The following feature appears in the April 2017 issue of NYLON.
In a quiet study nook at the student library of New York City’s LIM College, Yusra Siddiqui playfully cowers from my recorder. “I feel like I’m in one of those cop scenes,” she jokes, as any 18-year-old unfamiliar with being interviewed might. But when asked about her fashion blog, That Girl Yusra, and its accompanying Instagram account (@thatgirlyusra), which currently boasts over 25,000 followers, she lowers her guard. “I really don’t know how that happened,” she laughs, demurely. “I’m kind of a loser.”
That self-characterization, however, is highly debatable. As a Muslim-American who elegantly dons a jet-black hijab, and proudly talks about the intersection of fashion, faith, and immigration, Siddiqui is inarguably woke. When the New Yorker by way of New Jersey isn’t studying, she can be found balancing fashion-marketing classes with a high-profile internship, and a local retail job. It’s tiring, she says, but it’s nothing compared to what paved her way.
“When my parents first came to America, my mom worked in a sewing factory. My dad was in medical school and worked late-night shifts as a security guard in Manhattan,” Siddiqui says, reflecting on her family’s first months in the U.S. after leaving Pakistan. “They came here to find their dreams so they said, ‘We’re gonna let you find yours,’ and I knew if I was going to do fashion, I would have to put all of my effort into it.”
This is the modern American 18-year-old: multitalented, overtasked, Snapchat-savvy, and pretty damn aware of what it takes to “make it” in the world. Yes, it’s unlikely they remember the 2008 financial crash or September 11, but they were raised in a country repairing itself in the wake of both. And although the question of their internet addiction (i.e., narcissism) is often raised—not only by elders, but by themselves—there’s no denying that becoming an adult today is strikingly different than in years past.
So what does it mean to be living on the edge of adulthood in 2017? It’s a question only 18-year-olds across the nation can answer.
When I was 18 and living in Texas, my primary concern was devising a way to somehow pay for New York University, and also New York City. Only in retrospect did I learn the deeper realities of student loans, and the costly price tag of certain dreams.
I share my story with Rachel Kass, a high school senior at my own alma mater outside of Dallas. Kass is already preconceiving pension plans while taking six AP classes, and choosing colleges based on their offerings of financial aid. “After college graduation, I’ll work for the government, so I can get good benefits,” she says, frankly. “The other option is that I work for corporate America, deal with it for 10 to 15 years, and once I have the capital, start my own civil engineering firm.”
While talking to Kass, I often have to remind myself that she is only 18, especially when she throws around the term “job security.” Yet our conversation makes sense: Kass is part of a generation of young adults born into the no-longer-new millennium, when an estimated $1.3 trillion student loan debt plagues the nation, and stories of graduates faring worse than their parents seem ever present. It’s little wonder then that younger Americans are now reporting higher stress levels than any other age group in the country, according to a 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association.
But even as the state of the nation is being marked by unprecedented doses of uncertainty, teens seem to be facing the prospect of adulthood head on. For India Mitchell, an aspiring model from Atlanta, concerns about whether she’ll be able to pay her own bills in the future come up naturally, as do societal pressures to stay informed. “Usually I would never really be into politics, but now that Trump is president, I feel like I should be more aware of what’s going on,” she says. “Once the Women’s March happened, I was like, ‘Well, we’ve basically gone back in time.’”
Thomas Polcaster has thought about this, too. The Chicago high school senior considers it “cool” to be an advocate for social change, and personally seeks to “bridge the gap” between the LGBTQ community and the rest of society. “There’s a distinction between gender and sexuality, and how you feel is separate from who you love, or how you express yourself,” he says.
Yet for Polcaster, an artist with his sights set on college in New York, the hardest part of being 18 is coping with what feels like earlier expectations than ever before. “My parents say, ‘When I was 18, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but you’re 18 and you live in the 21st century, so you should probably know,’” he says before pausing. “There’s definitely pressure to be successful at such a young age.”
Every time Elise Galea walks into the cafeteria at Tennessee Technological University, she feels the stares. “Everybody’s head turns,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m beautiful, but I pretend it is.”
As a young trans woman in the small city of Cookeville, Tennessee, Galea knows what it’s like to live outside of what is considered “normal.” After coming out to her parents earlier this year, Galea was kicked out of her home, and fated to begin her transition largely alone. Yet Galea still considers herself lucky—she maintains a full scholarship to college, and can therefore live in the dorms as a freshman, without the added worry of trying to find a home. “A lot of trans youth don’t have [the] support of their families, so you have to be extra careful with everything you do,” she explains. “If you mess up financially, you’re on your own. There is no room for mistakes.”
The number of transgender teens in the U.S. remains notably elusive, in part due to the fact the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t collect data on gender identity. But it doesn’t take numbers to see the societal stresses, and vitriol so often directed at the trans community. Last year, in Galea’s own hometown, a trans woman had her truck spray-painted with the word trump, before it was set on fire. “Where I live, in middle-of-nowhere Tennessee, people are fairly conservative, and they now almost have an excuse for their hate,” she says.
But rather than fixate on fear, Galea prefers to focus her efforts on becoming an orchestral musician after college—and inspiring other trans youth in the process. “The best part that’s come from my transition is that I can actually live. I get out of bed in the morning happy, put on my makeup, and smile,” she says. “Even though I have a long way to go, I have a sense of peace that I’m on the right track. I’m 18 years old, and I’m not trapped anymore.”
Alyson Zetta Williams knows what it feels like to be an outsider—but in a different way. The high school senior from Temecula, California, is a self-described artist, writer, and zine creator, who quietly oscillates between two West Coast worlds. “There are a lot of liberals where I live, but I am personally more moderate, because I grew up in a more conservative household,” she says. “I find myself seeing both sides a lot, because I don’t feel like I fit in completely in any one place.”
In an age when millennials are reportedly departing the church in droves, Williams admits often feeling isolated by her faith. “When people ask, ‘Oh, are you religious?’ And I say, ‘I go to a Catholic church,’ you can see it in their eyes, and I feel like I have to explain myself,” she says. “I don’t go to church every Sunday, and I’m by no means what you would call ‘devout,’ but I think God is really great—though I wouldn’t want to force my religion onto anyone.”
Both Williams and Galea possess a striking self-awareness, but it is hard to tell whether that is the product of their upbringing, or their surroundings. After all, most 18-year-old Americans today have almost unlimited access to the world around them—one where the deaths of teenagers like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin spark seismic protest, and serious conversations over race and identity play out online. They’re constantly connected to global events, and are arguably more aware—and also, less impressionable—as a result.
Nearly every person I speak with makes a point of being politically correct, often clarifying any commentary that might be construed as racist, genderist, or classist. Is that a bad thing? Hardly, but it’s also something more indicative of this generation—one that has been conditioned to account for exceptions to long-held norms.
I ask Jahven Tanner, a high school senior, how this dynamic plays out in her own life. Although Tanner hails from what she describes as a “more conservative” town in Weatherford, Oklahoma, she prefaces this by saying that she is adamantly against violence and bigotry—no matter the medium. “I usually thank God that I can unfollow people on Facebook, but still be friends with them,” says Tanner. “I can unfollow all of the crap, but they’re not gonna get mad at me.”
It is an undeniable truth that social media is coiled in the DNA of 18-year-olds today. Amid the unspoken etiquette of who to unfollow or what to retweet, young adults tend to understand now—more than in, say, 2007—just how much their online selves act as a statement of who they are, often to people they’ve never met. It’s this idea that invisibly guides everything from their Twitter feeds to their Snapchat filters, and makes a seasonal revamp of tagged photos a necessity before they apply for colleges or jobs.
And who could ignore the power of social media in giving them a voice? Today, there are countless listicles devoted to the “most viral” stars under 21, young people who’ve crafted their entire careers on YouTube from within the confines of their childhood bedrooms. In fact, many of the 18-year-olds I speak with express pride at the idea that someone so young can wield so much influence, especially with little more than a solid internet connection.
But for Bretman Rock, a digital makeup maven with over 7.4 million Instagram followers, that online identity also comes with a sense of responsibility. “I definitely feel the pressure to serve as a voice for my generation, because I feel like [we’re] full of diversity in talents, beauty, knowledge, race, and everything in between,” he says. “I think 18-year-olds can make as big of an impact as any age out there—your power is determined by the individual.”
While most of Rock’s followers idolize him for his flawless contouring, or his hysterical NSFW-laden life insights, he’s also, in many ways, just your average 18-year-old. He lives with his mom and younger sister in Hawaii, and attends track practice after school. It’s this kind of accessibility that makes the Filipino Insta-celeb so sought after: He’s not afraid to be himself.
So, when I ask Rock about how it feels to be an 18-year-old living in America today, he opens up about being a green card holder. Back in January, when the travel ban was first instituted by President Trump, Rock was hosting the red carpet event for the Miss Universe pageant in the Philippines. “All I could think about [was], ‘What if they send me back here? Will I still live in Hawaii?’” he says. “I strongly believe no one should be feeling or saying those things. No one should be scared to go back home.”
It’s unlikely that the American identity has ever been more in question than it is now. Today, young adults are not only customizing their digital presences, they are examining what it means to be an American, as debates about citizenship ignite nationwide.
Perhaps therein lies the linchpin of what makes this generation so different from previous ones: They come from everywhere. Between 1995 and 2014, the number of first- and second-generation immigrant children in the U.S. grew to 18.7 million. That’s one-quarter of all American children, making them the fastest-growing group of young people in the nation. Diversity is now inlaid in the fabric of the average young American, and Julissa Guerrero tries to hold on to that idea whenever she fears what might happen over the next four years.
“After Trump was elected, I just remember crying. The next day I had school, but I didn’t go. I didn’t want to get out of bed,” Guerrero says. “My family has had to have conversations we haven’t had before, like, ‘What’s gonna happen if we’re affected? Should we get a lawyer?’ They’re so hard to hear, and so hard to picture.”
Guerrero moved to the Los Angeles area from Mexico at the age of four. As her family struggled to find jobs, learn English, and attain American citizenship, Guerrero shared a house with her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Today, her dad is a construction worker, and her mom works at a retirement home. She is the first person to attend college in her family—a fact that drives her forward.
“I don’t want to be scared of walking into a room of businessmen. I want to be there surrounded by other females, and other individuals—not just one gender, race, or ethnicity,” she says. “These borders that have been put up, and these stereotypes that are commonplace, they’re unnecessary. They’ve been put up to keep us out, but we’re slowly trying to claw our way in.”
Yusra Siddiqui wants to use her Instagram as a tool for empowerment. Rachel Kass wants to hike the Appalachian Trail. Thomas Polcaster wants to pursue photography. India Mitchell wants to explore the world. Elise Galea wants to join a symphony orchestra. Alyson Zetta Williams wants to move to New York to write, paint, study, and do everything in between. Jahven Tanner wants the violence to end. Bretman Rock wants to never take anything for granted. And Julissa Guerrero wants to eventually earn her PhD.
It may be a weird moment in time to be entering adulthood, but that doesn’t mean young adults are halting their dreams. If anything, they seem to be carefully crafting them with every tool at their disposal.
“Being 18 in America means taking everything you believe in and using it as a tool for the future. We are the generation that is going to be a preset for what 18-year-olds down the road look at,” Siddiqui says. “Being 18—especially in a country like America, that is diverse and evolving, and where the politics are always changing—it’s very important to realize we have the power to become a voice of a generation.”
But how exactly does that happen? Siddiqui is resolute in her response: “You have to stand your ground, state your beliefs, and really put everything out there,” she says. “You can make a difference being young.”