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This 2020 grad’s advice: ‘Focus on what comes next’

Aspiring journalist living her dream in Chicago

Northview — A year ago, 2020 Northview High senior Alina Pawl-Castanon was lamenting the mental exhaustion of being on lockdown while living with a friend’s family. On indefinite hold was her passion: photographing the local music scene, as well as visiting an out-of-state college to which she had recently been accepted. 

She remembers feeling “robbed,” as she put it, of many high-school rites of passage such as prom, the senior all-night party and in-person commencement.

‘It’s OK to take a moment to grieve. But only a moment.’

— Alina Pawl-Castanon, 2020 Northview graduate
Alina Pawl-Castanon is a freshman at Columbia College, majoring in journalism

Today she is living in Chicago, where she is majoring in journalism at Columbia College and attending most classes online because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I have fallen in love with this city,” she said. “Even though the pandemic has pretty much ruined the nightlife, you can still see little bits of it. Every Friday night the city is bustling with people. There’s still that Chicago energy. I’m just OK with exploring my new home and meeting people here who are extraordinary.”

She credits a job-shadow with this SNN reporter with providing a foundation for framing journalistic writing and photography. One of her professors at Columbia is Radio Hall of Famer Teri Hemmert, whom Alina says is teaching her about the Chicago music scene in ways she never imagined.

Her first article in The Columbia Chronicle is due to be published soon, she said.

Don’t Dwell on What’s Over 

Pawl-Castanon’s advice to this year’s graduating seniors: acknowledge the losses, then forge ahead.

“It’s OK to take a moment to grieve. But only a moment,” she said. “The missed memories that you rightfully deserve, I get it. I grieved for a while. You just can’t get lost in it. You’ve got to move forward. Your life is just beginning.

Alina Pawl-Castanon, here basking in Chicago’s Millennium Park, said she’s ‘in love with’ the city

“Graduation, prom… those are the symbols of the end of your first chapter,” she added. “Not having those things to record and celebrate those accomplishments sucks. But you still made it. Appreciate that you are alive right now. This situation is going to make you stronger than you ever would have been without it, and there’s an entire life ahead of you.”

For her, it was Chicago. “It was my driving force; it was and is my dream,” she said. “I kept on telling myself that no matter what, I could look at Chicago and have hope. 

“The goal is what kept me going. I was given an opportunity to create who I wanted to be, and at Columbia I am able to be my authentic self.”

As someone who lives with asthma, Pawl-Castanon said she keeps her social circle small and takes pandemic safety precautions very seriously. Nonetheless, “I have a life to build. The world stopped last year and it’s just starting to pick back up again. But my life never stopped. Me, and everyone in my age group, are just trying to continue. I’m trying to find who I am as an adult on top of everything else.

She admits it was “almost impossible to find (my) footing” in this first year away from home, in college and living in a big city. “It’s the only way I could stay sane, to focus on what comes next.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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