy café. “I’m a union member,” he said. “I’ve got a decent wage and full benefits.”

Walking on campus, seeing the throngs of students, seeing protests at Sather Gate, “it almost felt like we were going back to normal,” he said, “except for the masks.”

But, of course, the old normal is done. The world has rewired our brains, and there’s no going back.

We can’t know how things will unfold for students of the pandemic generation as they finish their studies and emerge into the world. That will take time. But we know this: They have a more acute and personal sense of the challenges facing the nation and the world than any generation in almost 50 years.

The 21st century is their century. Our futures are bound to theirs. And these are the first days of their story.

students throung through Sther Gate at UC Berkeley as in-person classes resume

For nearly 18 months, the UC Berkeley campus was like a ghost town. But last week students returned — many experiencing a mix of joy and uneasiness. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

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