AMES, Iowa — For years people have talked about baby boomers or millennials, but Lydia Johnson is part of a different group — COVID-19 graduates.
Johnson, 19, is one of the many students around the country who graduated from high school in 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hers is the class that suddenly saw school shut down a couple of months before high school graduation, and who then saw their freshman year of college become an exercise in mask wearing and online academics.
“Everything just stopped,” Johnson says now as she takes a break from studying for finals during her second semester of college.
The hardest pill to swallow wasn’t the loss of a senior prom or the delay of a graduation ceremony or even the loss of a true college freshman experience. It was the cancellation of a summer internship through the World Food Prize to spend the summer of 2020 working with researchers in Kenya.
“That was pretty hard,” Johnson says. “But nobody knew what the world looked like at the time.”
Even now, after a year of shutdowns and vaccinations, a major COVID-19 breakout is killing huge numbers of people in India. Overall, more than 500,000 U.S. citizens have died of COVID-19 in the past year. Johnson has no objections over the moves made in an attempt to stem the pandemic and save lives.
But, like many other people, the last year has been quite a bit different than she expected.
When the pandemic started, Johnson, the daughter of Craig and Katie Johnson of Bondurant, was living at home with her parents and her two little sisters, Grace and Bridget. She was a senior at Bondurant-Farrar High School and she was active in numerous school activities. The family lives on an acreage near Bondurant, and Johnson had been active in both 4-H and FFA. She was used to showing sheep at the fair and participating in school events. She had been a part of the World Food Prize Youth Institute and was one of the lucky few to be selected for the prestigious overseas summer internship program.
After the pandemic broke out and school moved to online classes in March, other events began to be canceled. Prom didn’t happen. The summer internship was axed. Graduation happened but not until July.
“That was so warped,” she says now.
Some graduates decided to take a year off of school instead of trying to take online classes. Many others switched course and went to community college while living at home. Still others officially went to a four-year school but remained at home and took classes online.
But Johnson got a summer job, and in August she moved into the dormitory at Iowa State University, where she is majoring in agricultural communications, journalism and mass communications. She had a roommate, but no group activities or meetings were allowed.
Masks were required in all school buildings. Most classes were online, although a few were held in person. Students living on campus had to be tested for COVID before the school year.
“It was really kind of a bad dream,” she says. “Everything happened really slow and there was constant anxiety.”
But she says she was luckier than many students. She lived on a dorm floor with other college of agriculture students. The college worked closely with students to try to make things as normal as possible.
And she says that in some ways it may have been better as a freshman than as a senior who may have been forced to take advanced coursework online. She says she also feels lucky in that she was used to getting up and staying on a schedule. Some students who were away from home for the first time and taking all their classes online struggled with the freedom and fell behind in their coursework.
The good news, she says, is that she survived the strange freshman COVID experience and things feel like they are working their way closer to some kind of normal.
“They’re not really normal yet, but they are starting to feel like it,” she says.