By May S. Ruiz
The high school class 2020 is a generation whose lives have been upended by the global pandemic. While it can be argued that being asked to stay home as we wage a war against a disease is a far cry from having to fight a war on the battlefields as the boomers before them had done, these teenagers have seen much devastation during their lifetime.
Today’s 17- or 18-year-olds have been raised in a digital world. They know only too well the harsh realities – climate change, gender and racial discrimination, socioeconomic inequality, pandemics, violence, hunger, poverty, and homelessness millions around the world suffer each day – and grew up before their time. They worry endlessly about their future even as they seemingly spend countless hours playing ‘Animal Crossing’ on their computer. They are going to be agents of change.
Michelle Dong, who is 18 years old, graduated virtually from Arcadia High School on June 4 and will be attending UC Irvine in the fall. She said that while the pandemic didn’t alter her plans for college, it made her more aware of her decision-making process. She had to consider which college would support her during this time of uncertainty.
“When I constantly hear about the rising death toll and infected cases, I feel helpless and worried about the future,” Michelle discloses. “On my part, I ensure that I practice all the necessary social distancing and health and safety precautions. Fortunately, on an economic level, my family was not impacted deeply by this pandemic. However, it’s saddening to see my favorite local stores close or struggle to maintain business. This pandemic has propelled me to look into public health and examine how disease prevention education can impact a community. I also feel a moral responsibility to educate myself and those in my community to progress through these challenges. ”
“I think my generation must adapt to new changes and innovate new ways of living. I feel that with quarantine, my generation can examine society and develop their stance on what is morally right and wrong. We will be entering a turbulent economic landscape and I hope my generation will be the change that is needed in our world.”
Marc Soong of Alhambra turned 17, three days before his virtual graduation from Stanford University’s Online High School on June 7. It was to have taken place at Stanford University’s Stanford Memorial Auditorium and he was scheduled to play ‘Liebeslied’ (Love’s Sorrow) by Fritz Kreisler, transcribed for the piano by Sergei Rachmaninoff. He is matriculating at Stanford University in the fall.
Marc confesses, “As someone who isn’t too social, I feel that the graduation canceling would have a greater impact on others than on me. However, I was looking forward to performing for my classmates and meeting them, many of whom I have only seen online.”
But his disappointment is eclipsed by more worrisome thoughts. Says Marc, “As the number of deaths from the virus surpassed 100,000, more than lives lost in several U.S. wars, I feel overwhelmed. Because I can’t go out and also since I’m not well versed in communications or medicine, but also because I’m only one person, I feel somewhat helpless that I can’t do more about the coronavirus. I realize how lucky I am – that I have a place to live, and food to eat, and very supportive parents – and there is a guilt-appreciation feeling in that.
“There are lessons to be learned from that. Our generation must value community over individual greed. We should focus on science and rational thought when it comes to making decisions and dealing with environmental problems rather than personal biases. Our generation will have to focus on working together with other countries and really find ways to deal with climate change, as well as develop vaccines for those diseases that continue to plague us.”
Seventeen-year-old Kate Tadeo graduated valedictorian at Monrovia High School’s drive-thru commencement ceremony held on June 3 and has been designated a John W. Kluge Scholar through the Columbia Undergraduate Scholar Program.
Kate says, “At first I was pretty bummed when I learned we would be ending the school year much differently than anticipated, but as the days went by I realized how fortunate I was to even be healthy during the global pandemic that is going on. Though it’s a little sad we didn’t have that traditional end of high school, it was out of anyone’s control and I’m just glad to spend more time with family before I leave for college.
“I’m attending Columbia University in the fall and, to date, they are still planning on holding fall semester on campus. Although I haven’t picked any courses yet, I’m going into my undergrad education on the pre-med track. I am sure that will include courses or even labs on possibly gaining knowledge on new diseases, like COVID-19. I might end up doing research on potential unknown diseases and how to prevent the worst. Additionally, many universities have made such impressive progress with cancer research and I would like to be a part of the generation to find a cure.”
“If anything, I think this pandemic has shown that it is important for society as a whole to learn from our experience and follow the guidelines set in place. While some people disregarded them and even protested against them, I do not understand how one could ignore and protest against an airborne disease. It is necessary to pay attention to the facts presented by credible sources and immediately take action to minimize the casualties.”
Continues Kate, “There are so many things in the world that need to change and I think this generation is very passionate in bringing about just that. I have so much hope for my generation to move past a lot of the societal norms various generations before us have just passed down. Even right now it’s amazing seeing so many people around me be so passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement and I genuinely hope this is the generation that can finally put an end to the four centuries of systemic racism this country has undergone.
“I am passionate about gender, racial, and social inequality and though I know it is a long, ongoing challenge, it is one we face in everyday conversations with those around us. Though my part may be small now, as I just try to convey through conversation the importance of equality for all regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic circumstance, it is important to relay the message to whoever possible, whether that be a loved one, a good friend, or maybe even an acquaintance who maybe says a comment invalidating a certain group of people.
“I also feel climate change is a very real, daunting concern that this country’s government should be paying more attention to. Although right now I live with my parents and eat their diet and I drive a car, I hope to at least reduce my own carbon footprint starting next year by possibly cutting most meat out of my diet and walking or taking the train instead of driving. At the end of the day we all need to acknowledge our privilege and incorporate it into how we can elicit positive change.”
Eric Dong (no relation to Michelle), who is 17 years old, will be graduating from San Marino High School during an in-person commencement ceremony tentatively scheduled for July 31. He says, “I’m not too bothered that we spent the last semester at home. Though it will be disappointing if I am unable to say my good-byes to my friends and wonderful teachers in person. Senior activities such as prom and grad night are postponed, which is unfortunate since I’d prefer not to attend these parties over summer, and some people might not want to go then.
“I’m still excited to go to college this fall. However, if Brown decides to switch to on-line classes or the virus is still active, I might take a gap year so I can enjoy the full experience of freshman year. I will continue volunteering at Union Station, work to earn some of my own money, or intern to gain experience during the gap year.”
“The economic upheaval, the thousands of people infected daily, and the lives lost are devastating news for everyone, and I have become more sensible and appreciative of life, taking careful steps to stay safe and healthy,” says Eric about the coronavirus pandemic. “In an effort to help stem the contagion, my brother and I have provided 1,500 face masks for the families and children at Union Station Homeless Services in Pasadena and joined the International Leadership Foundation (ILF) in donating tens of thousands of medical-grade face masks to Rhode Island, Mercy Medical Center of Long Island, and Columbia Medical Center.”
A dynamic youth activist, Eric also recently participated in events held by the ILF and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation to fight against violence and racism.
Declares Eric, “I see myself as an agent of change in the environmental science area since I am passionate and ready to take steps to mitigate the harm caused by climate change. Last year, I spent my summer interning at MIT EAPS Cziczo Lab for Clouds and Aerosols where I investigated factors causing the formation of ice clouds by examining water samples from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. I isolated positive and negative particles via Particle Analysis by Laser Mass Spectrometry and collected 2,000 sets daily, and created graphs and charts to display analyses. I am co-author of two research papers: “Ice Nucleation of Sea Spray Aerosols Generated Across Marin Biogeochemical Boundaries” and “Fluorinated Secondary Organic Aerosol Formation from Hydrofluoroolefin Emissions.
“My interest was motivated by my visits to my brother in 2015 and 2016 in China when he was seeking treatment for a medical condition. I witnessed scores of children unable to breathe, attend school, play sports, or fully live their lives. I brought 3M filtration masks for my extended family there, but this small gesture felt futile. I later learned that people as far flung as Japan, Korea, and California are also feeling the effects of Chinese smog. The consequences of environmental degradation shocked me. I decided then to concentrate in Environmental Science and Engineering when I go to college and I intend to achieve an ambitious goal – to create tangible change by fostering clean air and pure water.”
As young as Eric, Kate, Marc, and Michelle are in years, they are painfully cognizant of all that is wrong. What they do with their awareness, coupled with their drive to do good, may very well determine the course for humanity and effect change in the world.