Reporting by Sharon Bernstein, Brad Brooks, Donna Bryson and Maria Caspani of Reuters
One young woman grew alarmed when she saw Confederate flags pop up around her small town. Another student often quietly knitted to persevere through stress. A Black teenager in the South feared racist violence more than a virus.
These students have all faced social and political change over their high school careers. They were freshman when Donald Trump was elected president and after a summer of protests over racism and violence they are graduating under the pandemic’s shadow.
Conversations with members of the class of 2021 open a window on where America — from Maine to California — stands now and its future.
As a young gay woman, Megan Bickford said she watched in horror as the Trump administration tried to ban transgender people from serving in the military and rescinded protections for transgender public school students.
At 16, she cut ties with a close friend who became a vocal supporter of Trump. Bickford, who was raised in a liberal family, said she grew increasingly alarmed when she saw Confederate flags pop up on porches or vehicles northwest of Portland, Maine, where she and her family live.
“I feel like if we had a more normal four years I probably wouldn’t be as loud,” the 17-year-old said. “I’m growing up in that political climate where it seems like if you don’t scream, the other side won’t hear you.”
A fraught four years, Bickford said, led her to mature “a little faster.”
“I think it kind of brought me to be more politically involved and knowledgeable,” she said.
“I found my identity, and I found what I believe in and the type of person that I want to be or not want to be because I was seeing so many different examples on my television screen.”
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, shutting schools and forcing students into isolation.
Bickford, an athlete, worried about the impact of the cancellation of spring sports during her junior year, key for college recruiting. In the end, she earned a place at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
A warm afternoon this spring found Bickford hurling her discus far into a sunlit green field at the first home track meet since sophomore year. COVID-19 vaccinations have ramped up and the virus has loosened its grip.
The scorer announced Bickford had set a new school record. She ran to high-five teammates, then to hug jubilant family members.
The pandemic that dominated other students’ lives for the past year was little more than a distraction for Jamari Prim.
As a Black teenager living in Raleigh, North Carolina, he said he feared what the police might do to him or his friends far more than a virus.
“The pandemic is on our mind, but we’re more worried about the racial injustice out there,” he said.
Prim said that kids his age felt the urgency of the tumultuous time in which they were raised. He cited such landmark moments as Hillary Clinton, vying to be the first female president, only to be bested by Trump; Trump pushing the United States almost daily into unchartered territory; and the pandemic.
With the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd, Prim witnessed civil action by ordinary people help prompt deep debate.
“We were out on the streets and our voices were heard across the globe,” he said.
After graduating a semester early from high school, Prim, 18, took classes at a community college. He will enroll at Winston-Salem State University in the fall. He plans to study sociology and justice, and he wants to one day open a youth community center. For the past two years he has been working as a youth mentor.
“It feels like the need to have purpose-driven studies has been forced upon us,” Prim said. “I can’t not see the injustice that is around me.”
Kate Munson bumps along a pasture on her father’s ranch in an all-terrain vehicle, pointing out property lines and the particularly ornery cattle that are a pain to work with on their piece of land about 9 miles northwest of Shallowater, Texas.
A seventh-generation rancher on the arid southern Plains, Munson wants to become a voice for rural America by studying agricultural communications and business, and then possibly getting a law degree.
Munson, 18, is confident her generation will break through the toxic talk of the first decade of social media and find ways to bridge gaps across now-yawning cultural divides.
“My generation is just over it — over the division in politics and in the culture,” she said. “We want to have movements that lift each other up, not take each other down.”
Raised in a deeply conservative patch of the most populous red state in the country, Munson acknowledged that she lives in a conservative bubble — much like her counterparts in cities live in liberal isolation.
But she is confident that people her age, after all they have been through in the past four years, emerged creative and flexible enough to avoid being boxed in by geography or the happenstance of birth, and have no problem learning.
Take the #MeToo movement.
While the movement against sexual harassment and abuse by men is largely associated with liberal circles, Munson said its principles are embraced by her and many of her friends in rural, conservative America.
On a couple of occasions at stock shows, Munson has been confronted by older men who tried to intimidate or harass her. She learned to shut them down and make her complaints be known.
“Growing up when the #MeToo movement was happening opened my eyes to the possibility that in any of the situations made public, that could have been me,” she said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with political affiliations, at least it shouldn’t.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that Shane Wolf, an 18-year-old of Ponca, Ojibwe, Santee Sioux and white ancestry, wants to pursue law to help Native Americans protect the environment.
His mother is a consultant with a master’s in public health who supports Native American communities. His grandfather is a historian and Wolf grew up listening to his stories about Native Americans.
Wolf wanted to be a corporate lawyer until he learned of the Standing Rock Sioux’s opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline running under their water source. Family friends were among protesters who joined the Sioux in the Dakotas during Wolf’s freshman year at Denver’s North High School. The 1,200-mile pipeline was completed but is tangled in legal challenges.
Wolf, who was accepted to the University of Denver, said success once meant wealth.
“But now I’m really focused on the environment,” he said, “because of my culture, my mom and my grandpa.”
“I feel like we as young people have this sense of urgency and responsibility,” Wolf said. “This generation just has such a responsibility to really save this planet.”
Police sirens scream and a sharpshooter gets into position just down the block from the modest ranch home in Yuba City north of Sacramento where Zoe Isabella Rosales is online in a medical careers class. The 18-year-old Marysville High School senior doesn’t budge from her place at the dining table, even as her mother and a guest rush outside to investigate. They discover a neighbor had shot and killed another resident.
Such focus has helped Rosales become captain of her school’s Academic Decathlon team, and led to a scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She aims to become a physician.
Amid the books at her side is a bright orange skein of yarn and a pair of knitting needles — the hobby keeps her calm and her attention stable. She will often quietly knit as classes go on, persevering through stresses that included pandemic isolation and worries about family members as college applications loomed.
Because of the pandemic, Rosales gave up her part-time job at Panda Express and split her time between her mother’s home in Yuba City and her grandmother’s place in Petaluma, about 150 miles away.
The pandemic came after other difficulties. Turmoil in their family caused her mother to move to an impoverished community in the Sierra Nevada foothills and some family members have struggled with drug addiction and homelessness.
Rosales has the example of her mother, Michelle, who went to school later in life and graduated last year with a degree in social work, and her sister, Maya, who is graduating this year from the University of California at Berkeley.
The girls’ grandmother also went back to school, to complete a nursing degree.
The pandemic, Rosales said, has shown her how privileged she has been to have relatives who see education as a priority — and even to have simple tools like internet access that many students in her old foothill community lacked, making it difficult for them to attend online classes or submit their homework.
“It’s made me more grateful and more self-aware of my privileges,” she said. “But it’s also made me really angry … seeing other people who have had their whole world changed and their ability to learn completely blocked.”