by Faith Emetu
Over the course of this year, life for Nia has changed drastically. Nia is a twenty-year-old college student from South Carolina. She attends school with her younger sister at a large university in the capitol city, Columbia. In contrast, her family home is in a small, rural town. Nia and her family members are not yet citizens of the United States. Her mother is a teacher and her father works at a gas station. On breaks and weekends, Nia also works in a gas station in her hometown.
In March, when she first went home for her extended spring break, Nia did not imagine that the Coronavirus would become as big of an issue as it is currently. Throughout our conversation, Nia most frequently spoke of the impact COVID-19 and social distancing has on her family members, academics, and social life. She also mentions how her age, socioeconomic class, and citizenship status shape her experience. The interview with Nia provides valuable insight into how the pandemic impacts various demographics of people. Processes such as this allow us, as a society, to begin reflecting on our period of chaos. Arthur Frank states that, “The chaos that can be told in story is already taking place at a distance and is being reflected on retrospectively” (p. 98). Nia stated that while she had not had the opportunity to fully reflect and gauge all facets of her experience, portions of her narrative were clear to her.
During the interview, Nia expressed that she was aware of the impact social distancing has had on her academics for the fall 2020 semester and her social life. Like many students, Nia has had to adjust to the new online format that we use for classes. Many of her academic interactions take place over Zoom at the price of her ever-shrinking attention span. She expressed concerns with readjusting her life when we do resume in person classes. Because of remote learning, she has grown accustomed to a more independent learning style. Nia fears that another transition will have prolonged adverse effects on her academic performance. She also stated that the impact social distancing has had on her social life is,at the moment, very apparent. Outside of her family, Nia abides by the CDC guidelines and has restricted her in person contact to a group of five friends. Because of technology, she is able to maintain her relationships using phone conversations or video chats. As a young woman in the commencement of her twenties, she does feel as if her potential social life is being crippled. In the interview, she speaks of a longing for the vibrancy that is associated with her age group.
Nia’s socioeconomic status and residency status has an ever-present effect on her narrative. While her mother’s job as a high school math teacher was secure, her father’s job as a local gas station employee was not. Nia’s greatest concern was for her father’s health; however, they were not afforded the luxury of the option for him to stay home. He was both the oldest and the most at-risk member of the family. Regardless of their fears, the bills had to get paid, so he continued to work. Over the summer months, Nia also worked at a local gas station, picking up more hours than she was accustomed to. Her cautiousness notwithstanding, she went to work since her dad was already risking exposure. Even if her father was not working, Nia could not afford to quit her job. She had to pay for the upcoming semester. Nia’s experience shines a light on the experiences of many working-class families during the pandemic. When you are living paycheck to paycheck, as so many do, she had to gamble her family’s exposure for financial security. In terms of her residency status, not having American citizenship contributed to an overall feeling of uncertainty during this time. Her life was again interrupted in April when all of the international agencies closed, halting the review of important paperwork. Although the agencies reopened at the end of July, there was an enormous amount of backlog. This presented an issue with submitting the appropriate documentation to her University. Nia is still unsure of when her necessary document will be approved. By the nature of this being unfinished, it impedes her ability to reflect on its effect.
Throughout the interview, with little to no provocation, Nia categorized the impact of COVID-19. From familial to academic to social to financial all of these areas are interconnected, yet in times of reflection Nia was able to isolate them. According to Arthur Frank, Nia eventually needs to “secure an uninterrupted space—physical and psychological—to write her story.” (p. 105) This interview provided her with about 45 minutes of this space. Within these 45 minutes she was able to digest and communicate aspects of her experience. Many people do not yet have access to this uninterrupted space. By studying these narratives, society begins to have access to a diverse set of experiences that we otherwise would not be privy to. In times of crises, those at the most disadvantaged may not have the time or medium to share their voice. Had Nia been more or less disadvantaged her narrative would sound completely different. What if she were an America citizen? What if her family did not own a home and had to fear eviction? What if she were 45-year-old diabetic? By studying narratives, we get to see the effects of such external factors on a deeply personal level.
Frank, Arthur. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995
Nia. Personal Interview. 4 December 2020.