Winthrop University: Project 2020: Winthrop History Students Seek to Hear About Pandemic Experiences
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Project 2020: Winthrop History Students Seek to Hear About Pandemic Experiences

December 15, 2022

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Project 2020 began as an oral history experience conducted in the fall of that year for the History Colloquium class.
  • Their goal was to conduct interviews that explored the various ways in which Americans experienced and were impacted by the various watershed moments that emerged during 2020.

ROCK HILL, SOUTH CAROLINA - Winthrop University students are capturing many of the memories of area residents and students about the tumultuous year of 2020. 

Project 2020 began as an oral history experience conducted in the fall of that year for the History Colloquium class. Jennifer Dixon-McKnight, an assistant professor of history and African American Studies, said her graduate students understood that they were living in remarkable times. 

Their goal was to conduct interviews that explored the various ways in which Americans experienced and were impacted by the various watershed moments that emerged during 2020. The year was fraught with troubled times from the global pandemic that has killed 6.6 million people worldwide, to social unrest, financial challenges, shortages of toilet paper and other supplies, and issues with healthcare, education, etc. 

“It is important to record as much of this history as we can while it is still fresh on the minds and in the hearts of those of us who have lived it,” Dixon-McKnight said. “Oral histories can offer important insights into 2020 and the subsequent years as the reverberations continue to unfold across the nation.”

Most often, Dixon-McKnight said, historians are unaware of what will be noteworthy until later. “The year 2020 is unique in that we were and are able to recognize its historic significance in the moment,” she added.

Project 2020 expands to become independent effort

The seven graduate students in the History Colloquium class conducted at least two interviews each. The project then expanded to become an independent oral history project in the Department of History in fall 2021. 

Dixon-McKnight used the idea in a second class, Black Women in America, and her 19 students conducted at least two more interviews each with African-American women. Several of the women expressed concerns around the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, the impact of the pandemic on small businesses and the major shifts in our daily lives.

The Department of History also reached out to residents of Sun City, a retirement community in nearby Indian Land, South Carolina. Nearly 50 residents offered their take on the year to Dixon-McKnight and to Project 2020 intern Michaela Bessinger. Only one resident lost a family member to COVID but others lost friends. Some had family members pass in what can be attributed as indirect COVID deaths due to an overwhelmed healthcare system. 

The Sun City residents noted the negative effect of the digital divide, where getting tested for the disease required a certain amount of familiarity with technology. “That hindered them from getting tested early on,” Dixon-McKnight said. “They also talked about moving here to be close to relatives and then they couldn’t see their family and had to resort to using Zoom calls.”

One Sun City resident kept a pandemic journal for 440 days from March 2020 through May 2021 and has donated it to Winthrop’s Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections. Included in the journal were a coronavirus prayer, American Rescue Plan letters and other memorabilia.

Some residents declined to talk about how highly politicized the times became as people were opposed or in support of getting vaccinated against COVID and its different strains.  

Looking for Winthrop Students to Interview 

At first, the Winthrop group interviewed community members and have now moved this academic year to interviewing Winthrop students.

A dozen students have been interviewed this fall by undergraduate intern Maggie Long and graduate worker Bill Calandro. More student interviews are expected to take place in the spring, with each lasting half an hour. 

“We want to ensure that this history is not lost,” Dixon-McKnight said. “We’re focusing on how this was a major shift for their college experience, and we’re excited that because students will be interviewing other students, that the interviews will be more candid.”

So far, the college students note that the positive impact of COVID that they have experienced or witnessed has been the flexibility of online learning and the ability to work from home. Several said they are glad to be able to attend worship services in their hometown churches more regularly because services during the pandemic were offered virtually. Many churches still offer a virtual option. 

The negative experiences the students note they have experienced or witnessed involve the increase in mental health issues, domestic violence, breakups and substance abuse problems. 

All Project 2020 interviews will be deposited in the Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections.

For more information about the project, e-mail project2020oh@winthrop.edu.

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Last Updated: 1/13/23