In 2020, Merriam–Webster dictionary chose “pandemic” as its word of the year, and it’s hard to argue with that. In fact, given the way that it's followed us around relentlessly for the last few years, one could argue that it’s more the word of an era. Or, if you ask Max Strickberger (C ‘22) and Alan Jinich (C ‘22), the word of a generation.
In the spring of 2021, they traversed the country to interview drastically different 18– to 25–year–olds, collecting oral histories which would come to comprise their "collective remembrance" storytelling project Generation Pandemic.
During the COVID–19 pandemic, the two then–juniors were forced to re–examine their near future, finding that the path that once seemed so sure wasn't working anymore. "Last fall, sitting through online classes, we were really having two thoughts: One [was] that staying in school seemed so much less meaningful, [and that was] coming from two people who usually really loved their classes," Max says. The second thought, he explains, came from a sense of frustration with the media coverage of the impacts of COVID–19. "When we were reading articles, a lot of stories concerned older generations, which made a lot of sense, but we were curious how it impacted people our age because it’s such a precarious time of trying to figure out relationships, futures, and what we care about,” he says.
Max and Alan decided to take matters into their own hands. They took their junior spring semester off and, armed with a borrowed recorder, began what would become a 16–state jaunt across the country, in which they stopped in cities such as Chicago, Dallas, and New Orleans, as well as towns like Greensboro, Ala., home to only a few thousand people. "We decided to start that semester, rather than waiting for the summer or after graduation, because things were happening so fast, and we wanted to get out and hear from people in the moment,” Alan explains.
Their first stop was Chattanooga, Tenn., but according to Max, Greensboro was where things started to feel real. In Chattanooga, they were able to meet people through Penn connections, but Greensboro was the first town they visited where they truly didn't know a soul. "We spent the whole day just walking up and down the street, going into every shop, and we couldn’t find anyone. You show up to these places without anything, which is so rare, and we looked at each other like, ‘Holy shit, this could be over before it even starts,’" Max says.
"A woman at the bed–and–breakfast we stayed at told us a lot of young people worked at the grocery store, so the next day we drove to the grocery store. I remember feeling so excited when I got my first ‘yes’ from a cashier at the grocery store; it’s kind of a high of getting someone involved in an idea that, at that point, had no traction,” he says.
Max used the term "personal–yet–universal" to describe one of the stories they discovered—Grant from Georgia, a college student struggling with mental health since online school began—and I personally can't think of a better way to describe the overarching essence of their project. Through each incredibly unique story—a French bulldog importer from Jalisco, Mexico, or the experience of a young woman trapped in a family that had fallen victim to addiction—there were certain common threads of the 18– to 25–year–old experience.
You don't have to take my word for it, or even Alan and Max's. After Generation Pandemic had been published, a psychology professor at Penn reached out to ask them whether they'd been inspired by psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who published a theory on what he calls the five features of emerging adulthood. The professor had noticed many features of Arnett's research manifesting themselves in the stories that the two seniors had collected. Once they began to look into Arnett's theory, Max and Alan were surprised to find a strong concordance between the tenets he laid out—feelings of identity exploration, instability, self–focus, in–betweenness, and possibility—and their stories.
"In the pandemic, there were extremes in how these tenets manifested themselves," explains Max, and a quick look through the Generation Pandemic archive makes this clear. People tell stories about their shifting relationships, drastic career and location changes, and ideological exploration, all spurred by the uncertainty of the pandemic, which only amplified the already–delicate nature of this stage of young adulthood.
Beyond any formal theory or research, the two seniors noticed certain commonalities in the responses of their interviewees. Their compassion, in particular, stood out. "People spoke, unprompted, about being grateful to be young and not have a family to take care of, because of how stressful that would be," Max notes. "Generally, people think of young people as selfish, but these young people were so grateful and aware of the struggles that others were having.”
The resourcefulness and resilience of the young people they met left an impact on Alan, who animatedly recounts the story of Fernando, the Mexican bulldog seller from Chicago whose forced career pivot—his fruit stand shut down for the pandemic—ultimately came to offer him more financial stability than he had before the pandemic. Fernando's story captures, in essence, something that the pair saw across many of their interviews: Young people, perhaps because of our own internal instability, proved themselves to be remarkably adaptable to the world’s newly dire times.
For Alan, though he resonated to a certain degree with people struggling with career uncertainty, Generation Pandemic offered a much–appreciated broadening perspective. "With a lot of people, the only thing that we had in common was our age. We were all coming from totally different backgrounds, whose expectations and experiences were so different from mine, so feeling that way was really the norm,” he says.
He and Max were struck by the vastness of the young adult experience, describing it as humbling. “It was such a privilege to be able to talk to people just out of our own curiosity and not really think about ourselves so much," Alan explains. "At Penn, the expectation is that you’re self–focused and prove yourself in whatever sense. On our trip, at the moment, I was following my curiosity and focusing on other people’s experiences without having to think about myself.”
Since their return to Penn, keeping that sense of openness and perspective has proven difficult. "It’s been hard at Penn to maintain that kind of curiosity and patience with people we meet every day,” Max says. “How much richer could our experience be if we treated every person we interacted with with that same level of patience and time?” Referring to Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch's “Last Lecture,” in which Pausch says that if you give anyone enough time, they’ll surprise and impress you, Max realized that we “rarely give people enough time in that way.”
The stubbornness of the pandemic, which all but promises to stick around for another summer in some capacity, has a silver lining for the two College seniors: That is, Generation Pandemic Part Two, their second cross–country venture to discover the lasting effects of the pandemic from even more perspectives. They've got their eyes set on a few particular storylines to follow—those who turned to online communities in their times of isolation, for example—thanks to some feedback from Penn professor Paul Hendrikson, who warned them against repetition.
The Penn English Department has proven to be enormously helpful with the project. When Max and Alan first hit upon the idea of doing an oral history project, they consulted professor Sam Apple, who introduced them to Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow’s work. Saslow, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his character–focused reporting on food stamps and the aftermath of the Great Recession, had been working on covering the pandemic through raw, unfiltered interviews that would become somewhat of a blueprint for Max and Alan's project. “What really spoke to me, the first time I read Eli Saslow’s stories, was that I’d never opened up a newspaper like the Post and just read someone speak from the ‘I’ for three pages straight," Alan explains. "It was a totally different medium from what I was used to in storytelling, and it felt so much more personal than the other journalism that we were reading.”
We've all lived through an unfathomable event, experiencing both unprecedented togetherness and previously unthinkable isolation. Generation Pandemic probes at this dichotomy through its thematically cohesive collection of incredibly personal experiences, offering us a uniquely human perspective on the historical impact of the past few years.
The economy will bounce back, hospital cases will decrease, our immune systems will adapt, and at some point, mandates will become a thing of the past. But our collective past will continue to impact the individual futures of every single person who lived through the pandemic, in ways that we can hardly understand in the present.
And, as Alan says, “In the long–term interest of understanding how this is really affecting people, we can’t just stop paying attention.”