by Munya Haddara
This piece is a representation of the way that everybody, whether we are strangers, or close friends, are living through the same experience. we are physically distanced, but in some ways, as a community, closer than we have ever been, even if we are six feet apart.
COVID-19 From the Perspective of High School Graduate
By Adele Zhao
When my school principal announced the closing of my high school, it was a moment of pure felicity. Everyone was shouting, hearts bursting with joy of getting away from school and minds filled with a delicious imagination of relaxation and fun. I remember my friend looking at me with the biggest smile I have seen on her face since weeks. I was in ecstasy as well. It was in the middle of March, the threshold to the last sprint of the year. Assignments were getting heavy and the future darkening with an army of exams. A break of one or two weeks was just what I needed. I’m pretty sure everyone else was thinking the same thing.
Then, two weeks turned into two months, then into four and I am now sitting in my living room writing this article, slowly accepting that this is how I might pass the next I don’t know how many months. It was like yesterday when I looked outside and saw snow. Now, instead of white slug, I see the newly planted apricot tree, roses standing shyly like young maidens and a private show given by a variety of plants on a green ocean of soft grass. Just last week I picked up my remaining books from my school’s locker. There will be no prom, no graduation ceremony, just all my books in a garbage bag.
To be honest, the prospect of graduation from high school the way I did was not what bothered me, nor the prospect of being stuck at home. For starters, no one really remembers High School. You are just stuck with a bunch of people who you don’t really like and who rarely survive the amnesia that occurs once you leave high school. You are forced to learn about subjects that just don’t ring with your heart in the constraint of a daily, boring schedule. I think it is especially true in Quebec, where the educational system is different. We have something called CEGEP (General and Vocational College), a step in the educational system unique to Quebec. A combination of grade 12 and the first year of university, CEGEP offers a transition period that is supposed to help you adapt better to university life. It is during the two years of CEGEP (or three) that all of your actions really count.
During these two years, people are supposed to start building their future, joining clubs and flourishing in different programs where similar people are finally brought together. Friends that last a lifetime start to appear in this period. Every student is like a young sailor, excited to explore the vast sea of society and sharpen themselves through the challenges brought on by the daunting waves. Inexperienced is what characterises all of these sailors.
And all of these marines, like myself, are forced to row their first adventure in a terrifying storm that is the pandemic. Or worse, forced to stay on land. This is what is really scaring me.
What will happen to the global economy? How will an endangered and unstable work market affect my, and young adults’ future? Will we miss the golden period of opportunities and exploration?These three questions are only a few amid the ridiculous quantities of doubts that plagued my heart ever since I realised that I will pass the first semester of CEGEP online. For the first time the gravity of the situation and the uncertainty of my future has dawned on me like an icy blade.
Every person has a dream. Mine is to be a surgeon. Being a surgeon was the first profession I ever dreamed of when I was young, and the profession I came back to after my rocky teenage years, where I shifted from surgeon to pianist, to writer, to Foley artists, to photographer, to 3D animator, to physicists, to business woman, and to professor in literature. Sometimes, I feel like just before we were born we were asked to spin the wheel, and whatever you get would be the thing you want to do for the rest of your life. I got medicine. I want to be a part of the advancement of science and help to improve this world. What better way to do that than to plunge myself in the fascinating study of the human body while solving complex but intriguing problems that come with it.
One of the safest paths to this profession is the pre-med program at University. Logically, pre-med is the only program (beside law) that considers all the extracurriculars in order to have the famous interview to the arched entrance of this program. Moreover, you need to have extremely good grades, especially if you are in a super competitive CEGEP where everyone seems to be geniuses. This means working 24/7, engaging in more clubs that I can handle, and having permanent, ink black eye bags from the lack of sleep. Hello caffeine addiction, goodbye sleep. I am here, with a heart full of excitement, eager to make the next two years of my life a living hell. But a fulfilling, happy hell.
However, now, I am not so sure anymore.
With the pandemic, most volunteering programs are cancelled. Of course, I applied to help during the pandemic, but I am probably the 49999th person on a massive line of volunteers longer than the Nile river (not complaining. All the help is amazing). My anticipation then turned to September when CEGEP was starting, when I can join some of the 100+ clubs that my CEGEP pride themselves to have and all the lectures, the conferences, the lab experiments I can participate in. Just thinking about them makes me feel like I just chugged down one liter of black coffee. Now, I am forced to contain these excitements and make my parents miserable instead with my extra energy, because CEGEP is going to be online.
Man, I start to hate the word “online” now (along with “social distancing”, “video/voice chatting” and “Tik Tok”).
Underlying all the disappointment, there is something more. It is a fear. A fear that I might not be able to follow my dream, that the universities might disqualify me because I don’t have enough extracurriculars and that my grades will not be enough because I can’t adapt to online schooling. A fear that when I finally go into the program, the world will swirl down a black hole of chaos and crisis. I might think too far. I might be too pessimistic. It is hard not to be when at one of the most crucial steps of your life, you are forced to stay at home. Just like the young sailor stuck at shore thinking: what if when I can finally sail, will I be too old? I will not have enough training and I would have missed so many opportunities, and that I am nothing more but a sad bag of failure.
I am not the only one worried and asking these questions. Every one of my friends that I have talked to have expressed similar concerns. We are like buzzing bees enclosed in a beehive. What we wish the most is to be able to roam around the city and contribute to this society by being there, not behind a screen. Youth drives society, but a part of this force is being suffocated under a veil of restraints and under a fear that when they finally get out of that veil, all will be too late for them.
There is a part of youth that will face even greater uncertainties and fear. They are the young immigrants, the newcomers of this society (those who have come to Canada recently and who are living through a period of transition and adaptation). I immigrated to Canada when I was nine years old and experienced first-hand the hardship of learning a new language, overcoming multiple insecurities and fears while adapting to a new culture, and the feeling of exclusion I lived through the first few years. School has been the most essential step in my integration into society as it provided me a chance to come into contact with the local culture. Even so, it was still extremely hard to step over the cultural barrier because it is often not about how people make the effort to include you into this society, but how you try to be a part of it. It is easy to hide in the shell and stray away from the stream of the society to be apart, struggling to find your place. It is easy to be stuck in your own ethnic group with other newcomers and live in a bubble.
Not that these groups aren’t important, but sometimes some of them are closed off from society. Staying in these groups without venturing out doesn’t promote culture diversity, nor offer new perspectives that shape society. In consequence, youngsters that grow up in these groups won’t truly be integrated. Unfortunately, the pandemic only serves as a greater obstacle in integration of young immigrants and refugees. How can you adapt to a culture when you are forced to stay at home, cut off from your peers and in consequence, not exposed to the culture you live in? How can you learn a new language when you can hardly practice it? And how can you overcome your fear when you can’t confront it? Moreover, most of the immigrants are also cut off from their families abroad, and having to live in isolation can create emotional issues or sense of disorientation.
Another problem arises in the financial facet of the current situations. Many newcomers struggle economically and are under big financial risks, something I lived through myself. It would be very important for the parents to be able to go to school and get the diploma they need to have a job and a steady stream of income. Teenagers sometimes have to work as well to support the family alongside their parents. The pandemic, while it affects everyone, often has a greater impact on the financial states of immigrants. Some lose their new jobs and aren’t eligible for employment assurance, while others are in desperate need of jobs but can’t find one. Furthermore, some new immigrants do not have access to free health care despite the current situation and would have to pay to be cured of covid-19. Not only could this put an enormous strain on the financial state of the less wealthy, it could also bring even more stress in their daily life. Youth like myself would be directly impacted by these difficulties as they would have to live with greater pressure and uncertainties in the present.
Of course, I am not complaining about the quarantine. It is very essential in the fight against the pandemic. What I have said might even be too pessimistic, because support has been amazing since the beginning of this difficult time. But I do think the problems that new immigrants and refugees face are present. COVID-19 has shaken the world economically and politically so that it is impossible to stay totally assured and positive about the future, especially for the newcomers. Things are looking up now from where I live. But the possibility of a second wave still lurks like a monster in the dark. In such case, it would be incredible crucial to provide help to young immigrants to ensure their future.
I will not talk about financial help, because I do not know enough in the matter. What I will explore is things that I, as a student, believe high schools can do to help the young immigrants during the pandemic. I believe that it would be very important for schools to keep a strong online presence by having regular group meetings that follow a pre-planned schedule, as well as extracurricular activities such as clubs and organized online events. This way, immigrant students who struggle with language barriers can practice their speaking and listening all the while socializing with the rest of the class. Strong online presence can also bring a sense of comfort to these students, because it provides them a constant contact point with the local culture, so they would feel less excluded from society. My school did not provide any class meetings at the start and when they did it was only once a week at the most. Even as an extremely introverted person, I felt very disconnected from my friends and the rest of society. Newcomers would only live this sense of detachment even more. This is why schools should work hard in remaining an active part in their life.
Schools should also provide extra help to immigrant and refugees students whether it is through additional meetings or learning materials. As most of the learning after quarantine has been through textbooks and videos, these students might face difficulties due to their language barriers. I crossed these barriers myself and I know how frustrating, hard, and confusing, it can be when you have to learn new materials while using an unfamiliar language (especially history, that was a nightmare). Newcomers, especially those who weren’t able to attend Welcome might face a drop in grades due to these obstacles if they receive less support from teachers, which is very damaging when they are in their last year of high school. Having additional aid from their school would be crucial to their academic success. The help should come in forms of small group meetings with teachers or peer tutoring, because not only it is efficient, but it can also promote a sense of community among students.
What I said above are only few things among many that schools can do to help the young immigrants and refugees. I believe that similar additional help should also be provided to the disabled, as well as strong emotional support to all those who might be facing problems at home. While the pandemic is a challenging situation for all youth, their path is especially arduous, blocked by many more obstacles that cloud their future in a scary fog of uncertainties.
On a lighter note, being obliged at home is not all black. Like a night sky embellished by beautiful stars, the confinement is also an amazing opportunity for self-improvement. As a matter of fact, for me, staying at home introduced me to a loneliness that I have never experienced before. This loneliness is like dark chocolate, bitter at first, then bursting with a rich aroma that leaves you craving for more. I can concentrate on my tasks without distraction and for the first time in my life, I realised how my own thoughts and passions can be my best friends. I am Alice in my own little Wonderland. Learning to enjoy loneliness has taught me a new kind of independence. An independence that I have searched for in all of my teenage years while being confused, wanting friends and hating my friends at the same time.
Moreover, my peers and I have to find creative ways to mark our presence and to help this society as clubs and volunteering seem to be out of pictures. I think it is very exciting. Unique chances are born amid uncertainties and unique experiences cannot exist without problems. The pandemic contains both, if the world doesn’t perish in an economic crisis that is it. But even then, there is always ground to plant trees.
Sounds quite fantastic doesn’t it? Nevertheless, I think that we should not forget that the pandemic is a double-edged sword, and that many young people, like new immigrants and refugees, are struggling much more. Even if quarantine provides a unique chance for self-improvement and to acquire knowledge, the uncertainties of the future, no matter how many opportunities they can hold, can always be a setback. However, I believe that the future holds brightness, no matter the uncertainties and fear, if you can master this double-edged sword and overcome the setbacks. All of the above is not a complaint nor suggestions of how things should be different or how youth should live their life during this challenging period. What I have written are my thoughts and my sincere perspective on the whole situation, especially for young immigrants and refugees. Circumstances vary from one person to another. I hope everyone gets the opportunities and the help they deserve. There is always light at the end of the tunnel and no matter how pessimistic I am, I believe we are approaching that light.