What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Pandemic graduates on their hopes to mend the ‘cracks’ exposed by the last year

Over the last month, the PBS NewsHour has brought you stories about how students and institutions have been upended by the pandemic. Tonight, we take a more hopeful look at students who have been inspired by the events of the last year and returned to school. Hari Sreenivasan has this report for our series, "Rethinking College."

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now we bring you the final installment in our higher education series.

    Over the last month, we have heard stories about how students and institutions have been upended by the pandemic. Tonight, we take a more hopeful look at students who have been inspired by the events of the last year and returned to school.

    Hari Sreenivasan has this report for our series RETHINKING COLLEGE.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Graduation day at Howard University. Student Ahmari Anthony started her senior year in the middle of the pandemic, and this day was not guaranteed.

  • Ahmari Anthony:

    I had some doubts sometimes. I really did. We didn't find out we were having an in-person graduation until the last week of March. So, initially, I was thinking that I was going to be on Zoom in my bedroom at home, walking that way.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Anthony majored in journalism, and not too long ago hoped to begin a career as an investigative journalist. But in the midst of this unprecedented year, something changed for her.

    Ahmari Anthony I just felt like there was a lot of people raising awareness and there was a lot of people studying and researching and willing to talk about what was going on. But there weren't enough people who were able to or willing to act at the time. And I felt like that's what I really had to do.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, after four years of college, instead of looking for jobs, she decided to start on a completely new career path. This fall, she will be going back to Howard to begin a master's program in social work.

  • Ahmari Anthony:

    There's not enough people who feel empowered to be able to act on what is going on right now. Everyone feels like things are out of their control. A lot of people felt helpless. A lot of people felt alone.

    And I think that I really enjoy working with people and being able to empower them to solve their own issues and come up with their own solutions to what they're facing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For Anthony, part of it was seeing the effects of the pandemic firsthand.

  • Ahmari Anthony:

    I remember, at the beginning of the pandemic, my grandfather, like, got laid off. And he's older. So he was working past retirement age anyways.

    And he had started going to the food bank. And he would have to sit in the food bank line for hours to be able to get food. And he wasn't even, as you know, I guess, high need as other people were.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Then came the murder of George Floyd. Anthony took part in the massive social justice movement that followed and watched the conviction of Derek Chauvin last month.

    But, in the reactions, she saw how much work still needs to be done.

  • Ahmari Anthony:

    OK, this one person has been punished for the wrong thing that they did. But it's not about, like, one person. It's very clearly not about one person.

    Like, it's not only a culture, but it's also like structures and systems that we have in place that need to be changed. And it's life or death. And George Floyd really cemented that in my mind.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    About 1,000 miles away, Zachary Whitten lives on his family's farm in Laneville, Texas, population 1,193.

    He was born and raised here, but spent the last decade traveling around the country. Back in 2008, he graduated from junior college with a degree in psychology, but felt like continuing education wasn't for him.

    This last year sparked something in him as well.

  • Zachary Whittent:

    There are a lot of cracks that I feel were exposed during the election and during the pandemic that I feel need to be addressed and have not been addressed.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Because of Laneville's isolation, Whitten has been fortunately spared much of the effects of the pandemic. But he wasn't spared from the political upheaval unfolding in the country. Much of it was playing out right in front of his eyes on Facebook.

  • Zachary Whitten:

    One of the things that really concerned me was the amount of misinformation and ignorance, in the literal sense of the word, that was out there.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Whitten had always been interested in politics, but, for the first time, he felt compelled to get more actively involved. Last fall, he returned to school at the University of Texas-Tyler, with the hope of getting a bachelor's degree in politics next year.

    He's hoping that, with this formal education and his unique blend of experiences, he will be able to bridge the political divisiveness and stem the misinformation that he's seeing.

  • Zachary Whitten:

    I have a rural background. I have a Hispanic background. I have traveled around quite a bit and been exposed to a bunch of different cultures.

    And so I'm hoping that talking to them, telling them about my story and telling them about my experiences, and then listening to their experiences, and making them kind of realize that there's not that much difference between different people.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Whitten admits he could've just as easily stayed where he was, but now was the time to act.

  • Zachary Whitten:

    I'm hoping to essentially be the change that you want to see in the world.

    As a country, we're at a point where these things need to be dealt with, or who knows what's going to happen.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For Ahmari Anthony back in Washington, D.C., the decision to go back to school was also a bit of a leap.

  • Ahmari Anthony:

    I'm like the second person in my family to graduate from college. So, going after a master's degree was kind of — it wasn't something that I realistically saw for myself.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But after conversations with her family and reflection on the future, it all started to make sense.

  • Ahmari Anthony:

    It's like, if you think that you have an opportunity to help someone, even if it's one person, even if it's a little tiny way, why would you not take that opportunity?

    If you feel like you're stuck between a rock and a hard place, and one has the potential of even making your life or someone else's life the littlest bit better, I think that that risk is always worth it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Listen to this Segment