My Pandemic Year in J-School

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March 31, 2021

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To mark the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic, journalists across the U.S. catalogued the personal stories of folks impacted by Covid-19 and stay-at-home orders. The Click turned the lens on its own staff to gain a sense of what student journalists experienced during an unprecedented time of cultural, social, and economic upheaval. The range of stories include Nikki Main who crafted a powerpoint when she pitched her fiancé her goal of getting admitted into NYU’s American Journalism Online program, to Theresa Boersma’s experience of the pandemic in China, which compared to her colleagues, was vastly different. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

How did the pandemic affect your decision to join the American Journalism program?

Theresa Boersma, Changzhou, China: “When China shut down in the first phase of the epidemic, I found myself in a unique position to provide really important health and security news to people who would not have had access to that information otherwise for several weeks at the height of the crisis. This hammered home for me the life-and-death impact that access to news can have on a person and that I wanted to be a part of the machine that makes that happen outside of the little niche in which I lived in. I’d been pondering applying to the American Journalism program before that point, but after having first hand experience struggling to chase down what was real and what wasn’t in the middle of an epidemic, I found myself driven to apply.” 

“I’m happy I did. I’m learning so much, and I think it’s making me a better human being.”

Bobby Brier, Scranton, Pennsylvania: “The pandemic affected my decision because I was in law school at the time in Delaware and suddenly everything stopped on March 12th, 2020. The law school sent around an email saying that learning was going to be remote for the rest of the semester and they closed the dorms on campus, so people living there who were from out of town had to move home or find another place to live. I had been commuting from Philly everyday so it was not too much of a sacrifice for me, but it really was for students who relocated their entire lives to attend law school and be on campus. It was very bizarre for everyone and it all happened so fast. After classes at the law school transitioned into remote learning, I began to seriously reconsider whether law school was the right fit for me. I also knew that NYU had just started the online journalism degree program and was very interested in that. After a lot of consideration, I decided to follow my heart and apply. I’m really happy I made that decision and have enjoyed the program since beginning it in September of 2020.”

Caitlin Hornik dancing in her living room via a Zoom dance class.  [Photo courtesy of Caitlin Hornik]

Caitlin Hornik dancing in her living room via a Zoom dance class.  [Photo courtesy of Caitlin Hornik]

Caitlin Hornik, Long Island, New York: “I was performing and writing full-time when the pandemic hit. At the time I was working for a travel writing company. Travel and entertainment were probably two of the hardest industries that were hit, so I lost all of my jobs. I had been looking at masters programs for a while. I knew that if I was going to do it, it had to be NYU and it had to be journalism—those were non-negotiables. I searched one day and I found the American Journalism program, and thought, oh, this is definitely what I’m looking for! I applied at the end of June, had my interview, and then in July got the acceptance letter. So the pandemic really steered me towards this program and this path.”

Michelle Mackey, Delray Beach, Florida:“I’d been furloughed from my new copywriting job in NYC. Like many, I felt pretty helpless. I just spent the last three months trying to land this job and I never even got a chance to really start it. So, I thought what can I do during this time to come out of the situation stronger than before? I’d always dreamt of becoming a journalist and getting a Masters degree, so the timing just felt right. I was ecstatic to be accepted into NYU and having the opportunity to learn from great journalists has been so rewarding.”

Nikki Main, New York, New York: “When the pandemic started last year, I was actually working for a publishing house and managing the editorial department. Around April I started re-evaluating what I wanted to do. I created a whole slideshow for my fiancé that included the points that I wanted to quit my job, I wanted to go back to school…this is something I’m really passionate about. I embedded a video for the program, there were links. It was about a ten-page slide.”

“Right away he was like, yeah, let’s do it. So I did a complete career change and quit my job the week before the program started and just committed to it ever since. I just got a job at a small newspaper as well. So it all ended up working out really great. I know this sounds really bad, but I’m kind of glad that I was given the opportunity to be confined to my apartment, just because it gave me a lot of time to think and kind of reassess my life.”

Kat Nguyen, San Francisco, California: “The pandemic really made me think about my longer term goals and how to structure a lifestyle that would allow me to hone my interests over time while making a meaningful impact. This prompted me to do research into graduate programs that focused on storytelling across diverse media and new technologies. When I found out the NYU American Journalism program pilot had extended its deadline due to the pandemic, it felt like serendipity! It was a rush to apply and get in, but I feel so lucky to have found my place here – the professors and my classmates have been inspiring! I’m excited to grow and for what’s ahead.

“At the time, I was (and still am) working as a software designer in AI which I find intellectually exciting but I’m still a humanities girl at heart. I wanted to explore and hear the world’s stories and learn to share my own. It was also a time when there was much unrest and I admired the craft of both public and citizen journalists who brought to light these issues and moved the nation to action. I had also been long interested in data journalism as a new storytelling design medium so wanted a structured opportunity to develop it and my writing along with a community with good energy.” 

Sonya Singh and her brother attend a drive-in concert last fall. It was their one live-music experience during the pandemic, and they've never been happier to hang out in a parking lot. [Photo courtesy of Sonya Singh]

Sonya Singh and her brother attend a drive-in concert last fall. It was their one live-music experience during the pandemic, and they’ve never been happier to hang out in a parking lot. [Photo courtesy of Sonya Singh]

Sonya Singh, Riverside, California: “Early in the pandemic, I heard an editor friend talk about making the most of extra time in 2020. Even though it’s a stressful period, he said we should try to learn something online, or connect with someone, or tackle an item that’s been on our list. That was one of the pushes I needed to start the American Journalism program — grad school had been one of my bigger “list” items for a while. I also work as a media adviser in an undergraduate journalism program, and two colleagues were retiring in spring 2020. Our department wanted me to begin teaching some of their classes, which was a great opportunity, but I’d need to be in a grad program to make that happen. Everything began to overlap.

It did make for a busy year, but when everyone is staying put and we’re all on Zoom already, there were also unusual benefits to starting at that time. In those ways, the pandemic made this program more doable, though reporting can be trickier. On the other hand, I feel fortunate to be in an online master’s program designed to work online before the pandemic. It’s pretty amazing that we can learn from professors, professionals, guest speakers and peers based in so many locations.”

Jennifer Taylor, Wheaton, Illinois: “The pandemic didn’t have an effect on my application to NYU’s AJO. When I decided to apply to graduate school, I had discovered NYU’s master’s in journalism after they had closed the application pool for its inaugural year. I was disappointed at first, but decided to see how I felt about it after another year went by. So by the time the pandemic hit, my application was pending. The fact that I was admitted while the pandemic was taking root actually solidified my decision. What else would I be doing anyway? My only question was: How would NYU deal with the reporting aspect of the program while keeping students out of harm’s way. Like the real world of journalism, we all pivoted to realistic reporting practices. It may not be ideal, but none of this is. Yet, it still worked.” this is okay~

Barbi Walker-Walsh, Tempe, Arizona: “Because of the pandemic and the dramatic effect on my career. I’m a veteran flight attendant. I had the time and reason to think about what’s next. I took advantage of the company leaves and decided I wanted to transition back into journalism. With the pandemic and the uncertainty of my flying situation in the future, I was more open to non-traditional in-person grad-school alternatives. NYU had always been my dream university, and when my husband showed me that they had an online journalism program, for the second time! I knew now was the time to take advantage of my current predicament and jumped at the chance to attend NYU online. I couldn’t be happier that I did!”

Hannah Sparks says ‘goodbye’ to the New York Post office in Midtown as pandemic lockdown took full effect in March 2020. [Photo courtesy of Hannah Sparks]

Hannah Sparks says ‘goodbye’ to the New York Post office in Midtown as pandemic lockdown took full effect in March 2020. [Photo courtesy of Hannah Sparks]

In what ways did the pandemic make you more resourceful as a reporter? In what ways did it present challenges?

Brier: “I think I became more resourceful as a reporter because I knew I could not just walk out the door and begin conducting an interview like I may have been able to do before the pandemic. I needed to plan out how I was going to report and be flexible with my time so that I could do an interview over Zoom. I knew that I needed to have all my questions prepared in advance, too.”

“I think one of the added benefits of doing a Zoom interview during the pandemic was that it took out some of the logistics of having to go to a source in person. I could just send someone a Zoom link and then begin speaking to them. On the other hand, one of the challenges with reporting during the pandemic was that I missed some of the small details of in-person reporting that help to make a story come to life. When I did conduct in-person interviews, I was so concerned with making sure the audio was recording and that I was socially distanced that I did not always pay attention to the smaller details that help to make a story stronger.”

Richard DiCicco and his girlfriend adopted Mabel during the pandemic. [Images courtesy of Richard DiCicco]

Richard DiCicco and his girlfriend adopted Mabel during the pandemic. [Images courtesy of Richard DiCicco]

Richard DiCicco, Richmond, Virginia: “The biggest challenge for me was trying to figure out creative solutions and it helped that I was in class. We all had to change our projects on a dime and had to think, well, how do you get information; how do you do an investigation when you can’t go out there and do some gum shoe, on the block reporting? Well, the way you do that is you rely on some data journalism, flex those internet sleuth skills. Because everybody’s isolated at home, it’s actually easier to get a hold of some people digitally than it used to.”

“The worst thing the pandemic did was fully consume the news cycle, from mid-March of 2020 until the end of the semester, it was just COVID all day long. You felt like an idiot writing about anything else, or even considering it.”

Hannah Sparks, Brooklyn, New York: “For my job, it hasn’t changed much. A majority of my reporting was being done remote. In terms of personal projects, it has pushed me to explore how narratives can be cultivated through research and data — in the absence of firsthand human experience.”

Hornik: “When the pandemic hit, I turned to writing to cope. That was a thing that I did, and it was mostly creative. It definitely steered me and I guess prepared me a little bit more for journalism, but if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I don’t think I would be here. It’s kind of that clear cut. I think I’d still be performing. I don’t know that I would have prioritized this or been given the gift of time to do it and pursue it and really like a hundred percent commit to it, the way that I’ve been able to. So it’s definitely a blessing in disguise, anyway you cut it.”

Taylor: “I came into the AJO program with 13 years of print newspaper experience behind me,but before the internet age. This program has given me the space and time to grasp the technological advances of journalism since the mid-2000s. I came from an era where everything I reported, I reported by hand from a reporter’s notebook. Not a single editor over the years ever asked me or questioned me about my sources. Never did I ever have to supply contact information for my sources. So this program with the pandemic currently in the backdrop, allowed me to focus more on my interviewing skills. It has allowed me to learn how to use all kinds of recording devices such as Otter.ai, my go to transcription service. I’ve also learned that sources are more open to interviewing via Zoom nowadays. This works well when I have to interview someone out of state. I have also learned that the longer a person is interviewed over Zoom, the more likely they are to drop their guard and speak more freely. This has happened a few times and was somewhat unexpected.”

Walker-Walsh: “I became savvier with the internet and many tech tools to get the job done. The pandemic was a massive challenge for me as a journalist. In the past, as an undergrad and freelance journalist, going to the places and people I was reporting on, and the fact that I am a “people” type person, was essential to me and my stories. I was adapting to the pandemic as a student journalist. The lack of physical access to sources and places was my biggest challenge.”

Allison Wallis, 40, Haleiwa, Hawaii: “I’ve been living a version of the pandemic life for years. As someone with chronic health issues and disabilities, I’m homebound a lot. Any reporting I’ve done has been from home, by phone or online. I think since I don’t have the option to interview people on the mainland or neighbor islands in person, I’ve just kind of eliminated that option from my mind, so it doesn’t seem too challenging to work from home.”

Boersma: “We only really felt the pandemic for a couple of months in China (for those in Hubei province, which was the epicenter, the impact lasted a month or two longer), and during that time, I was mostly chasing down accurate information from the local Chinese government where I live. What struck me at the time was how quickly things changed every day, sometimes multiple times a day. People in charge of making decisions for everyone were put in the unenviable position of adopting a plan that no one knew would work and making sure everyone followed it. And sometimes the questions I was asking didn’t have answers that day, sometimes it would be days or weeks before there would be real answers to a problem. It was just the nature of dealing with something unprecedented. Emotions were high, everyone was frustrated by trying to work together to stay calm and keep each other calm despite the uncertainty.”

Hannah Sparks working from home. [Photo courtesy of Hannah Sparks]

Hannah Sparks working from home. [Photo courtesy of Hannah Sparks]

When and what was the last event or activity that you haven’t been able to do since your stay-at-home experience began?

Singh: “The last event that was a “last event” for me was live music, something I love. I saw two shows in the week before the shutdown, and, by the second one, we were starting to feel uneasy about crowds. Now, I’m glad I had those experiences — that connection that’s both communal and personal and always able to pull me out of the world for a couple hours. One of those shows was Patti Smith, who I’d wanted to see for years and it just hadn’t worked out, so I’m really grateful. There have been some admirable efforts to make live music translate to other platforms — and I’ve definitely tuned in — but there’s no way to replicate what happens in person, not nearly. I caught one drive-in concert in the fall and I’ve never been so happy to hang out in a parking lot. The day we can safely return to venues will be such a gift.”

Sparks: “So many! Here’s one: My husband and I had just moved into a new apartment in Feb 2020. For the first time we had enough space for a dining table, and I couldn’t wait to host my friends for a housewarming dinner party. I am no happier than when I can bring people together to enjoy each other’s company and good food. But within just 2-3 weeks of moving in, lockdown began. On the bright side my place is looking pretty good with all the time I’ve had to decorate, so it will be quite the debut!”

Wallis: Everything. I’ve been homebound for a damn year. No parties, no grocery store or pharmacy trips, no Target <sobs>, no movies or concerts, no going over to friends to hang out, no traveling.

Main: “I keep going back to my birthday which is March 7th. That weekend was probably the last normal weekend that we had before the pandemic. Nicholas and I went to Vermont for the weekend for my birthday and we went skiing and it was amazing. After we finished skiing, we went out; there was a live band playing and the bar was so crowded. That was the last good day. It was the last time that I wasn’t afraid.”

Allison Wallis started raising monarch butterflies on Hawaiii where she lives.
[Photo courtesy of Allison Wallis]

What significance does it carry, particularly as this year has elapsed?

Hornik: “For as much suffering as there was, it’s hard because I have survivor’s guilt: I’ve found something, I set my mind to it and I’m pursuing this new thing, it’s fun and I love it, but there is this part of me that is so distraught because I’m not performing. So it’s a really weird dynamic to navigate: I carry around this grief because I was in a really good place before the pandemic hit. And I felt like I was finally gaining this traction and thought I was going to have a good year. So to grapple with that pain and that guilt, it’s very real. I’ve only just started to acknowledge it and work through it. To have that juxtaposed with this joy and newfound passion, it’s wild. It definitely has informed a lot of the pieces I’ve worked on so far, which is really cool.”

Wallis: “I’ve learned I’m a social introvert—when I’m in crowds I have a good time and am not a wallflower (it’s hard to be a wallflower when you’re a wheelchair user anyway). So I’m not missing people as much as an extrovert would, but I do miss socializing with people outside of my kid and husband. Paradoxically, with my husband and daughter home constantly, I never get the solitude I need in order to write and be creative. So my introverted part is suffering.”

DiCicco: “Unfortunately there was a sudden death in the family, not related to COVID, but it happens. And we couldn’t go to the funeral, you know, like normally on short notice you could just get on a plane and go but you couldn’t. So we had to watch it virtually, which was very bizarre. It was like a big zoom meeting for a funeral, which felt surreal.”

“But there were also things in Richmond called First Fridays where you would just walk down the block in the arts district, go in and out of galleries. Sometimes they’d have drinks and food and you could talk to the artists and you could mingle and sometimes walk in on weird performances. Some of my fondest memories as a 20-something here have been going out into the city and seeing what the artists were up to and seeing performances. I really miss gallery shows and I miss live music. I would go to stadium shows and little punk shows. I love that energy of being crammed in shoulder to shoulder, moshing or having somebody spill beer on you. It’s something I didn’t realize how much I missed until it was completely gone.”

Maeve Dunigan adopted Mr. Cat during the pandemic. [Photo courtesy of Maeve Dunigan]

Maeve Dunigan adopted Mr. Cat during the pandemic. [Photo courtesy of Maeve Dunigan]

How did the pandemic increase or decrease your productivity?

Maeve Dunigan, New York, NY: “At the beginning of the pandemic, I was so overwhelmed and confused and I had so much extra time on my hands. I would have weeks of hyper-productivity followed by weeks where I did absolutely nothing at all. Obviously, this wasn’t the best work schedule. Eventually, after many months, I fell into a rhythm that worked for me. Overall, I don’t think it increased or decreased my productivity, it just made me rethink the time I spend being productive.”

Hornik: “I think my pandemic story is interesting, because I went obviously from so much to nothing. And then I had a six month window from mid-March to mid-September where I was unemployed looking for jobs, taking tons of dance classes, but also slowing down. I enjoyed this slower pace for the first time. I think that’s why I allowed myself to feel nurtured and to take care of myself in a very real and holistic way and authentic way. Then in September I did a total 180 again, and started a new full-time job and school in the same week.”

Sparks: “On balance, not much. I just do my thing I guess and I’ve been blessed to have spared any personal or familial trauma last year. Just glad to be here!”

Taylor: “Early on in the pandemic, I changed my walking route. Instead of walking through my suburban neighborhood like I had for years and years, I instead walked along the perimeter of it on larger arterial roads. I honestly didn’t want to run into any neighbors. I live in a conservative county that recently flipped blue. So there’s a split of mask wearers and non-mask wearers. I chose to wear a mask and isolate myself from others even on my outdoor walks. I bought a bird feeder. That’s been fun. I devoted myself to curbside dining at three restaurants and rotated them. My book club met outside during the warm weather. When it got cold, attendance split between those who wanted to meet in person and those who met via Zoom. I chose Zoom. I can say that split falls along political lines. It’s been interesting.”

Walker-Walsh: “It worked both ways. At first, I took advantage of the lack of deadlines and report times and did nothing but sleep, eat and drink a lot. But once in grad school, I took advantage of e-learning through NYU’s LinkedIn. I listened to a podcast one morning while I was walking our dogs, which was by an author whose book I had wanted to read, “The Miracle Morning” by Hal Elrod. In the podcast, he talked about doing these six specific things for 10 minutes each first thing in the morning to start your day: Silence, Affirmations, Visualization, Exercise, Read and Scribe. The idea is that after this first hour of focusing your mind on what you want to accomplish, you will accelerate your productivity and reduce spinning your wheels. I started doing them the very next day, and over the last few months, I became more productive than I’d ever been, especially in the pandemic. I highly recommend it if you struggle managing your time and focusing on your goals, as I do.”

Boersma: “I am in a strange situation in which I would have had to do a lot of my interviews and reporting from afar anyway since I live in China and quite a few of the stories I’ve worked on have not occurred in China. The pandemic actually made this a lot easier in that people were available at odd times and up for chatting over video calls. Because the pandemic forced everyone else to get more resourceful, it made my life easier. I don’t sleep very well on weeks where I’m doing a lot of international reporting, though, as often I’m still up late or early interviewing or preparing for interviews.”

This in no way has been easy on anyone. But, I am an optimistic person. I always believe that “when a door shuts, another one opens.” You just have to be present enough to see the door opening. I saw my door opening when I sent my application into NYU. I saw my daughter’s door opening when she persisted with the editor of Local News Now to take a chance on her. I saw a door opening for my son to have a close knit group of friends who all decided to stay virtual even after the high school reopened its doors for a hybrid teaching model. So when a door shuts, I am not ruffled. Instead, I’m looking around because I know the opening is there. It’s right there. – Jennifer Taylor

Brier: “I think overall it probably decreased my productivity because I was sitting around so much. I have a tendency to get more things done in a day if I am able to get up and move around and travel, but because everything was shut down I felt as if I was not as motivated to get as much done as I would have before the pandemic.”

DiCicco: “I think it increased in some ways and decreased in others—like my motivation sinking. I think it’s because there’s not a physical separation between work and life. There’s a limited number of places I go, so everything starts to bleed together. You don’t get that change of place you do when there’s an office or a park. I used to write at the park a lot. So I feel like some of my motivation and some of my, like, inspiration as a writer has been sapped a little bit because I feel kind of locked down. But my personal productivity has shot up a bunch because I feel like I have infinite time, especially ‘cause my classes are night classes and I can kind of work anytime during the day that I want. I also picked up the guitar again, I hadn’t played in years.”

Michelle Mackey picked up cooking during the pandemic. This is the first Thanksgiving meal she has ever made. [Photo courtesy of Michelle Mackey]

Michelle Mackey picked up cooking during the pandemic. This is the first Thanksgiving meal she has ever made. [Photo courtesy of Michelle Mackey]

Because of the stay-at-home orders and resultant changes of “normal” life, did you pick up an interesting skill or hobby, or change your TV watching habits, food/drink consumption, financial approach, exercise regimen, etc?

Wallis: These are all things I did when I became mostly homebound, so I didn’t have to change anything for the pandemic.

Boersma: “We haven’t had stay-at-home orders in around a year. During the few weeks we were stuck at home, we were super happy that we’d just gotten the kids a Nintendo Switch for Christmas and had splurged on some fitness games for it. Also, a couple weeks in, we added a rowing machine. But I was so busy with my stuff and the kids’ homeschooling that there wasn’t nearly as much time for hobbies as I would have expected and then suddenly the government officials were pulling off their masks and we were all being told to go outside and it was over.”

“One thing that was kinda cool was that because the neighborhoods/compounds were locked down in their own little bubbles, the neighbor kids formed this roving gang and would hop from house to house, playing at whoever’s house seemed the most fun. Usually the Chinese kids are scheduled to the nines, so it was the first time I’ve seen them out playing in an unstructured way like that en masse (I think everyone’s parents were tired of the homeschooling thing at this point). It was pretty cool and the kids all formed some special bonds during that period that they still share on occasion a year later.”

Brier: “I did start a sports blog and launched that in June. I think I was able to do that because of how much time I had during the stay-at-home orders. In addition to that, I began exercising more in order to get up and move around because I was sitting a lot on my laptop or watching TV.”

Hornik: “I did a lot of different fitness classes. I immediately turned to dance because I needed a way to express myself, but it kind of snowballed from there. Bike riding is the biggest, random thing to come from the pandemic. I actually bought a new helmet today.”

Mackey: “I have been cooking up a storm during quarantine. My obsession with Food Network has expanded into a collection of cookbooks from celebrity chefs and subscriptions to recipe-related content like NYT Cooking.”

Nikki Main and her fiancé Nicholas on an album of photos in which Main documented their pandemic experience over the last year. [Photo courtesy of Nikki Main]

Nikki Main and her fiancé Nicholas on an album of photos in which Main documented their pandemic experience over the last year. [Photo courtesy of Nikki Main]

Main: “All of the above? I became a really good cook. I make a killer chicken tikka masala, it’s so good. My fiancé taught me to play poker. I binge watched Big Bang Theory. We did different things to keep ourselves occupied because New York City apartments were not meant to be quarantined in. One night we did karaoke in the living room, just the two of us. It’s hilarious to see an Irishman sing country music. I’m cleaner now, the apartment’s a lot cleaner. Cause what else did I have to do? I just cleaned. So that’s a habit that hasn’t gone away, thankfully.”

Singh: “Oddly, my life found more structure during early stay-at-home orders, as we faced these potentially formless days working from home, and I hadn’t started this program yet. I’m the type of person who forgets to eat because I get caught up working, so forcing myself to stick to a schedule unexpectedly led to more exercise, quality time with my piano, and meals eaten at “normal” human being times. Even though the world was on edge, I’ll also look back on that time with a strange appreciation for that schedule, the time recovered that would’ve been spent in traffic, and the amount of comfortable clothing that came with it.”

Sparks: “Were I a better version of myself I would have done all those things. But we did get pretty damn good at homemade pizza!”

Taylor: “I’m probably an outlier on this question. Right when my first semester started at AJO, I was offered a freelancing gig at a startup magazine. I took it. I also took two AJO classes. I underestimated the workload. It was a very hard four months between the two. I also developed a health condition in the late fall that has since slowed me down. But the pandemic has given me an excuse to not do other things (like socialize) while I keep up with my school and freelance work. So the pandemic has been good for that.”

Walker-Walsh: “No. I wish I would have. Okay, well yes, I started grad school, lol. Also, my workouts took a depressing nose dive. But because of that, I got connected to an amazing Instagram fitness trainer in LA. She started Zoom classes for her students during the pandemic and opened it up to anyone. I’ve become friendly with her and the students in the virtual weekly classes. I had tried another Zoom workout with a close friend but it just never really took off. But this one did. This is something I wouldn’t have tried pre-pandemic.”

A few of Barbi Walker-Walsh’s favorite things: coffee and her NYU acceptance letter. [Photo courtesy of Barbi Walker-Walsh]

A few of Barbi Walker-Walsh’s favorite things: coffee and her NYU acceptance letter. [Photo courtesy of Barbi Walker-Walsh]

What surprised you about yourself in your experience of the pandemic?

Mackey: “How much I don’t know and how much I’m capable of learning. Both in the program and in my personal life, I’ve kept an open mind in absorbing new skills and perspectives, not just to earn a degree, but to be a better and more informed human.”

Main: “I think I didn’t realize how resilient I am. I have a mental illness with bipolar disorder. You would think it would have been especially hard for me and somehow it wasn’t: I used the pandemic as an opportunity for growth and I basically just made a list of all these things that I wanted to accomplish and all these things that I wanted to do. I’ve grown more during this pandemic as a person than I have in the last five years. When I look back a year ago, I don’t recognize that person. I’m totally different. I really used the pandemic to just make myself a better person.”

“It’s incredibly shocking to me that I was able to look at it in such a positive way. You know, I looked at it as an opportunity to work out more and to pursue something I wanted to do and, you know, just find all of these different ways to be happy. And I think that is the most surprising thing to me that I wasn’t more sad or more upset that the pandemic happened.”

Nguyen: “I was surprised at how much productivity is tied to inner peace and happiness for me, and how important it was to actively be aware of my energy levels. The gap between my day to day routine and limited interactions during the lockdown with the imagined world outside from the news became very disorienting. I also learned how much of a role the environment plays in physical and mental health, and the power a change of scenery can bring.”

Sparks: “I’m not surprised but feeling very reaffirmed by how well my husband and I get along.”

Taylor: “My strength and conviction to follow the rules when so many people around me were breaking the rules. I’ve just never waivered. I have also found a steady stream of solace. I don’t mind the isolation. I am incredibly patient. And, I’ve found out how fast time flies during a global slowing down. I enjoy just thinking about things.”

Walker-Walsh: “That I got into grad school AT NYU in a pandemic!”

Wallis: “Well, just this morning I filed a Civil Rights complaint with the federal Dept of Health and Human Services against the State of Hawaii for discriminating against high-risk people in their vaccination protocols, so I’d say I’m becoming a better advocate and activist for myself and my daughter, and other disabled people in my state and in the country.”

Boersma: “This one is a really personal question for me. I had always assumed that in the case of an emergency, I’d flee China as fast as I could. I keep some cash stashed away just in case I need to buy my family a batch of emergency plane tickets. But when the pandemic hit, I actually found myself scheming and working every possible angle I could to get back INTO China (we’d left on what we thought was a normal winter holiday and spent an extra week getting back). I never would have predicted that, and it probably makes me a weirdo.”

Bobby Brier at his sister’s desk in her childhood bedroom. Brier recently moved home during the pandemic and does most of his work from her desk. [Photo courtesy of Bobby Brier]

Bobby Brier at his sister’s desk in her childhood bedroom. Brier recently moved home during the pandemic and does most of his work from her desk. [Photo courtesy of Bobby Brier]

Brier: “I think what surprised me most was how beneficial traveling and getting out of the house/apartment was before the pandemic. I definitely took that for granted and once the stay-at-home orders were enforced, I realized how draining it could be to only be in one place all the time. I was surprised to find how small events, like going for a walk, could be helpful throughout the day.”

Hornik: “I was on a job when the pandemic hit. I went from being so busy, 24/7, to losing everything in the span of a week. All of a sudden I had all of this free time and it was so foreign. In those moments of discomfort I leaned in while also staying true to myself. So I found joy maintaining my morning routine, but then kind of doing whatever I felt called to do. So it was this really nice dynamic of staying true to myself while not being afraid to steer from a schedule and from routine. I really thrived in a lot of ways, I felt very in tune with myself and I felt very nurtured in a way that I don’t know that I’ve ever been as an adult. That was really beautiful to take care of myself with dance classes, nature walks and hiking in different parks on Long Island and doing these things that I always said I wanted to do, but had never had time to do. So really finding joy and the little moments and embracing the absence of activity and the gift of time instead of running from it. That was amazing.”

Jennifer Taylor, center, on a college visit at the University of Arizona this month with family members. [Photo courtesy of Jennifer Taylor]

What are some of your remarkable wins? Losses?

Taylor: “Gosh, so many wins during the pandemic. My biggest win: getting into NYU. Reawakening the reporter in me who has been dormant since 2007. Feeling like some of my best writing has been in this program. Interviewing intentional people who are trying to heal the world. Watching my husband virtually graduate from DePaul University with his doctorate in business administration; a dream for him. Watching my daughter obtain her first internship, virtual, at a local digital newspaper in the Washington DC suburbs when all the other internships were canceled. Watching my son opt to spend his senior year of high school learning virtually and doing it with grace and patience. Watching my son land a lifeguarding job in the middle of all this uncertainty. Watching my son fall in love with his first girlfriend who he met playing Minecraft with during lockdown last spring.”

“My loss: My memory. In November, I suffered a seizure that has caused me to deal with the loss of short-term memory recall. When it first happened it was very scary. I thought I had amnesia. I thought all I had worked for at NYU etc. would have to be given up. Not so. The condition is being treated. I’m still working through some challenges. I’m sometimes amazed that I can forget something just told to me moments earlier, but then turn around and write 2,000+ words that are pretty damn good. I think the most touching part of that ordeal was having my best friend, a long time neighbor whose children grew up with my children, stand by me. She took me to the ER at the peak of COVID. She sat with me there for 6 hours, in a room packed with people with all kinds of ailments. I told her she didn’t have to. That she should go home and she refused. That kind of humanity really touched me. And it’s not the first time she has made sacrifices like that for me. Neither one of us got Covid.”

Walker-Walsh: “One remarkable win was reconnecting with one of my favorite former editors from The Arizona Republic. He helped me with all my writing submissions, and then I brought him along to NYU as a mentor. Another remarkable win was the surprise friendships I’m making at j-school even though we are all online!”

“A remarkable loss was how easily my husband and son became shut-ins. My husband worked from home already, and my son was learning remotely. They both are science lovers and follow the news more closely than I sometimes do. Those two factors combined made daring to go out very scary. The election and how the last administration handled the pandemic also created an emotional barrier for them to feel comfortable going out. It became easy to judge those who weren’t doing as we were doing, even if it was something like letting others’ kids play sports or neighbors having their grown kids over for dinner. Sadly, my family had so much stress to process simply because there was no leadership. They’ve struggled at reintegrating back into real life.”

Wallis: “Getting into NYU was a big win for me. I’ve also done a bit of accessibility consulting and presenting over zoom. This probably wouldn’t have been seen as an option for my clients without the popularity of zoom exploding during the pandemic.”

“One big loss is that my body is in worse shape than it was last year because I’m not getting out and wheeling anywhere. Using my wheelchair is my main form of cardio and exercise, and my body feels weaker without it.”

 Boersma: “Getting into grad school felt pretty remarkable at the time. As does any time I get someone to take me seriously enough to agree to an interview even though I’m just some grad student living in China.”

Brier: “A remarkable win for me was to be accepted into the NYU AJOM program. I have loved the experience so far and have met so many people who have been kind and encouraging. Another big win was launching my sports blog in June of 2020.”

DiCicco: “The reality of being laid off during a pandemic—that was definitely a huge loss. It’s really hard to say, honestly, I feel like I didn’t win anything in 2020 if I’m being totally honest. Like the best thing I have is my life and my health and family and friends, and I’m grateful for that. But I don’t know if something more came out of 2020. I think maybe I distrust employers a lot more. I got a little more real about my outlook towards employment and individuality. The best thing that’s happened in the past year is that I met people like yourself. I met a lot of the new students who energized me and were incredibly nice to me, really made me feel like I was doing some important, valuable, enjoyable work here and that it wasn’t just me going through the motions. So I think the biggest win was maybe recovering from that period. Other than that I don’t know. I mean, I did all sorts of weird stuff all year, you know?”

Sparks: “I keep the bar manageable: I’m just glad to be gainfully employed, healthy, enjoy companionship. Losses are just possibilities that weren’t meant for me. No remarkable wins though, either. Kept my nose to the grindstone.”

Adriana Letorney’s son and his drawing of a butterfly during lockdown; she caught him imagining the butterfly flying free. [Photo courtesy of Adriana Letorney]

Adriana Letorney’s son and his drawing of a butterfly during lockdown; she caught him imagining the butterfly flying free. [Photo courtesy of Adriana Letorney]

Do you have any takeaways/reflections on your past year, indeed a year which was historic in many ways?

Adriana Letorney, Stowe, Vermont: “The pandemic remains a constant reminder of how fragile our life is. As a mother, it became a priority to learn about mental health, and find ways to empower our son with skills, tools and resources to overcome unforeseen challenges like this virus. I wanted to show him that our fear and vulnerability would not control our present or future. Facing our fears could teach us about the values of education, science, resilience, innovation, creativity, and the magic in love. He smiles, and a lot—these days. My takeaway is that facing our fears taught our son that there is hope in despair, and light in the darkest of nights.”

Walker-Walsh: “Yes, I do. I am blown away by the ability of people to use technology to build better relationships. I am not a massive fan of technology. In some ways, I feel it has created more problems in society than helped.”

“But in particular, regarding the above question, my son has managed to not only keep friends, but he has also solidified those friendships during a pandemic, basically locked in a house, sitting behind a computer screen. My husband and I became pretty liberal with his game playing and screen time, and because of this, my son and his classmates have forged what I think will be lifelong friendships. That despite a pandemic, these kids used technology to stay connected with each other, bond and grow their relationships. It has been fun to listen to them talk, laugh and even correct each other in their virtual world.”

“Even my mom and aunts have reconnected during the pandemic via FaceTime. When my 79-year-old mother ended up needing to have a giant tumor removed last year, my aunts and cousins all came from out of town to see her. It was stressful that they wanted to visit her in person as the pandemic raged in my home state given my mother also has COPD. But after my mother’s surgery, the three sisters started a weekly FaceTime call. They are still calling each other every week, four months later. They still act like sisters do and laugh, chastise, lecture and tease each other. Even though they sometimes suck at technology, these three octogenarians managed to reconnect. I find this very inspiring because they had all lost touch with each other over the years. Distance and differences in lives pushed them apart, but cancer and the pandemic brought them back together.”

Wallis: “I hope that the accommodations that were extended to everyone will still be extended to disabled and chronically ill people once the pandemic is over. Especially telehealth options. I have 15 specialists who are all 60-90 minutes away. On bad days I would have to cancel appts. Now I can just log on to my computer.”

“There’s a social model of disability that basically says that society is the cause of many people’s disabilities.” 

“I think that the pandemic disabled all of us in a way, because our society wasn’t set up for any of it. Now that we’ve figured out accommodations, many of us have adjusted to this new way of life. And with millions of people becoming Covid Long-Haulers, we will still need those accommodations, both for them and for other disabled people.”

Theresa Boersma helped organize this February 2021 class that taught foreigners how to make rabbit lanterns. [Photo courtesy of Theresa Boersma]

Theresa Boersma helped organize this February 2021 class that taught foreigners how to make rabbit lanterns. [Photo courtesy of Theresa Boersma]

Boersma: “If a government you don’t always agree with tells you to wear a mask, it’s not going to kill you to do that and it might actually help. People mean well but fear is an ugly beast with many teeth and horns. Also, when David Sedaris said being a foreigner in a country ‘is the lowest life form,’ he was right. There’s nothing like a major catastrophe to show you where you are in the pecking order of society.”

Brier: “I don’t know if I do right now. I still feel like for the most part I am still going through the motions of being in the pandemic and reporting from home. Hopefully in a few months, once more and more people are vaccinated, I’ll be able to reflect on what this year has meant to me.”

DiCicco: “The Capitol riot haunts me—not just as an act of terror but as a harbinger of things to come. There’s an unresolved, mounting tension in this country, and I worry that a new administration gives most Americans an excuse to ignore extremism rather than address it. As an arts journalist, it makes me doubt myself; shouldn’t I focus on shining a light on these problems? Maybe. But art can also discuss the same issues, perhaps with a little more optimism. So I have to have some faith in that.”

Main: “I think it was really hard actually for me at one point because I felt guilty. I looked at the pandemic as a major opportunity, I overcame all of these milestones, and we’re in a good place with our careers and everything. There were times I would feel guilty for how we’ve been able to cope and manage because I would look at the news and see all of these millions of people who have lost their jobs. I felt guilty because my life was getting better as other people’s lives were getting worse. I felt guilty because I was happy that we were in this position of being able to grow. It was something I vocalized a lot over the course of the last year, just this overwhelming sense of guilt, for what other people lost and the fact that I’ve gained so much in the last year.”

Singh: “I know that I’m not done reflecting and processing the past year, because in many ways we’re still in it. Perhaps the greatest takeaway from 2020, for me, comes from seeing what people do in the face of fear and uncertainty. Watching healthcare workers take on something so colossal, watching people join together for racial justice, watching reporters battle misinformation — even just the small but meaningful ways people are getting through their days and helping others do the same — has been something incredible in the midst of a chaotic, heavy year. It’s been a reminder that we don’t actually have to overcome fear or resolve uncertainty. Instead, we learn how to exist with it and move through it and, hopefully, use it to do something constructive. Seeing someone do that is such a motivator to try to do the same.”

Sparks: “Humans are highly social and while we love to gather in-person but that may not be an option for so many around the world for so many different reasons, even prior to the pandemic. I think learning how to connect intimately with people virtually is so incredibly valuable, for talking to friends as well as meeting fascinating people. In particular, I hope this year brings attention to communities without internet access. I also believe events of this year are going to inform a smarter internet and freedom of speech policies going forward, which is what we need as we get the whole world connected.”

Taylor: “This in no way has been easy on anyone. But, I am an optimistic person. I always believe that “when a door shuts, another one opens.” You just have to be present enough to see the door opening. I saw my door opening when I sent my application into NYU. I saw my daughter’s door opening when she persisted with the editor of Local News Now to take a chance on her. I saw a door opening for my son to have a close knit group of friends who all decided to stay virtual even after the high school reopened its doors for a hybrid teaching model. So when a door shuts, I am not ruffled. Instead, I’m looking around because I know the opening is there. It’s right there.”

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