Out of darkness, into light? College students on America’s future

SGA’s Director of Inclusion and Equity Kayla Woodson poses for a portrait on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, at the Student Government Association office in the Gatton Student Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff.

Sarah Michels

When COVID-19 arrived, it forced people to stay home. The usual distractions were taken away as restaurants and businesses closed, sports seasons abruptly halted and the world went quiet. Americans, looking for their entertainment fix, began paying attention to their surroundings, only to discover that quiet was not synonymous with peaceful.

They watched, listened and read the news, giving their full attention to what was happening in the country, perhaps for the first time in a long time.

Tragedies like the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor received months of national attention they might not have otherwise gotten during a distraction-filled, pandemic-less time. All eyes were on the Trump administration and state leaders as they tried—and often failed—to rein in Covid-19. Polarization, not only of political leaders but everyday citizens, took center stage as Americans struggled to agree on even the most basic of facts.

In short: the past year aired a whole lot of America’s dirty laundry.

After a year of debilitating political and physical isolation, is there hope for America’s future generations? Will 2020 go down in history as the beginning of the end or a new beginning?

“It definitely took everything that was really wrong with America, and then put it on a projector in a petri dish for people to see,” said Kayla Woodson, director of equity and diversity for UK’s student government. “I think people saw it, and I’m gonna need people to act like they want to change based on what they saw.”

Woodson remembers 2016’s palpable attitude shift. When Donald Trump ascended to the presidency, Woodson said he brought out the absolute worst in everybody.

“There’s definitely a large rift in in America that has pretty much probably always been there, but it definitely got a lot worse after it became okay to say those things out loud like Donald Trump made it seem like,” Woodson said.

Even though he’s now been replaced with President Joe Biden, people are still showing their ugly colors, Woodson said, and she doesn’t see any signs that things are going to significantly improve any time soon.

She believes that while many have become politically aware in the past four years, just as many others haven’t learned anything or are trying to settle now that Trump is gone.

“Instead of pushing forward, they’re just like, ‘Oh I think things are okay where we’re at right now,’” Woodson said. “[A] fear of mine is that people are just gonna go back to a normal that America was fine. And it has never been fine. And it hasn’t been fine for a lot of people for a long time.”

Over the summer, the Black Lives Matter movement picked up steam. Hordes of protestors marched across the country, chanting the names of the people of color whose deaths were spurred by police brutality. Even when their feet were sore and lungs were tired, they showed up night after night, letting the nation know that they wouldn’t stop until they saw change.

It felt good to take back some of that power, to force people to acknowledge their actions instead of shoving them under the rug, Gabe Savage said.

Savage, president of UK’s Black Student Union, feels numb. As a Black man in America, he feels eyes on him all the time. He knows that people often see him through the lens of stereotypes—“big,” “scary,” “not intelligent”—and that anything he sees happening to a Black person on the news could have happened to him.

It’s exhausting, he said. And annoying. Very, very annoying.

His organization, BSU, works to educate the campus on racial issues and celebrate their racial identity and culture. He says that while many began acknowledging and understanding the presence of discrimination toward people of color for the first time over the summer, it is nothing new.

“The racial injustices, people being killed, people being racially profiled, you know, it happens all the time. And it happened before we were born, happened when we were being born, while we’re growing up, and now,” Savage said. “This stuff just keeps happening.”

Although he is cognizant that for some, the Black Lives Matter movement is just a fad, he feels that overall, the nation is making progress.

Eventually, Savage hopes that society will reach a point where the “racial battleground” is no more, and skin color isn’t something that people focus on as much. He thinks this shift will take longer than his generation’s lifetime, but that Kamala Harris’ historic vice presidency as the first Black woman in the office sets a nice tone.

His hope is that placing a person of color in such a public position of power will begin a trend in which America embraces its melting pot culture and proudly displays its diversity.

“Until there’s tens (of people like Harris), as soon as we have a growing number and it becomes like a normal thing where we see anybody is capable of doing any position, I think that’s when we’ll revert from all the racial acknowledgement in sort of a negative way,” Savage said. “I think it will just take time. It’ll take a lot of time.”

Courtney Wheeler also understands that one president or vice president can’t do it all. It takes everyone to make an impact.

Wheeler, UK’s student government president, is a glass-half-full type of woman. She interacts with a multitude and variety of students on a daily basis, most of whom she says just want unity. Despite the polarizing viewpoints she sees scrolling through social media, Wheeler said she thinks her generation still has the willingness to listen and capacity to change.

“Now I do think that our generation has, you know they have their beliefs, they have their values, they have their things that they’re not willing to compromise on, but they’re willing to hear someone out, and they’re not going to turn around and scream to the next person because they don’t believe in what they’re saying,” Wheeler said.

She doesn’t see a Biden presidency as a polarization panacea. As a president herself, Wheeler said that people have to understand that no one can or will be perfect in their leadership role. Any decision Biden or any president makes, no matter how positive, helps some and hurts others.

Instead, the responsibility of unifying the country falls on everyone’s shoulders. Wheeler said that in her time in SGA, she learned that a leader is nothing without a strong team. For example, she said Wellness Wednesdays would have never happened if she had been left to run student government on her own rather than working directly with people like the director of health and wellness.

Wheeler said her generation understands this idea that a leader can’t do it all; everyone has to pitch in to create change and solve problems. She feels that her generation has gone through a lot of trauma, and consequently is eager and determined to challenge the status quo.

“We feel as if we have to do it. We got to make the change,” Wheeler said. “Our Black students need to feel just as comfortable as our white students in places they need. We need to work together, and with this sense of divide, we’re not going to.”

Aidan O’Brien hopes that his generation never forgets Trump, and forever changes because of him.

O’Brien saw many students politically activated by Trump throughout the past four years. As president of College Democrats at UK, he hopes that with Biden’s presidency, the vigor for activism doesn’t fade. He doesn’t think it will.

“There are movements on campus that are a lot greater than Trump himself,” he said. “This is not four years and we’re done.”

Biden has an opportunity to unite the country after the division Trump sowed, O’Brien said, but he isn’t sure how he’ll pull it off. He added that while he’s hopeful for the future of the nation and his generation, his optimism is slightly dulled compared to most College Democrats members.

“There is hope. But it depends on the actions we take moving forward,” O’Brien said. “If we stay engaged, if we stay organized, if we stay active in demanding what we want from our government from people in power.”

O’Brien sees the shaky Democratic trifecta and Biden’s own moderate views as potentially limiting. He’s also worried about 2022, the midterm elections.

It’s common for modern-day presidents to essentially get two years to further their agenda before midterms shift the control to the opposite political party, which can use their majority to block any significant policy or law the president wants to pass. This can prevent presidents from getting anything done through the legislature during their final two years.

O’Brien said he is afraid these obstruction politics could hinder Biden from the “consistent and steady reforms” he hopes to see during his term, specifically concerning climate change, racial justice and assistance for college students who were left out of the first stimulus package.

“I don’t want it to be a two-year thing and then we get stalled out and don’t get to make more progress,” he said. “I’d like to see bold steps.”

Samantha Udarbe also wants words to turn into actions. After listening to Biden’s speeches about unity, she is cautiously optimistic, but not overly hopeful.

“It’s so annoying because, a lot of times, that’s all it is— all talk and no walk,” said Udarbe, president of Campus Kitchens at the University of Kentucky.

She doesn’t know how to solve the nation’s polarization problem, but Udarbe said she thinks social media will play a crucial part due to its ability to quickly spread information.

Her involvement with student organizations like Campus Kitchens also gives her hope that her generation will be able to shift the culture. Even though the organization’s primary issue is food insecurity, since the pandemic, students have been discussing the intersectionality between their primary issue and other global and national issues that they’ve learned about from their involvement in other groups.

Udarbe thinks that these inter-organizational connections are long overdue. However, the understanding doesn’t go far enough, she added.

“It’s really discouraging to see how divided the United States is and how polarized political parties are and whether or not they can make or break relationships in some cases,” she said. “I hear a lot of talk of, ‘Oh this person is a Republican and I’m not gonna hang out with them, like I’m not friends with them anymore,’ and it’s like, that’s not how it should be.”

Allie Holt chooses to be positive about the long-term effects of the past year of political turmoil and Covid-19. She doesn’t let herself fall down a negative spiral of fears and doubts, but rather chooses to make every experience—good or bad— one of growth.

Holt, Dance Blue overall chair, lives with three generations, and said that her generation seems more hopeful than the rest, with a perspective of wanting to learn. From Holt’s point of view as a student leader, a lot of people are in the middle, and so she hopes that her generation can find ways to compromise.

“Everything is very isolated in two different ways right now. And with that, not a whole lot can get done,” she said.

Despite the great damage Covid-19 wrought on the world, Holt said she is hopeful that her generation will come out of the pandemic with key skills.

“We will have the tools from having to adapt to online school when we didn’t really have an option last spring because it was just the world around us,” Holt said. “We just had to do it and move forward and so we’ll have that resiliency.”

Holt also compared Covid-19 to the 2008 recession; Uber and Venmo emerged from the previous dark period in American history, so why can’t an invention or innovation just as great come out of the pandemic?

“We’ve already been through something in our lives that some people never experience in their entire lifetime,” Holt said. “And so, with that we have the opportunity to take it and learn from it, and grow from it, and then make it even an experience that we can benefit from later in our lives.”

Several UK students echoed the idea of growth through adversity. Freshman Macy Pennington is antsy for Covid-19 to die down so everything can go back to a version of normal, but she sees the experience of overcoming the pandemic’s challenges and learning from the nation’s mistakes as “making us stronger.”

Freshman Mariana Castillo also sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I feel hopeful because regardless of the circumstances, we have been able to keep going with our lives and it’s a pandemic and we’re getting our degrees and getting our classes done and just pulling through, most importantly,” she said.

Not everyone is so positive about life after Trump and Covid-19.

Freshman Juliana Castro said that after recent events, she isn’t sure if there is hope for her generation, or the generation that comes after her.

“I would say that with the elections we saw that many people still don’t think about others, and I think that thinking about others and how our decisions affect them is the way that we define our future,” Castro said. “If we don’t start doing that, I don’t think we’re going anywhere.”

Samantha Udarbe fears what a year of isolation will do to the younger generation, “growing up on a Zoom call,” when they typically would be cultivating valuable social skills. Even some in her generation may feel long-term negative effects, she said, such as college freshmen who might not know how to find good friends or a student organization they are passionate about, and everyone stuck in the never-ending cycle of online school, work and play.

“Everything’s so fast paced,” Udarbe said. “Being able to share a meal with roommates is something that has really gotten me through like all of this, because it’s the one time that you can really just sit away from your computer, because I feel like nowadays it just seems like everything’s on a computer and there’s really no, it’s just all gray area.”

Courtney Wheeler is also concerned about mental health, especially of students. With anxiety running rampant, she’s afraid that people will avoid asking for much-needed help and grace while still stuck in a negative environment.

“We’re gonna have such high expectations because we had all these things on our to do list,” she said. “But if we don’t give ourselves grace, we’re gonna struggle even more and we’re going to be frustrated by why we are still struggling.”

Wheeler wonders how the nation can achieve unity when everyone is physically isolated from one another.

Kayla Woodson isn’t as concerned about college students bouncing back, or uniting with every single person in America, for that matter.

“Honestly like, I don’t want to unify with people that think a lot of those things were okay, that thought like you know, racial slurs and there’s no police brutality and that there’s no such thing as systemic racism,” Woodson said. “I’m not trying to unite with anybody who thinks that way at all.”

While Woodson has met many open-minded people in her generation and thinks that they will do great things, she said she knows there will always be people in every generation who will try to make the lives of people of color hell. She’s noticed an increased willingness to listen and learn, but the changes are not significant enough to break through the class and race divisions that have always prevailed across generations.

“I am a person of color so I’m always acutely aware when I am the only person of color in the room,” she said. “Things are looking better than they have before, but they can always be better.”