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From 9/11 to COVID-19: When Your Academic Career Is Bookended by Tragedy

Next week, I will be culminating my educational journey with a graduate degree in clinical social work. I am part of the class of 2020.

I started my educational journey nearly two decades ago, entering kindergarten mere days before 9/11. I am finishing my academic career in the midst of a global pandemic.

I’ll be honest; I don’t remember much about 9/11. I was 5 years old. But I do remember the aftermath; I remember seeing classmates and teachers devastated by loss. I remember taking a moment of silence in school every year on the anniversary of that tragic day. I remember the songs that were written, the books that were published and the movies that were created. I also remember the stories of absolutely striking acts of heroism that emerged over the next weeks, months and even years. I remember seeing the helpers, the heroes and the fighters. I remember the unity. I also remember the pain, the hate and the fear.

Nearly 19 years later, our country is in a familiar state of tragedy. I do not mean to compare an awful act of terrorism to a pandemic, because they are certainly very different, but it is also impossible and irresponsible to not recognize some of the similarities. Some people are fearful and anxious most of the day, every day. Life as we knew it has screeched to a halt. People are afraid to travel, to be in large crowds or to trust their own neighbors. People are confused, hurt and grieving. We do not know how this event will affect us in years to come. We do not even know how it will affect us tomorrow.

It would also be negligent to not acknowledge the similarities between these two events with regard to racism and discrimination. After 9/11, Americans with roots in Middle Eastern countries faced awful prejudice simply due to their ethnic background and the color of their skin. It was a low point for Americans, to put it simply. We were not the welcoming and accepting nation we wish, though struggle, to be.

Now, in 2020, there is indisputable racial and ethnic prejudice occurring toward Asian-Americans. Ignorance and narrow-mindedness are having catastrophic effects, threatening Asian-Americans’ lives and their sense of safety. Americans are once again (though certainly not for the first time since 9/11) falsely attributing a single event to an entire population of people. Americans are once again struggling to create an inclusive nation.

We are also seeing some positive similarities between these two events. We are witnessing unbelievable acts of heroism and bravery every single day. Our healthcare professionals and frontline workers are risking their own lives to save the lives of others. Stories of love, courage, hope and unity are emerging by the minute. Families are being reunited, and people are recovering and surviving.

We often hear the cliche that “history repeats itself.” I wonder if history will repeat itself here, as well. I wonder if we will have moments of silence for all the lives lost during this pandemic. I wonder how communities with so much loss will come together and rebuild. I wonder, unfortunately, about the grave emotional and mental repercussions that will continue to unfold for weeks, months and years to come.

I also wonder what we will learn from this — about ourselves, about each other, about the world. How will we live our lives differently when this is behind us?

At the time, I did not realize how monumental it was to begin school during the era of 9/11. By the same token, I do not think I yet understand how significant and life-changing it will be to graduate during a global pandemic. But some things simply remain to be seen.

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty image via nirat