ROCHESTER, Minn. — People don't typically view themselves as being shaped by events unless they have been hit by a two-by-four.

And today's youth have been gobsmacked by three epic events: a once-in-a-century pandemic, a recession and, in the midst of both, a global reckoning on racism sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

And it will shape and change them in ways that will echo through their lives.

In interviews with students from Rochester, Austin, Stewartville and Dover-Eyota high schools, students offered insight into how they think this triple whammy will change them.

They talked about taking into adulthood a sense of the fragility of things. What most people took for granted as birthrights, today's youth saw disappear.

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They've lived through an economy destabilized, jobs made expendable by social distancing. They've noted the jobs that have survived the pandemic as well as the ones that have succumbed to it.

They've missed out on key life passages including prom and graduation.

"I'm just watching them float off in the distance," said Stewartville High School senior Makayla Kennedy.

Makayla Kennedy is a senior at Stewartville High School and Gen Z.
Makayla Kennedy is a senior at Stewartville High School and Gen Z.

Having retreated to their bedrooms for online school and lacking traditional access to teachers, these students have developed more of a do-it-yourself mindset.

They find what they need online — then do it. They question the utility and exorbitant costs associated with a college degree. They control and manipulate their digital selves with ease, but are less sure-footed in social situations.

Freed from the constraints of a traditional school schedule, some have used the free time to explore their individual interests and avocations. Some have learned to paint and play a musical instrument, to bake and knit. Uprooted from their social networks at school, they feel less peer pressure than before.

Some worry about being captives to their digital echo chambers. They are skeptical of authority and political leaders, seeing how the adults botched and mishandled the pandemic.

"I think we're going to be more appreciative of what we have, because we have seen how fragile things are," said Alissa Halvorson, a junior at Dover-Eyota High School.

Alissa Halvorson is a junior at Dover-Eyota High School and Gen Z.
Alissa Halvorson is a junior at Dover-Eyota High School and Gen Z.

History is replete with how earth-shattering events shaped past generations.

People raised during the Great Depression in the 1930s tended to be more security-conscious and risk-averse later in life. Millennials delayed having children and buying a house after coming of age during the Great Recession. Those who learned to drive during the 1981 recession, when gas prices doubled overnight, have continued to drive less and take public transportation more.

Commonly referred to as Generation Z, today's youth are the first generation whose entire lives have been intertwined and wrapped in technology. It is their natural habitat, and it gave them certain advantages when the pandemic struck.

When they began taking classes online at home, the transition for this tech-savvy group was "smoother for us," said Daniel Ma, a Mayo High School senior.

Daniel Ma is a senior at Century High School and Gen Z.
Daniel Ma is a senior at Century High School and Gen Z.

Ma is as nimble communicating online with friends as talking to them face-to-face. He met his best friend online. She lives halfway around the world, and he has never met her in person.

"The transition to pandemic socialization wasn't too much of an issue, simply because we've already been in that kind of online environment," Ma said.

Ma said his online world allows him to control his social interactions in a way that the physical world doesn't. He can control his digital self and choose those with whom he wishes to hang out. Unlike attending school in person, he doesn't have to interact with people he doesn't like.

"I found that I generally enjoy my social interactions more, because I can just pick and choose exactly who I'm hanging out with," Ma said.

But there is a downside, he said. It's easy to feel cloistered in an echo chamber. When you hang out with like-minded people, the perspectives you hear echo and reinforce your point of view. Opinions that challenge and force you to accommodate different viewpoints are lacking.

"It's very easy to lock yourself up inside that environment," Ma said.

Many students have suffered from the loneliness and social isolation of online learning. Other students in the area, however, have thrived. With more free time and less structure, they have been able to explore and develop individual hobbies and interests.

"My brother, through the pandemic, has spent so much time knitting and baking, you just wouldn't believe it," said Erin Stoeckig, a junior at Mayo High School. "It's not that we don't engage with things that are outside of practical use. It's that we have different ways of finding those things."

Erin Stoeckig, a student at Mayo High School and Gen Z.
Erin Stoeckig, a student at Mayo High School and Gen Z.

Ava Jovaag, a student at Austin High School, has used her free time to paint and play the ukulele. Jovaag finds both activities therapeutic. She probably wouldn't have developed and cultivated either skill but for the pandemic.

The pandemic changed and slowed the pace of her day. So, with more free time, she took the initiative to learn new skills. Being a self-starter, she said, will benefit her in the long run.

"I know some schools are fully online, and even in a hybrid model, you have to take the initiative," Jovaag said. "I know a lot of people have not done that, and it's caused somewhat of a downfall. It's helped me to stop procrastinating and learn time management and independence."

That do-it-yourself attitude calls into question the current structure of higher education, Ma said. He wonders: Is it necessary to assume tens of thousands of dollars in debt to learn a subject, when YouTube or an online community provides the same experience for free?

Ma said he has a couple of friends who completed their college application process around the time the pandemic hit. So instead of reporting to campuses in the fall, they stayed home and took their classes online.

"So, they were paying full college tuition to stay home and watch classes online, when in reality there is a very large amount of stuff you can learn online that you don't need classes for," Ma said. "I think our generation and the generation after will be tackling the question: Is college even worth it?"

Students have noted which jobs have survived the pandemic and which have wilted in the face of it. These students want to make a difference in their careers, but they want jobs with durability.

Alexus Heins, a Dover-Eyota senior, said her interest in teaching was bolstered when she saw how the profession fared through the pandemic. Teachers continued to work. And while Mayo Clinic sustained some short-term layoffs, health care has fared exceptionally well, too.

Alexus Heins, a senior at Dover-Eyota High School and Gen Z.
Alexus Heins, a senior at Dover-Eyota High School and Gen Z.

Heins said many of her classmates are interested in pursuing health care careers.

Young people are commonly drawn to the health care field for work after living through a significant health event such as a family member getting cancer and dying, research has shown. The pandemic has been such an event but on a global scale.

"We want to make a meaningful contribution and have a stable job that's going to be around," Halvorson said.

For students like Luke Drake, a senior at Mayo High School, the pandemic has upended long-held assumptions. One idea to take a beating was the presumption that the people in charge — political leaders, government, the adults in the room — knew what they were doing.

Luke Drake, a senior at Mayo High School and Gen Z.
Luke Drake, a senior at Mayo High School and Gen Z.

The pandemic exposed them as people who didn't have all the answers.

"I expected the people in charge to know how life was going to work," Drake said. "The pandemic came, and people didn't actually know how to respond. That was eye-opening to me."