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What We Learned in 100 Days of Life Interrupted


Young people in the United States are living through interesting times, as the coronavirus pandemic uproots the country’s economy and changes what college will look like.

When schools sent students home in March, we asked four first-generation college students in Newark, N.J. to document this stage of their lives in images and text.

“Life really is one massive roller coaster, with spins and turns, and highs and lows. Right now, we may all be experiencing a low, but we are bound to go up sometime,” is how Jacob Amaro, a Rutgers University student, put it. Come along for the ride.

Home, which is for me the house I live in with my parents and seven siblings, has always been paradoxical in nature. At times the place I want most to be, it has also been the place I want most to run away from. Right now, I see the beauty in the feuds we have, the messes we make, the activities we do to keep ourselves busy — and having two parents who would do anything to keep us safe and happy. — Jacob Amaro.

My room currently looks like a storage room after moving out of my college dorm. I’m living in a confined apartment space with my family members with absolutely nothing to do but interact with each other. — Ashley Mendoza.

My mother cleans and polishes everything until it squeaks, and my father rehearses the same songs on his guitar. Mostly, they passively watch the news and share Facebook memes. — Yeimy Gamez Castillo.

Being a first-generation college student, I worked hard to make it to this point to make my family proud. God blessed me with scholarships to graduate debt-free. Unfortunately, my last semester of living on campus was cut short and my commencement ceremony has been suspended. I’ve used my time to focus a lot more on music. Music is medicine. My main instrument is guitar. I practice every day, and I strive to create music that will heal others. — Johnathan Christie.

Mr.Christie practiced guitar in his room

Routines are forming as my family and I have become used to this momentary reality. The angst and chaos in the first weeks have subsided. I’ve taken up early-morning exercises and meditation, and have regenerated a love for reading. This time has taught me that I can teach myself anything I’d like; my self-discipline is the determining factor. — Yeimy Gamez Castillo.

Holy Week is dedicated to the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is typically the week I most anticipate each year, because I am given the opportunity to disconnect from the noise around me and focus instead on solemn moments with my community at church. As much as I love my family, I felt that the solemn moments would be soiled by the younger ones, who are yet unable to sit still for more than two minutes. I was right: There were moments during the rituals when we broke into laughter, paused to tend to the younger ones or did something we were not necessarily supposed to. What I wasn’t right about was how those moments of deviation from the “standard” would make me feel a good “different,” something new and utterly beautiful. — Jacob Amaro.


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The Amaro family sang by candlelight during Holy Week.CreditCredit…Jacob Amaro

It’s easy to lose your peace of mind after spending so much time in the same place and with the same people without having an alternative. I haven’t been allowed to leave my house, not even once. On the other side of the spectrum, quarantine has allowed me to bond with my mother and get a taste of some of her favorite hobbies. Her free time has been consumed by baking and sewing. She’s a bread lover, and I’ve slowly been getting addicted to bread as well, particularly the ones that she bakes with patience and love. — Ashley Mendoza.

Two bedrooms, one bathroom, five people. My little sister does not have her own room. My dad sacrifices sleeping in the living room so my sister can share a bed with my mom. — Johnathan Christie.

My grandparents tested positive for Covid-19 and became extremely ill. At a certain point, I believed their final moments were near, their voices over the phone so frail. Those couple of weeks were rough for me. Then came Easter, and I lived an experience I’ll never forget, one that brought me hope and gave me peace. That same day, my grandparents told me they were feeling more “alive.” — Jacob Amaro.

I place affirmations all around my room, in the places I know I glance most and spots that might catch me by surprise when I most need it. My affirmation, “Practice makes practice,” is a reminder that practice builds a discipline for consistent growth. My room has always been a safe haven. I enjoy filling my space with small reminders of the many feelings of hope, joy and all my dreams. As I sit on my desk to work through an essay or song, I am surrounded by my favorite writers. From my desk, I can see all the small symbols of hope like my miniature Tibetan peace flags hanging from a suspended plant on my window. I am enthralled by lights, colors, art, affirmations. My room shows me the places I have been and where I am headed. — Yeimy Gamez Castillo.

The coronavirus has canceled a lot of our plans, but it can’t cancel our hope, nor can it stop us from sharing in our friends and families’ happiness. As I write this reflection, Thais — a longtime friend whom I met through my community at church — is in labor at a clinic in Westwood, N.J., and she has been texting me with updates: “ … the baby’s heartbeat went down to 90 … my blood pressure got really high and my oxygen levels went down … they put me on oxygen … now I’m OK … ” — Jacob Amaro.

My baby cousin, Luciana, was born in August and I haven’t been able to see her often because of college. Sadly, quarantine hit us, and it soon became even harder to maintain contact. My mom is a baby lover, so her instinct was to scream when she saw my baby cousin again. It’s crazy what two months can do. Luciana grew up so much, she even started to develop her first teeth. — Ashley Mendoza.

Quarantine has been more like a failing heating system. Some days it’s extremely cold, almost unbearable. No amount of sweaters, comfort food or escapism can save you from your hurt and bitter thoughts. Other days, it’s neutral. It’s balanced out to a lukewarm atmosphere. These are the more hopeful days that feel like you have more control. Days like this fly by like summer nights; they are alluring and full of wishful whispers seeping faith into the rusty corners inside. Inevitably, the polar of your coldest days come, and you’re sweating uncomfortably before you know it. — Yeimy Gamez Castillo.

I decided to make my mom’s favorite cake, tres leches, on my own. We ordered balloons for her, a fluffy teddy bear, and simply dedicated the day to allow my mom to rest as we roamed around the house and kept everything clean and in order. But at the end of the night, I found her crying as she held her pillow. I didn’t know why I first. Then, I remembered that my mother didn’t have the same opportunity to say happy Mother’s Day to her mother. “I can’t wait to go to sleep tonight because I know that I’ll dream about her,” she said. That was when I knew that I have been taking this quarantine for granted. Yes, my life has changed so drastically. But at least I have the chance to hold my mother now more than ever. — Ashley Mendoza.

My godfather delivered news that my godmother had been on life support, because of Covid-19, for a couple of days. She worked as an immigration lawyer, helping people attain U.S. citizenship, and led a Latino choir at St. Stephen church in Paterson, N.J. She had a manner of bringing cheer and joy into any situation. The last time I talked to her, I was confused about a lot of things. I didn’t know what classes to take, nor what I wanted to do with my life. And she told me that, so long as I made time for God, so long as I continued to follow him, the paths would continue to open for me. My godmother’s passing filled me with sadness. I lost motivation to do anything. I took a break from everything. Days went on. But again, I found solace in prayer and in talking to the people around me. I realized that my godmother wouldn’t want me to be sad. — Jacob Amaro.

Three months later, here I am, with much higher hopes for the future. I am thankful for this quarantine. Although there has been a lot of disappointment, it pulled things out of me that I never knew I had in me. — Johnathan Christie.

I have gotten to know myself better by realizing I didn’t know myself much at all. There were parts that I felt were fabricated by surrounding environment, like a charade that has helped me survive. Other parts are hidden from the world out of a deep fear of intrusion. Quarantine has helped me ask myself the tough questions: Why are you afraid to disappoint or displease people? Why are you afraid to unapologetically be your fullest self? Can you forgive yourself? Can you forgive others? What are the best next steps for your healing — without considering what others may need from you? — Yeimy Gamez Castillo.

Ms.Castillo’s graduation speech and song performance.

Who knows how everything will be after the pandemic? How will people interact? Will we have a cure? How will life on campus be like? How expensive will everything be by then? How will our political climate look like? There are still so many unanswered questions but we still have to remain optimistic and hope for the best. I can’t wait to be on campus again. I can’t wait until we get the chance to travel again. — Ashley Mendoza.

Edited by Elijah Walker and Sandra Stevenson. Journal entries are edited for length and clarity. This feature was produced in collaboration with Newest Americans, a multimedia laboratory in Newark, Talking Eyes, a nonprofit social change media company and Newark Public Schools. The students were part of a reporting project called Stories from the Pandemic where students documented this stage of their lives in images and text. To read more of their stories, visit the Stories from the Pandemic website.


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