Late one night in March 2020, Sanpha Samura lay in bed at his parents’ house in Mattapan, thinking. Colleges were scrambling to shift classes online in those early, frantic weeks of the pandemic. He had just transferred from Bunker Hill Community College to Northeastern University, where he was studying biology. His education had been a winding journey, and this was the last leg.
Yet his thoughts were not about pressing on, but pausing. He felt isolated and out of place at his new school. Blocked from the computer lab for being late on fees, he’d been taking the bus to a friend’s in Hyde Park to print out homework.
Now, with the rise of COVID-19, classes were going virtual. Without a laptop or printer of his own, he wasn’t sure who he could turn to, or how he’d manage. He also thought about the student loans he owed, almost $20,000 already.
The debt, the stress ― it wasn’t worth it. The thought had nagged at him for a while, but in this moment, it crystallized: He didn’t have to stay. He could ditch all the anxiety. Opening his smartphone, he navigated to his NU student profile and withdrew from his classes.
Then he clicked his phone shut.
The pandemic has roiled life, and endangered it, for people of all ages and circumstance. But people in their 20s have faced their own challenges. Most have escaped serious illness and death, but the pervasive threat of the virus and its variants has transformed the landscape of their young adulthood, complicating just about everything — careers, school plans, relationships — while also opening up unexpected possibilities.
Young Americans were already coming of age at a time of profound flux and frustration. For many, crushing student debt and stratospheric housing prices have made the middle class lives their parents and grandparents enjoyed seem out of reach. Racism and economic inequality are tearing at the country’s fraying bonds, and climate change looms as an existential threat, but the political system seems incapable of responding effectively. Many twentysomethings feel the burden of knowing that these unaddressed historic crises will fall to them to address one day soon. For some that is catalyzing, for others, it’s completely overwhelming.
Then, when COVID hit, young people watched the pandemic dissolve many of the familiar markers of adulthood: graduations, weddings, college classes, jobs, dates. Even dinner with friends. The disruption of so many norms threw everything into question.
Now, as the world stumbles toward a new status quo, many in this emerging generation feel deeply unsettled but also less encumbered by convention — freed by a cataclysm to reimagine what they want their lives to be.
Those who shared their stories with the Globe for this project say they have become more sure of themselves, more certain of how they want to spend their time. They have discovered new ways to use their talents, remembered the exhilaration of play. Some have returned to the place that feels most like home, even if it is not, in fact, the home they once knew.
| 23 • Mattapan |
It is 5:30 a.m. on a damp Saturday in July, a year and a half after he left college, and Sanpha Samura is at work, tucked inside a small office on the rambling first floor of the Pine Street Inn men’s shelter in the South End, checking guests out on the computer as they leave for the day.
Outside the office, TVs buzz with the morning news as the men get ready to leave. Lockers clank open and shut. The air has a cozy smell of coffee and breakfast.
Samura doesn’t plan to return to the university anytime soon. Shortly after he left Northeastern, he found a job here. It feels good to be earning money, and to have the time to sort life out. Learning is taking a new shape.
This summer he moved out of his parents’ house into his own first-floor apartment in Roxbury. Out back, a row of rambling green backyards stretch the length of the block, hydrangeas blooming.
School, for Samura, had always been secondary to his intellectual adventures outside of class. The coding course he took at MIT during high school at City on a Hill Charter Public School. The semester abroad he spent in Costa Rica, living on a wildlife reservation, kayaking through a river full of crocodiles. Or when his dad, a park ranger, used to take him camping on Georges Island. The pair would leave early on the ferry, toting homemade fried chicken sandwiches, and he would explore the island alone while his dad gave tours.
Samura had been paying for college himself. Many he encountered made it seem normal to carry huge student debt, but it never felt normal to him. The reality, Samura finally concluded last year, was that, paying his own way, he was too poor to go to college.
It shouldn’t be like that, he thinks. So much good could happen in the world if people could afford to study whatever they wanted. But that’s not the world he found.
Yet he feels, somehow, empowered. He didn’t ask anyone’s advice about leaving college. He just did it. What else, he wonders, might happen, now that he’s stepped off the obvious path?
He has resolved to have a fascinating career without owing tens of thousands. He is captivated by human interaction, the societal structures that people find themselves living in — or trapped inside.
In a psychology class he took at Bunker Hill, he learned that neuroscience researchers often spend time with the populations they study. Pine Street Inn feels like that kind of field work, even if he is still discerning what he wants to learn.
Samura is building other skills. Before this job, conversation intimidated him. He never knew how to respond to small talk. Now he thinks of every “hello” as a doorway, a portal to understanding an entire life.
He has many responsibilities at the shelter — patrolling the dorms, supervising the showers. But the one he’s assigned this morning, checking people out, is his favorite, because he gets to say hello to everyone.
As they leave, the men call their Pine Street ID numbers from the doorway, one at a time: 3050, 2006, 4066. The voices are old, young, scratchy, accented, sleepy, alert. Samura knows some by heart.
“I got you, bro,” he says. “Happy Saturday.”
Some had missed Samura last week, when he’d taken off to move to his new apartment.
“I ain’t seen you in a minute,” one man said. “You’ve taken a nice vacation, and you didn’t take me with you?!”
Some have begun to tell him things. He likes the feeling of accompanying them for a few steps.
“Good day yesterday,” one man confided. “I got my certificate for the literacy test.”
“Really? That’s dope! See? You’re building yourself, one step at a time! I like to see it, man.”
| 26 • Everett |
Sarah Hehrer snapped a selfie in the Detroit airport, documenting the lonely and bizarre experience of flying during the early months of the pandemic. In the photo, her hair is in braids and her mask nearly swallows her face, all but her eyes, swollen from crying.
At this point, April 2020, she had passed weeks and weeks alone in her apartment in Richmond, Calif., just outside San Francisco. Finally her worried parents bought her a ticket home to Michigan. The last place she wanted to be.
How could the life she’d built in California end like this?
The lockdown had brought a paralyzing isolation. It didn’t matter that her apartment was lovely, just a short walk to the edge of San Francisco Bay, with its golden sunsets. Many days, she couldn’t summon the will to get out of bed; the sun would pierce her bay windows in the early morning, then cast a dappled glow through the trees as it set hours later.
Sometimes on a Zoom call for work, her voice would be scratchy because it had been a few days since she last spoke aloud. When the call ended, all the other faces would disappear until she was left staring back at herself.
After college she knew only that she badly wanted to leave Michigan. The AmeriCorps position at a scholarship fund in the Bay Area was the first to extend an offer. It felt like the beginning of a journey to mold herself into a more sophisticated Sarah Hehrer .
She was proud of the life she’d created here: her job at a nonprofit, her diverse group of friends, their outdoorsy adventures.
But when the pandemic hit, everything melted away. Her friends were across the bay in their apartments. She and her boyfriend had recently broken up. The coffee shop where the barista knew her order closed. With the grocery store a long bus ride away, she subsisted on takeout and canned soup from convenience stores. Work was now a string of Zoom meetings.
The Detroit airport was an eerie layover on the trip back to Ovid, her hometown. Her dad, in a mask and a baseball cap, picked her up from the Lansing airport.
As they turned down the long dirt driveway to her parents’ low ranch, she noticed that the apple blossoms still clung to the trees. She hadn’t seen the orchard’s blooms in three years.
Inside, her parents had painted over the purple and lime green striped walls of her bedroom with a neutral color. Burlap and mason jars sat piled in the corner, leftover decorations from her sister’s wedding three years ago.
Sometime in the night, their old family cat, Tigger, found her. She lay on Hehrer’s chest, warm, purring. She’d thought going home would feel like failure, but in that moment, it just felt better.
That summer, Hehrer and her mother hunched over jigsaw puzzles that her grandmother bought for them at yard sales. They watched crime procedurals. Her dad bought her Oberon, the local summertime beer, and White Claw hard seltzer. She found out later that he had a Trump flag he took down while she was home.
Then, one morning, she was ready to go again.
She took her best friend from college up on an offer to be her roommate in Everett, Mass. The apartment was dingy but they made it feel homey with house plants and stick-on wallpaper.
She found a huge dresser on Facebook Marketplace, an ancient, clunky heirloom that was heavy and hard to move. The roommates ran errands together, a little pandemic family. She kept the place clean, Margaret cooked vegan pot pies.
Side by side they worked on their laptops from home. In the evenings, they sat on the fire escape in cheap patio chairs with Margaret’s dog, Coisa. The sun set over the service center at the Honda dealership on Broadway, to the music of rushing traffic. Their circle expanded; she started dating someone new.
You can build a life around people you love.
When she left for California after college, it had felt like her parents would live forever. But during her time at home last year, she noticed more gray in her father’s beard. Tigger died around Thanksgiving.
In August she went home for a wedding, bringing her boyfriend to meet her family and high school friends. They loved him.
| 21 • Chelsea |
Iliana Vidal moves around the classroom, bending to speak quietly to the students as they work. The teenagers in the summertime art program she is helping to lead are drawing posters of the lives they hope to live.
It’s July 2021, 16 months into the pandemic. This is her old high school, a massive brick building wedged between noisy thoroughfares that cut through Chelsea.
When she was a student here, she didn’t think much about her struggling city or the hardships that so many of its residents face. She loved to spend time at home, talking with her mom or watching movies and drawing.
Now she sees her old home, and world, in a different way.
Art, when she was younger, immersed her in imaginary worlds. She watched “Avatar: The Last Airbender” with her older brother, copying Katara, Aang, and the little bison, Appa, in her sketchbook with a No. 2 pencil. At school her teachers encouraged her, saying she had a good eye. As she began classes at Bunker Hill Community College she imagined a career in graphic design, an artistic path that also seemed practical.
Jobs were scarce when she finished her associate’s degree in the spring of 2020. But La Colaborativa, a local nonprofit in the front lines of battling the ravages of COVID, was hiring; Chelsea was one of the state’s hardest-hit communities. They needed someone to work with teenagers on art projects; Vidal got the job.
And those young people — members of La Colaborativa’s Youth Riot Squad — shocked Vidal awake.
One of her fellow interns’ friends slept in a bathroom because their apartment was so crowded. Another knew a family that was living on another family’s porch. Impossible conditions under any circumstance, but COVID introduced the specter of disease and death. Vidal couldn’t stop thinking about that family on the porch, the dread they must feel as summer slipped into fall.
The Riot Squad knew what needed to change. These young people could talk policy: Eviction moratoriums, minimum wage hikes, emergency shelters. Their voices rang with indignation; they knew they deserved better.
Vidal helped the group make signs for rallies and demonstrations. She painted a poster of a butterfly against a border wall to wheat paste to the side of an old factory building, an image of beauty in an unexpected spot. She made it for new immigrants, and also for people like her, the third generation of her family to call this city home. She thought about her grandmother, who had come to Chelsea from Uruguay in the 1950s and raised four children here. Her father’s family, making their way from Puerto Rico to New York to Boston.
Suddenly her phone was buzzing all the time: the young activists thrived on the the exhilaration of speaking up together, and she felt it too.
Other local artists visited the group, and she watched how they worked. At a local marina, they built a monument to resilience, a towering green and yellow sculpture of a spiny pineapple made of wood and onion sack netting, rising up at the water’s edge, the Boston skyline in the distance.
Working on the project, she met a woman who lives on one of the boats moored there, with her little white dog. The area was quiet before, but now the woman notices it’s busy with people coming to see the pineapple.
At a demonstration in October, this one against the expiration of an eviction moratorium that could affect hundreds of her neighbors, cold rain streamed down Vidal’s face as she marched with the teens to City Hall. She listened to the testimonies of her friends and neighbors, she watched the ink bleed on the posters she had helped the students create. In that moment, the pain of her city felt real, and so did her ability to use art to help heal it.
Now Vidal is making plans to earn a business degree that could enable her continue to work for nonprofits, or maybe even start her own organization.
And this summer, she’s making art with this new group of young people, gathered in her old school.
As the students draw their posters, she moves around the room, talking to each teenager, one by one. “What are you thinking of?” she says to one girl, almost whispering. “I love that,” she says to another.
Later she’ll help the students photograph themselves holding their creations. The images will be printed on enormous banners and displayed on street lights across the city, so everyone can see their dreams.
| 30 • Waltham |
Most weekdays for Ryan Page begin the same way. Around 8:30 a.m. he sets up his laptop docking station and two monitors on the kitchen table in the small Waltham apartment he shares with his girlfriend. On his lunch break, he warms up leftovers in the microwave.
Around 6 p.m. he logs off, and pushes aside his workspace so they can make dinner. Then he and his girlfriend take a walk, or shoot hoops on a nearby court in the fading light.
This is not where Page wants to be right now. The pandemic has made that clear.
There is a pond in a corner of southeastern Vermont where, if you stand at the water’s edge, the trees on the other side rise up from the water, a gradient of green, lighter by the shore and darker in the distance. The water is clear and stinging cold, so that if you swim in the early morning, you race in all at once, and splash out again, breathless.
He was in college when he began to take weekend camping trips there. He and his buddies would pile their gear into the car and head three hours — from the Mass. Pike to I-91, then west over narrower roads — to this place, so deserted it felt like their own secret. The camping was free, first-come-first-serve.
After he graduated he found his way back there, or nearby, at least, to a job in the lodging department at Stratton Mountain. In the winter, skiers packed the town, but then everyone went home, the trees turned electric green, and for a few quiet months, the trails and waterfalls were his.
In the small towns around the mountain, people seemed less agitated than they did closer to the city, and friendlier. Maybe too friendly sometimes; they noticed he was new in town and asked where he was from, why he’d moved up. After a while he found himself doing that, too, as if this were his home.
But the mountain was sold, and many of the higher-level jobs Page had been angling for disappeared. He wanted to pay off his student loans as quickly as possible, so he moved back to Massachusetts, got a job at a software company. It seemed responsible.
But his mind kept returning to Vermont. The pond, the owls hooting at dusk, the moose he saw there once, tall and still.
By the time the pandemic hit, his parents and both his brothers had all moved to Vermont. As the world slowed to a stop, he realized it: He and his girlfriend could join them. He could work remotely now, or at least for a little while, so that solved the job problem.
He let himself imagine how there’d be space for a dog to roam, room to get a garden going.
But when Page logged back onto Zillow, houses in places he and his brother had checked out a year earlier were now tens of thousands of dollars more expensive, as people fled big cities for rural towns they’d never heard of. He had figured the price hikes wouldn’t reach as far north as his corner of Vermont, but they had. Month by month, as the pandemic stretched on, the prices seemed to rise further and further beyond their means.
This summer, Page and his girlfriend traveled back to Vermont for a wedding. As they drove through the town where he had once lived, they passed a house he’d seen a hundred times, a white Colonial with dark shutters and a sliver of a side yard. Cars lined the road out front. At first he thought it was a party, then he saw it was an open house. He looked it up: The price was over a million.
This life they dreamed of; so far beyond reach.
People are starting to return to the office now. About once a week, he puts on a button-down shirt, drives in, and joins them.
| 25 • Allston |
In the back seat of the Jeep Cherokee, Ahmad Azari rolled down the window and the wind whipped against his face.
As the car zoomed down Route 3 toward Cape Cod, his friends in the front blasted a viral Indian pop hit from the late 1990s, a song with a quick, shoulder-bouncing drumbeat that made you laugh and dance: Tunak tunak tun/Tunak tunak tun/Tunak tunak tun/Da da da. . . .
Whose country made the best dance music? An uproarious debate ensued; they blared samples in Arabic, Chinese, and English, the Jeep shaking as they bounced in their seats.
Azari knew this moment would be fleeting. That was the point of enjoying it, and he’d almost missed the chance. It was late May 2021. The four international students in the car had come to Boston University in the fall of 2019 for master’s and PhD programs. They’d spent most of their time here in lockdown, and now two were about to move away.
Azari sat back. From March 2020 until July he hadn’t seen another soul besides his roommate, an elderly Chinese woman.
Now graduated and working as a clean energy analyst at a startup, Azari spends his days on the computer, analyzing data, writing memos, updating spreadsheets. Hours and hours of Zoom meetings. Azari is blind in his left eye; the increased screen time during the lockdowns made the inflammation in his eyes flare up. His headaches worsened, a sharp pain above his left eye.
Azari came to the United States, where he has no family or friends, to study, but also to meet people, to take advantage of the thriving intellectual hub of Boston. Instead he has rarely ventured outside of his apartment.
For so many years now he has bounced from school to fellowship to school to fellowship, adding increasingly impressive credentials to his resume. It is all part of his plan; even his meals he maps out two weeks in advance.
He inherited that drive from his father, who has overseen the tellers at a bank in Abu Dhabi for 30 years, meticulously ensuring that all the books balanced at the end of every day. Just before the lockdown, his father had suffered a heart attack.
Far away, the nine-hour time difference makes it hard to reach his family by phone. Azari began to think about his father’s life. My dad doesn’t really know how to relax, he began to realize, he doesn’t know how to have fun. He, Azari, saw how his own life was beginning to take shape. What if he made a plan to do things differently?
When Azari’s three friends hatched this idea for a day trip to Cape Cod, he said yes.
On the beach, they played like kids. Azari challenged one friend to a run; off they sprinted across the sand. They made a bet — $50 to stay in the freezing water for 60 seconds. No one made it more than 10; the water felt like needles stabbing his feet. They climbed up a steep hill and raced back down. They collected stones, then hurled them back into the ocean. They tried to crack big rocks in half using smaller ones.
The air — it felt so fresh.
| 28 • Jamaica Plain |
There is, sometimes, that moment — right after you hit send, pull out of the driveway, give notice, break up. That moment when you’re still in midair.
For years, Andrea Noble had resisted moving back to the West, back home; it felt like that would put an end to her adventuring.
Now she was going. There hadn’t been a big epiphany, just a series of shifts during the long pandemic year that made her sure.
It was time to leave her high school students in Dorchester, her Jamaica Plain roommates, and end her decade on the East Coast.
In Boston, life had grown lonely and cold. When classes went remote she had taught Zoom school in a winter coat on her porch, so as not to bother her roommates. For relief, she biked downtown to visit the aquarium seals, gliding in their glass tank.
Finally she had packed her Subaru, set off cross-country, sick to her stomach, maybe just from stress.
On the road to her family’s ranch, she spent one night in a friend-of-a-friend’s empty pool house in South Bend, Ind.; another in her car at a state recreation area in Nebraska, trucks rumbling by, coyotes howling, scared she’d be murdered.
On the last stretch she cut west across Wyoming, gripping the steering wheel as fierce gusts of wind beat against her car. Finally she pulled in at her mother’s empty bed and breakfast. She flopped on the grass, and took in the huge, open sky.
Her brother-in-law’s truck pulled in the lot, he waved hello. She walked down a few blocks to her grandmother’s apartment to wave through the window.
She spent the rest of the spring and summer living with her family, teaching her students in Boston remotely.
She adopted a rescue dog, part border collie, and named her Cora, after her hometown. Cora was fast.
Noble returned to Boston but made the long drive back to Wyoming again for the holidays. The winter sun on the wide open plains calmed her spirit. With the time difference, her Zoom classes ended by late morning, and she and Cora would set out for a long cross-country ski, looping up along mountain trails, to overlooks with views of lakes and craggy peaks, in and out of the forest, snowy and vast and free.
As the world began reopening this past spring, she found a job in Colorado, half a day’s drive from home. We’ve been waiting for you for 10 years, her high school friends said.
But Boston was blooming again when she came back to pack her things. Her friends there, newly vaccinated, met for dinners filled with now-permitted hugs. She kayaked the Charles, and Cora jumped into the river.
She had dreaded telling her students she wouldn’t be back next year, knowing it would hurt them, and it did. “Everybody leaves us,” they said.
What was she doing?
But she’d decided. It was time to go.
The last morning in June, she drove to Carson Beach, let Cora splash around in the surf. Then she carried the dog to her green Subaru, let her hop in. And she headed west.