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COVID-19’s Impact on Young Black College-Age Women in the Americas

No one imagined this year we would be experiencing a global pandemic. No one guessed the toll COVID-19 would take on Black girls and women. No one imagined that colleges would be virtual for the rest of the semester and graduations would be celebrated virtually. Yet, it happened.

There are many stories about how COVID-19 has impacted Black women who are mothers and professionals, but few narratives capture the effect COVID-19 has had on college-age young women. Even less have captured the impact of COVID-19 on Black college-age women internationally.

The Lighthouse interviewed several young women, including some of our 2019-2021 Reese | Brooks | Gilbert Cohort members, whose plans were interrupted by the pandemic.

20-year-old Ilana Aaquil, junior international affairs and Spanish double major at Howard University, was studying abroad in Cali, Colombia, when the pandemic began.

“The coronavirus didn’t directly impact me until, I would say, around mid-March, when we were informed that all of our field-based activities would be canceled for the entirety of the program. The next week, we were told that the entire program was canceled and that we were required to return back to the United States,” Aaquil says.

However, due to personal reasons, Aaquil and one of her classmates could not return to the States. They remain in Colombia today. Aaquil said she’s had quite a bit of stress and anxiety during this time, as restrictions are tighter in Colombia, and she is required to stay within Cali city limits. She copes with this stress and anxiety by playing guitar, catching up with friends and family, journaling and just sticking her head out of the window for fresh air.

“I feel like the best advice I can give young Black girls who, you know, may also be dealing with stress and anxiety and trauma during this time is to be present and reflect. The entire world is being impacted on such a grand scale, and a lot of people are feeling down right now. Getting into new hobbies has definitely been a good outlet for me.”

Mia Whitaker, a 21-year-old junior mass communications major at Prairie View A&M, had to move home due to the virus, a reality that she didn’t expect.

“I can say that COVID has impacted me both negatively and positively. The positive side is that I have gotten a lot done that I felt like I should have had done a while ago. The negative side of it is that I realize I had a lot of problems at home,” Whitaker says.

While many people are naming this time “a time to be with family,” there are some people who forget that not everyone has a stable or even safe home environment. Being home with family is something that has rarely been discussed, as many college students were forced off of campus and back home. Whitaker, however, has been handling her home situation well and has used the situation as motivation to begin planning to found a nonprofit organization. She has also used prayer to cope with her current living situation.

“My advice for other Black women in my predicament is to get outside. Being trapped in does a lot to you. And, you know, I just say go outside, and even if you’re just going for a walk, it’s better than just sitting in the house. I feel like being idle gives room to a lot of dark thoughts,” she says.

The Lighthouse also interviewed young Black women from Latin America who have been significantly impacted by COVID-19, like 23-year-old Yury Gómez. She is a native of Havana, Cuba, and is currently in her last year of studies as a rehabilitative medicine student at the University of Havana School of Medical Sciences.

“I am in my last year of school, and I was about to graduate when the coronavirus hit,” Gómez says.  “I had planned my time well. I had just enough time to study each lesson, take my exams, practice with patients and to do personal activities as well. Now, well, my whole method of study has changed completely. I cannot interact with my patients to prepare myself. Now I study virtually and have to use my family members to practice procedures for my program.”

Many college students were forced to complete their studies online. Photo credits Jacob Lund.

Although Gómez can no longer complete her studies in person at her university, she hasn’t let her new reality stop her. She is still motivated to complete her studies and make sure she is in the best of health to do so. She admitted she had a lot of anxiety initially but has been able to cope with her stress by eating healthy and doing home workouts. She recommends staying active while cooped up inside.

“Do things at home that motivate you to avoid boredom, anxiety and stress and to pass the quarantine more enjoyable,” she says. “Exercise. Read books. This helps you destress and acquire more knowledge. Don’t forget that if we all cooperate, we will overcome this.”

Ariane Bittencourt, a 21-year-old native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and tourism management student at Estácio de Sá University in Rio, shared how COVID-19 has interrupted her life and studies.

“It [COVID-19] greatly impacted my life, so much so that I lost my first job. I had plans to begin taking another course, but since I lost my job, everything changed,” Bittencourt said. Although Bittencourt’s education plans are currently on hold, she has hope that the pandemic will end soon, allowing her to continue her studies. She suggests using online resources in the interim until school systems come up with better plans for managing education and social isolation. “For those who have access to the internet, invest in free, online courses. For those who don’t, start to develop a new hobby that you always wanted to try but did not have the time or self-motivation to do.”

COVID-19 has dramatically affected the lives of Black college students and recent graduates in the Americas, as there is much uncertainty. From job losses to having to put studies on hold and moving into unexpected living situations, young Black women are experiencing unimagined circumstances, but they are resilient.


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