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In their own words: AILANI BALDWIN

The Columbian
Published: June 2, 2021, 10:50am

Besides the pandemic, the Class of 2021 has also lived through a number of recent historical events the past year, including a presidential election and movements fighting for change. How have all these events shaped you, and what gives you hope for the future? 

As a person of color these movements of fighting for change have meant the world to me. I’m the co-founder of the first ever students of color union at my school and one of the focal points of this year was urging our school and school district to have courageous conversations about race. It’s important as a community that we value cultures and identity that is reflective upon our educational system. Students of color matter and we need to show that they matter within the literature, history, content, and language within their educational curriculum. All these events have shaped courage and grit within me as I hope to continue battling and tackling racism at all levels of education and societal systems. And most importantly it’s the people who stand for what’s right and speak out for what is wrong that gives me hope. The hope that we can no longer stand silent in detrimental times of injustice and inequality. We are here, we matter yesterday, today and tomorrow.

School districts began the school year in remote-only learning, then transitioned to hybrid instruction and for some students, even had full-time instruction again. What shook you and what gave you strength to push through during this challenging final year of K-12 schooling?

What shocked me the most was how fast our school / school district was transitioning from remote learning, then to hybrid. One day you’re attending online school in your pajamas and the next you’re putting on jeans and a shirt with a mask on to school. I along with many other students wanted to be back to school as soon as possible, for some people like me school is home, Hela is home. I hated not being able to see my peers, teachers, and administration that I considered family. It felt isolating, discouraging and put me in a vulnerable position I never imagined I would be in. But being able to know a district was going to take the needed safety precautions to ensure students of a safe environment gave me hope in my school and in my community. Community was the big strength that pushed me through this challenging final school year. Knowing I had a community that supported me, a community that loved me, and a community that ensured the safety of the people I cared about was what got me through these difficult times.

Over the past 15 months, students found themselves in uncharted territory and were forced to adjust to a new reality. What do you want people to know about learning in a pandemic — and living in a pandemic as a teenager — after more than a year of COVID-19 impacting education? 

Learning in a pandemic in aspects was somewhat easy and resourceful but also highlighted the negative inequalities many students face at school and at home that we might have not seen before. I think in some ways it allowed students to be at home in a space that was comfortable for them to adjust into this new remote setting alongside utilizing the technological resources gratefully given by the district that we might not have fully used in person. Although many students like myself face challenges when taking on  responsibilities at home and with school. We saw students taking care of their siblings due to school closure, many students working due to economic instability at home and many students struggling with mental health. This all opened doors to conversations of what resources students are getting and what they need alongside how school districts and communities can help marginalized students who experience systems of injustice due to the covid impact. Living in a pandemic as a teenager was and is monumental. It’s an experience our generation and I will never forget. As much as this pandemic has taken a lot from the “teenage experience” it allowed for us to grow bigger than ourselves immensely. We learned how to take care of each other and to take care of ourselves. We learned about compassion, the importance of mental health, and uniting globally. What we’ve learned, gain and loss will carry with us for years to come.

How have you changed since the pandemic started and what have you learned and gained over the past several months as you enter the next stage of your life?

I think I’ve changed in a positive way since the pandemic started. In the beginning of quarantine I prioritized doing so much rather than putting myself first which took a toll on my own personal mental health. But I learned through quarantine how important it was to take the time you need to give yourself a rest and that it’s okay to take a break. In doing so, I gained so much more purpose and fulfillment in my life whilst starting to understand the importance of taking care of yourself. As I graduate and enter the next stage of my life I’m glad to carry on with doing the things I love to do but keeping in touch with my mental health and my own capacity.