Editor’s note: Mariah Barrera was featured in May 2020 as part of SNN’s Grads with Grit series. We follow up with her here to see how things have gone in her first year of college.
Grand Rapids — Around this time last year, Mariah Barrera was feeling down about the end of her K-12 career. She and her senior classmates at City High Middle School had graduated without an in-person ceremony after spending their last few months of school online due to the pandemic.
“It kind of hurt,” Barrera recalled. “The other day I saw (this year’s) seniors from my school having their graduation. If I let myself think about it too much, it does make me sad.”
Fast forward to now, when she is wrapping up her first year of college at Columbia University in New York City, and her outlook is dramatically different.
“It’s just been an amazing experience so far,” she said on a Zoom call from her dorm room. “I really love being here. I haven’t gotten tired of it.”
Besides drinking in the coffee shops, restaurants, parks and neighborhoods of the Big Apple, Barrera has already jump-started her career aspiration to make documentary and feature films.
’Just being here reminds me there’s so much out there for me, and that I’m only going to find it if I stay focused and keep working hard on what it is I care about.’– Mariah Barrera, City High graduate
She was awarded the $10,000 top prize from YoungArts, a national nonprofit, for “My Brother’s Keeper,” a documentary about her father’s experiences with incarcerated brothers. She was also accepted into The Catalyst Cohort, a mentorship program for emerging women and nonbinary film-industry professionals of color.
All told, studying and working in New York has accelerated the creative drive she had already fueled at City High and through award-winning films she made at West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology.
“Just being here reminds me there’s so much out there for me, and that I’m only going to find it if I stay focused and keep working hard on what it is I care about,” she said. “Because the city is just filled with people who are here pursuing something very specific and important to them.”
Collaborating with Dad on Film
It’s been a heady experience for a young woman who spent part of her upbringing homeless after her parents were priced out of their home. She persevered by studying hard and channeling her experiences into her passion for filmmaking.
She continued that outlet with “My Brother’s Keeper,” which she shot at home in the fall while taking online classes from Columbia. She created it in collaboration with her father, Robert, who narrated the film about what it was like having two brothers spend time in prison.
“It is history, but in a lot of ways it’s my story as well,” Mariah reflected. “This is just an experience that has been going on throughout my entire life, that just felt so normal. It isn’t something that I ever really talked about with anyone outside of my family. … I was comfortable enough to be vulnerable with this story.”
The idea for the film gestated last summer during nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, when conversations about the criminal justice system often used depersonalizing language about incarcerated people, she said.
“They’re not just prisoners. They’re so much more than that. They’re someone’s son, someone’s brother.”
The $10,000 award was confirmation that she was on the right track with her chosen career, Barrera said. Meanwhile, she moved to New York in January to continue her course work, including classes in writing, Spanish, science and theater.
‘I Can Do What I Want to Do Here’
Then there is the education of living in the creative capital of America, with its fascinating array of artists, ethnicities and cultural centers. She’s spent a lot of time off the Columbia campus on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, hanging out with friends at New York University on the Lower East Side and exploring the byways of neighborhoods and little shops.
“It’s like every day I see a new part of the city I didn’t even know was there,” she said. “Every single neighborhood feels like you’re in a new city.”
Coming off the social isolation of the pandemic, it’s an invigorating place to begin a new chapter – motivated in part by a sense of urgency instilled by the threat of COVID.
“It’s really taught me the importance of, I can do what I want to do here, with the resources I have, if I believe in what it is I‘m doing and if I really care about it,” she said. “Not waiting for the perfect moment, because you’re never going to get the perfect moment and the perfect time to do it.”