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Two Penn students road-tripped across America to document the pandemic’s impact on their generation

In all, the Penn seniors conducted more than 80 interviews, some in Spanish. They share some of the stories, photos and audio interviews on their website, Generation Pandemic.

Back at home at the University of Pennsylvania, seniors Alan Jinich (left) and Max Strickberger (right) pose on their front stoop last week. Last year they drove 7,300 miles across 23 states for six weeks, interviewing people ages 18 to 25 about their experiences during the pandemic. Their “Generation Pandemic” is an oral history archive that documents the impact of COVID-19 on young adults in America.
Back at home at the University of Pennsylvania, seniors Alan Jinich (left) and Max Strickberger (right) pose on their front stoop last week. Last year they drove 7,300 miles across 23 states for six weeks, interviewing people ages 18 to 25 about their experiences during the pandemic. Their “Generation Pandemic” is an oral history archive that documents the impact of COVID-19 on young adults in America.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Alan Jinich couldn’t do it anymore: Sit at a desk in his rented residence, taking his University of Pennsylvania classes online.

It was fall 2020, pre-COVID-19 vaccine times, and Jinich’s roommate, Max Strickberger, an English major who also used to delight in his classes, was similarly disillusioned.

“I just felt like I was wasting something that I previously loved so much,” Strickberger said. “There was so much happening in the world, and we’re sitting in our apartment in Philly.”

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That’s when they began to plot something they found much more meaningful — a journey across America, from rural towns to cities, from the deep South to the Midwest, to interview a diverse group, mostly ages 18 to 25, on how the pandemic had impacted their lives. They took the spring 2021 semester off from their formal Penn education, loaded up Jinich’s mom’s burnt red, five-seater SUV with food and supplies, and headed out for a six-week, 7,300-mile, 23-state trek.

Along the way, they met Fernando, 21, who fell on hard times when his Chicago fruit stand was shut down, until he found another business: traveling to Mexico to buy puppies and re-selling them in the United States for a profit.

And Faith, 23, who told them she was the first person to test positive for COVID-19 in her Utah county: “I was the guinea pig.”

And Sharon, 22, a Santa Fe, N.M., restaurant worker trying to balance her college studies with helping her family, including her drug-addicted brother and his girlfriend, who had a baby, also born drug addicted.

In all, the Penn seniors, now back on campus, conducted more than 80 interviews, some in Spanish — Jinich is of Mexican heritage and bilingual. They share some of the stories, photos and audio interviews on their website, Generation Pandemic, an oral history archive that they hope to expand and eventually turn into a podcast series.

“It probably was more worthwhile — don’t tell Penn — than a semester online,” said Deborah Miller, Strickberger’s mother, a former television producer.

Parents convinced, professors helped

Though Strickberger and Jinich weren’t officially enrolled that semester, Penn professors lent a hand with the off-the-books project, including American history professor Kathy Peiss, who designed an eight-week syllabus and met weekly with them before they hit the road.

“They just captured my interest,” Peiss said. “And I had the time since I was staying home a lot.”

They read and talked about Studs Terkel’s “Working,” a 1974 collection of oral histories from workers around the the country, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men about poor tenant farmers during the Depression, and Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow’s narratives, Voices from the Pandemic.

Jean-Christophe Cloutier, an associate professor of English and comparative literature, and Sam Apple, who teaches creative writing, were among others that Strickberger and Jinich turned to for advice. Strickberger also reached out to Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author with whom he had taken a class when she was a visiting professor at Penn.

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“I thought it was a great idea,” Egan said of the project, “such a creative way of responding to a disruption of the education they were merrily rolling along with. It’s the reason that people end up saying later that disruptions like a pandemic can invite growth and enable possibilities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.”

Miller said she and her husband, a cardiologist, were not supportive of the idea at first. They worried both about their son missing a semester and his health and safety. Both Strickberger, 23, and Jinich, 22, got vaccinated before they left but they were heading to states where masking and vaccination were not prevalent.

However, Miller said it didn’t take long for her son and Jinich to change her mind.

Pati Jinich, Alan’s mother, didn’t need convincing.

“They were willing to super put everything on pause and take a leave of absence, which I think was gutsy,” said Jinich, a chef. “I really applauded Alan’s following his intuition and his hunger to connect and also to build a microphone for others to be able to express what they were going through.”

Since Strickberger was a child, he loved stories and always asked his mom to read him another. In high school, he started a magazine, InLight, to allow those in marginalized communities to tell their stories. It’s now billed as the largest high school social justice publication in Washington D.C.

How do you plan for this?

Strickberger and Jinich — who grew up on the same street in Chevy Chase, Md., and became good friends in high school and better friends at Penn — had some early jitters. Jinich opened the trunk to finish packing and some food came pouring out. A jar of marmalade was lost. Was it an omen?

They looked at each other. “What are we doing?” Strickberger thought.

They had a tentative itinerary. They used an app, called Social Explorer, to chart a route with socioeconomic and ethnic diversity. Their first stop was Chattanooga, Tenn., where they conducted three interviews they had arranged in advance through a friend. After that, everything was more spontaneous — and challenging.

One of their next stops was Greensboro, a small city in Alabama. They went into every shop on Main Street, but couldn’t find anyone their age to interview.

“Wow, this project could be over before this project begins,” Strickberger thought.

But then someone suggested they hit the grocery store where a manager strolled the aisles and readily pointed out potential subjects. They interviewed Makayla, a 23-year-old single mom who lamented the difficulty of working with no raise for several years in a store where mask rules weren’t enforced.

Then came another place, another challenge.

“Every new town we were starting fresh,” Strickberger said.

In Circleville, Utah, they faced two particularly skeptical subjects who were cousins.

“We were talking with them for 30 minutes before we got them to agree to let us turn the recorder on,” Strickberger said.

The cousins said they would only talk for 10 minutes.

“Then four hours later,” Jinich said, “we had a tour of their turkey farm, a tour of their mechanic shop.”

“Alan met their grandfather who started the family business, got invited over for dinner,” Strickberger said,

Soon they were invited to the high school prom. They were two of about four people wearing masks at the 300-person event.

They learned to be patient with those they interviewed, not knowing exactly what they were looking for, but allowing stories, some of them deeply personal and tragic, yet hopeful, to unravel.

“I loved being able to ask and get to a place of intimacy with someone else,” Strickberger said. “It reframed the way I interact with people back at school.”

They stayed at Airbnbs and homes of family friends, and camped in South Dakota — a $2,000 trip mostly covered by their parents. Neither got COVID-19 on the road. They took COVID-19 tests to protect others, especially when they visited Navajo Nation, which was particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

’After the pandemic, I want to...’

At the end of each interview, they asked everyone to write in a notebook a response to the prompt, “after the pandemic, I want to....”

“Go see a live concert... feel the beat from the speakers in my chest and feel the energy of the crowd around me,” wrote one.

“Speak Papa’s truth,” scribed another, who lost her grandfather to suicide during the pandemic.

A third responded with just two words: “Breathe again.”

Jinich and Strickberger have post-pandemic plans, too. Though he is a neuroscience major with an English minor, Jinich, who took the photos, found the journey so fulfilling, he’s interested in pursuing similar work as a career.

“Maybe there is a way to combine it with neuroscience,” he said.

For Strickberger, the experience confirmed that he would like to write stories that drive change, but he also wants to be involved in taking action that leads to that change, such as creating affordable housing.

In the more immediate future, Jinich and Strickberger already have summer plans. They received a $4,000 grant from Penn’s Sachs Program for Arts Innovation. They want to revisit people they interviewed and look for new subjects in other towns and cities.

“We’re going to hit the road again,” Jinich said.