Growing up, Lenora Thomas ’23 felt pressure to excel academically, which meant all her accomplishments came with a caveat — every A should have been an A+ and any time her peers outperformed her, she agonized over how to be more like them.
“I realized all the actions I was taking, the thoughts I was having, were impacting me and I was rotting away inside,” she recalls. “And I see that in a lot of people. Externally, they’re doing fine, they look great and successful, but they go home at night and feel totally alone or empty, they abuse themselves somehow. Those struggles are prevalent and they come from within us.”
Thomas, currently a communication studies major at Saint Joseph’s, grew up in a tightknit community in West Philadelphia. As she watched the world go into lockdown at the start of the pandemic, she realized her friends and neighbors were likely dealing with their own feelings of isolation — maybe for the first time — and she wanted to better understand how that would forever change their outlook. This summer, she plans on leaning into her own mental health struggle to examine how the people around her experienced the COVID-19 pandemic through uniquely positioned Summer Scholars research.
“For the past year and a half, we’ve heard a lot about the physical tolls that COVID has had on the human body and endless political rhetoric on the subject, but there is a real lack of conversation going on about the effects this is having on everyone’s mental health,” Thomas notes. “This is going to forever change our interactions, our feelings toward each other and maybe even our feelings about ourselves.”
For instance, at the beginning of lockdown, Thomas considered herself an introvert.
“I spent month after month with just myself and my nuclear family and then I realized, wow. I really need other people,” she laughs. “I wasn’t quite what I thought I was. I think that’s the case for a lot of people.”
Steven Hammer, Ph.D., associate professor of communication and media studies, wholeheartedly agrees.
“I was totally convinced of the opposite about myself,” he admits. “I thought I was 100% an extrovert and then, as I saw all these opportunities to not get involved with people around me, I found myself kind of really enjoying the excuse. I didn’t have to see anyone. At all. Ever. It was so liberating.”
Hammer will be acting as an advisor to Thomas on her Summer Scholars project. As Thomas studies how the people in her community have changed their behaviors and attitudes after 16 months of near isolation, Hammer will support her in the creation of a multimedia, interactive poetry anthology.
In order to do this, she will be interviewing a diversity of subjects in the neighborhood — not only friends and family, but also community leaders, members of law enforcement and local elected officials.