Two Penn students traveled across America to document the pandemic’s impact on their generation

Alan Jinich couldn’t take it anymore: sitting at a desk in his rented residence, taking his online courses at the University of Pennsylvania.

It was fall 2020, the era of pre-COVID-19 vaccines, and Jinich’s roommate Max Strickberger, an English major who also reveled in his classes, was similarly disillusioned.

“I just felt like I was wasting something I loved so much before,” Strickberger said. “There was so much going on in the world, and we’re sitting in our apartment in Philadelphia.”

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That’s when they started planning something they thought was far more meaningful – a trip across America, from rural towns to cities, from the Deep South to the Midwest, to interview a diverse group , mostly between the ages of 18 and 25, on the impact of the pandemic. their lives. They pulled the 2021 spring semester out of their formal education at Penn, loaded Jinich’s mom’s burnt-red five-seater SUV with food and supplies, and set off on a six-week, 7,300-mile, 23-hour trek. states.

Along the way they met Ferdinand21, who fell on hard times when his fruit stand in Chicago was closed, until he found another business: traveling to Mexico to buy puppies and resell them in the United States for a profit.

And Faith23, who told them she was the first person to test positive for COVID-19 in her Utah county: “I was the guinea pig.”

And Sharon22-year-old restaurant worker from Santa Fe, NM, trying to balance her college education with helping her family, including her drug addict brother and girlfriend, who had a baby, also born a drug addict.

In total, Penn seniors, now back on campus, conducted more than 80 interviews, some in Spanish — Jinich is of Mexican descent and bilingual. They share some of the stories, photos and audio interviews on their website, Pandemic Generationan oral history archive that they hope to grow and eventually turn into a podcast series.

“It was probably worth more — don’t tell Penn — than an online semester,” said Deborah Miller, Strickberger’s mother, a former television producer.

Although Strickberger and Jinich weren’t officially enrolled this semester, Penn professors lent a hand in the unofficial project, including American History. Professor Kathy Peiss, who designed an eight-week program and met with them weekly before hitting the road.

“They just captured my interest,” Peiss said. “And I had time since I was staying at home a lot.”

They read and talked about Studs Terkel’s “Working,” a 1974 collection of oral histories from workers across the country, James Agee’s Let’s now praise the famous men about poor sharecroppers during the Depression and the stories of Washington Post journalist Eli Saslow, Pandemic voice.

Jean-Christophe Cloutier, an associate professor of English and comparative literature, and Sam Apple, who teaches creative writing, are among others whom Strickberger and Jinich have turned to for advice. Strickberger also contacted Jennifer Egana Pulitzer Prize-winning author whom he had taken a course with when she was a visiting professor at Penn.

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“I thought it was a great idea,” Egan said of the project, “such a creative way to respond to an education disruption that they were happily riding around with. That’s why the people end up saying later that disruptions like a pandemic can foster growth and enable possibilities that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.

Miller said she and her husband, a cardiologist, weren’t supportive of the idea at first. They were worried about both their son’s semester absence and his health and safety. Strickberger, 23, and Jinich, 22, were vaccinated before leaving, but they were heading to states where masking and vaccination were not prevalent.

However, Miller said it didn’t take long for his son and Jinich to change their minds.

Pati Jinich, Alan’s mother, needed no convincing.

“They were ready to pause everything and take some time off, which I think was bold,” said Jinich, a chef. “I really applauded that Alan followed his intuition and his thirst to connect and also build a microphone for others to express what they were going through.”

Since childhood, Strickberger loved stories and always asked his mother to read him another one. In high school he started a magazine, InLight, to allow members of marginalized communities to tell their stories. It is now billed as the largest high school social justice publication in Washington D.C.

Strickberger and Jinich — who grew up on the same street in Chevy Chase, Md., and became good friends in high school and best friends at Penn — had some early jitters. Jinich opened the trunk to finish packing and some food came out. A jar of marmalade has been lost. Was it an omen?

They looked at each other. “What do we do?” thought Strickberger.

They had a tentative itinerary. They used an app called social explorer, chart a course with socio-economic and ethnic diversity. Their first stop was Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they conducted three interviews they had arranged in advance through a friend. After that, everything was more spontaneous – and empowering.

One of their next stops was Greensboro, a small town in Alabama. They went to every store on Main Street, but couldn’t find anyone their age to interview.

“Wow, this project could be over before this project starts,” Strickberger thought.

But then someone suggested they go to the grocery store where a manager walked the aisles and easily pointed out potential subjects. They interviewed Makayla, a 23-year-old single mother who lamented the difficulty of working without a raise for several years at a store where mask rules were not enforced.

Then came another place, another challenge.

“Every new city, we were starting from scratch,” Strickberger said.

In Circleville, Utah, they confronted two particularly skeptical subjects who were cousins.

“We spoke with them for 30 minutes before convincing them to let us turn on the recorder,” Strickberger said.

The cousins ​​said they would only talk for 10 minutes.

“Then four hours later,” Jinich said, “we took a tour of their turkey farm, a tour of their mechanic shop.”

“Alan met their grandfather who started the family business, was invited to dinner,” Strickberger said,

Soon they were invited to the high school prom. They were two of four people wearing masks at the 300-person event.

They learned to be patient with those they interviewed, not knowing exactly what they were looking for, but allowing stories, some deeply personal and tragic, but hopeful, to unfold.

“I loved being able to ask and go to a place of intimacy with someone else,” Strickberger said. “It reframed the way I interact with people at school.”

They stayed with Airbnbs and family friends, and camped in South Dakota — a $2,000 trip they mostly covered with a little help from their parents. Neither had COVID-19 on the road. They took COVID-19 tests to protect others, especially when they visited the Navajo Nation, which has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

At the end of each interview, they asked everyone to write in a notebook a response to the prompt “after the pandemic, I want…”

“Go see a live concert…feel the beat from the speakers in my chest and feel the energy of the crowd around me,” one wrote.

“Tell dad the truth,” wrote another, who lost her grandfather to suicide during the pandemic.

A third responded with just two words: “Breathe again.

Jinich and Strickberger also have post-pandemic plans. Although he majored in neuroscience with a minor in English, Jinich, who took the photos, found the trip so rewarding that he wants to pursue similar work as a career.

“Maybe there’s a way to combine it with neuroscience,” he said.

For Strickberger, the experience confirmed that he would love to write stories that lead to change, but he also wants to be involved in actions that lead to that change, like creating affordable housing.

In the more immediate future, Jinich and Strickberger already have plans for the summer. They received a $4,000 grant from Penn’s Sachs Program for Artistic Innovation. They want to see the people they interviewed again and look for new topics in other towns and cities.

“We’re going to hit the road again,” Jinich said.

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