Covid-19 has brought upheaval to the lives of almost everyone on the planet. While older generations face the greatest health threat, it is younger people who could bear the brunt of the long-term social and economic disruption.
The Cayman Compass talked to recent graduates and current students about their fears for the future and how that anxiety is shaping a desire to help make their world and their island a better place.
Rites of passage
As the academic year came to a close in the spring, with the Cayman Islands under a nationwide lockdown, a small group of students from Cayman International School decided they would go ahead with their senior year prom.
Some of the girls put on their dresses and make-up, sharing the experience of getting ready together through TikTok videos.
Then the teenagers sat in their respective bedrooms and chatted on Zoom, reminiscing about their high-school days, sharing memories and plans for the future.
When they hung up the call, it was with the bittersweet notion that it would be the last time they were ‘together’ as a group.
It was a good time, says Cristin Jackson, 18, but like so much of the surreal end to their high school lives, it was a little anticlimactic.
Graduation at CIS was also held over Zoom.
Students recorded farewell messages over video and attended school at carefully managed 30-minute intervals, removing their masks briefly for an official photograph.
“It was the furthest thing from normal but I still appreciated it because it was a sense of closure,” said Jackson.
At CIS, there is an annual tradition of the ‘graduate’s last walk’ when teachers and fellow pupils line the corridors to cheer the departing students on towards their future.
Liz Meier, a school counsellor at CIS during the last academic year, likens missing out on these rituals to “unresolved grief”.
“For the Class of 2020, many of our students lost unidentifiable ‘normal’ parts of their lives,” she said. “Having a normal prom or a ‘live’ graduation or goodbye parties, all come to mind for our students across the island.”
Those rites of passage represent a kind of symbolic transition to adulthood.
Futures on hold
For some, it is not just symbolism. The transition itself has stalled. COVID-19 meant they were required to put plans for the future on ice.
Many of the high-school graduating classes of 2020 are still in Cayman pursuing unexpected gap years or participating in first-year university classes over Zoom from their childhood bedrooms. Others have travelled to Canada or the UK to find themselves confined to dorms, watching their lectures through YouTube videos.
Cayman Prep graduate Matt Gilmour is one of many young people who had to postpone plans to study overseas because of the impact of the virus.
The 17-year-old, who wants to study sports management, now spends his time volunteering at the rugby club, while taking additional online courses.
Like a lot of school-leavers, his end-of-year exams were cancelled and he had to settle for an estimated grade.
He said it was frustrating not to get the chance to sit the exams and he is disappointed with the results. He hopes the situation globally will improve and he can go to university next year.
Jackson, who began her first year of a health science degree at the University of Western Ontario from the bedroom of the house where she grew up in Grand Cayman, understands the urge to get on with student life.
Coming from a single-parent family (her father died when she was 13) and attending CIS on a scholarship, she grew up with the idea that education was a route to a bright future. University was something she had dreamed about since she was young.
“As much as I love my mum and my little brother I was so ready to go,” she said.
“I was looking forward to all of it – campus life, making new friends, libraries, museums, having a lab coat and goggles – there was so much I was ready to experience. I have never even seen snow fall before.”
Despite the challenges, she is hopeful that her career choice, in healthcare, will allow her to make a difference in one of the many challenges the world is facing.
Across the student diaspora, many young people are encountering the same strange mix of displacement, anxiety and heightened sense of purpose.
Monina Thompson, 19, should be in Canada right now, beginning the second year of her psychology degree at Carleton University.
Instead, she is back in Cayman, watching lectures online and trying to find a quiet place to work in a busy home where she does not have her own room. In some ways, it feels like she has regressed.
Thompson, who graduated from John Gray High School in 2018, returned to the island on one of the last flights before the borders closed.
She was going through first-year exams then and made it home just in time to log on for a virtual exam the same day.
“I am someone who really likes to study and be prepared,” she said,
“I was crying my way through it.”
In-class learning hasn’t yet resumed at Carleton and she expects to be studying remotely for some time to come.
It has been impossible to get relevant work experience or an internship in Cayman, but she considers herself lucky to have a part-time job in retail, making a little money to go towards her tuition fees.
Despite the challenges, she has tried to be productive, using the time during lockdown to learn to skateboard and change the oil in her car.
Mental health challenges
Others have been less able to cope with the pressures of lockdown and the anxieties of the pandemic.
Both Thompson and Jackson are part of the Youth Ambassadors programme, which aims to raise awareness of mental-health issues among young people.
Jackson recalls at least two examples where teenagers reportedly tried to take their own lives during lockdown.
She said many teenagers were dealing with additional pressures because of the pandemic, ranging from the stress of family members losing jobs to additional anxiety about exams and their futures. For some, being confined to their homes exacerbated underlying mental-health problems.
Shrinking jobs market
It is perhaps no surprise that issues relating to mental health have come to the fore at a time when the pandemic has brought considerable uncertainty to the global economy.
Massive job losses across the US and in Cayman, amid the total collapse of the tourism industry, mean today’s students will be graduating into a shrinking employment market.
More people competing for a fewer number of jobs likely means a challenging start to working life.
As a psychology student, Thompson remains hopeful about her long-term career prospects in comparison to her peers in Canada.
“I have been told by a lot of people that more psychologists are needed here in Cayman. I think it will be easier than elsewhere. We are lucky to be in Cayman.”
Third-year marine biology student Rickeem Lashley was on an ‘industry gap year’ in Little Cayman when the pandemic hit.
He has since travelled back to Wales, but a series of lockdowns in the UK have disrupted normal university life.
Field trips and practical sessions have been cancelled and he watches his lectures on a projector in his student flat, trying to resist the competing temptations of Netflix.
Concern over the value for money of the educational experience is a recurring theme among his peers.
Long term, though, he feels comfortable with his life choices and his career goals.
He says he chose his degree subject because of a desire to make a difference to another key existential issue – climate change.
“While the future does look bleak from an ecological perspective, I am glad that I will someday play a role in addressing a global problem,” he said
Call to action
COVID-19 has heightened the sense that this generation is coming of age in the most turbulent of times.
But many young people are viewing these issues not as insurmountable obstacles but as a call to action.
Aliyah Myers, head girl of John Gray High School’s Class of 2020, believes her generation will not be defined by the challenges they face, but by the way they rise to meet them.
It is not just the pandemic. She says young people are becoming far more active and outspoken in campaigns against climate change, racial injustice and many other social issues.
Myers is currently studying for A-Levels in St. Ignatius Catholic School’s sixth form college with the hope of going on to university and studying to be an environmental technician and hydrologist.
Like many of her peers, she says her career ambitions are driven by the issues she sees facing her country, the region and the planet.
“The Caribbean is under a lot of scrutiny right now, with climate change, hurricanes becoming more frequent, degradation of coral reefs, water security. I really want to come back to Cayman and have an impact locally for the region.”
Delayed by the pandemic and then by Tropical Storm Delta, John Gray’s graduation went ahead in late October.
Each student was allowed to bring two family members. Though it wasn’t what she imagined, Myers says she is grateful to have been able to ‘cross the stage’ and to get that moment with her former classmates.
Head boy Lé Bron McLean wasn’t there to see it, delivering his speech by video from Jamaica where he won a scholarship to study dance at the Edna Manley School of the Performing Arts.
Following a dream
McLean had been one year into an A-Level programme when the pandemic struck. He had been having second thoughts about the path he was on and, despite being a straight-A student, decided to make a change.
“I wanted to pursue my dream,” he said.
“It made me consider to a very deep extent what I wanted to do with my life and I couldn’t ignore that. I decided I have to do this. It is now or never.”
McLean recorded his audition tapes over video in his house during the crisis. You can see his sister in the background in one of the tapes.
Despite the unique challenges, he won a place at the prestigious performing arts school and left Cayman in August.
With COVID cases escalating in Jamaica, it has been a nerve-racking start to his college career. Online learning is impossible for many aspects of performing arts and the show has gone on, with a few adaptions.
“The hardest thing to get used to has been dancing in a mask,” he says.
Facing the future
McLean says he is proud of how his year group has come through the challenge of graduating during a pandemic.
“I was pleased to see how many of us pushed back against the challenges and used their experiences to prepare them for success.”
Myers agrees. She used her speech at the graduation to encourage students to see the bright side.
“For the Class of 2020, we have definitely graduated into an uncertain world, and I know it will be a nerve-racking experience for many of us but there should always be a positive thought that comes with it,” she said.
Jackson believes some of the positivity comes from the way so many of her generation are looking towards careers that can make a difference.
Though the challenges they face might be demoralising at times, they are motivated to address them.
“One of my teachers said that our generation has grown up watching superhero movies and reading dystopian novels where there are all these insurmountable problems, but there is always a hero or a main character who is trying to go out and solve it.
“I think that trickled down… Some of us have chosen career paths that we hope will directly impact things getting better.”