When I first arrived in Hermiston three months ago as an eager Snowden intern, I didn’t know what working as a reporter for the Hermiston Herald and the East Oregonian would look like amid a pandemic.

The usual reporting I would have done, such as talking to people face-to-face, was no longer the routine. It was, instead, replaced with phone calls and email exchanges and distant tele-conversations. Loneliness set in, and I found myself missing the familiar.

Previous mentors told me the best way to learn about a community is to step into it, to walk around in the city and greet its residents and business owners, to intently listen to people’s stories and watch the way their expressions shifted throughout conversations.

Instead, when I arrived, the streets were mostly empty. Most of the stores were shuttered or looked equally as abandoned. I understood the pandemic had changed the landscape of the city, but it looked very different in a small town than in a city like Portland.

I’d given myself a crash course on the history of the county, and tried to quickly understand its complexities and struggles, as well as its nuances and uniqueness. But no matter how much I read search results about the city on Google, I did not fully come to know these cities until I lived among their residents.

My reporting then became centered around discovering and understanding as much as I could through the articles I wrote and the conversations I had.

Although I couldn’t report much face-to-face, I spent countless hours on the phone speaking with business owners, city officials and residents. I heard the worry in their voices whenever we talked about unemployment or the pandemic, but I also heard stories of joy and community.

I enjoyed the time I spent here in the city — the friends I made, my co-workers whom I called for advice, the residents and business owners that I had the opportunity to talk to — but there were times where I didn’t always feel like I fit in.

Watching residents warring over wearing masks, or hearing some residents and county commissioner candidates say out loud that systemic racism does not exist— in those moments I felt I was the farthest from belonging here.

At the same time, though, I found protesters in the same community Saturday after Saturday march in the sun to fight against systemic racism. I talked to people who sewed masks for their fellow neighbors, and just as there were moments where I felt isolated, there were more moments of community. Some residents trusted me with their stories, some cried on the phone to me, while others passionately spoke of their businesses, friends and families.

I believe the most important part of this summer is that I learned about people who I never would have known. To connect with strangers, a reminder that sharing stories will always be one of the most important modes of discovery.

This is what I believe I’ve built here in the past three months, these countless moments of connection. Not simply a resume or a portfolio of clips for future positions, but real, human connection and understanding despite a difficult time.

I’ve dedicated so much of my time to journalism, and I’m excited to do the work that I love and respect deeply in the future, but one thing I know — I will always take my experience in Hermiston and Pendleton with me.

The past three months demonstrated, in remarkable and extraordinary ways, that despite uncertainties, there will always exist this humanness.

I’m left thinking about one important piece of advice my mentors have given me over the years: humanity in stories, first and always.

— — —

Nada Sewidan is the Hermiston Herald and East Oregonian’s summer intern. She completes her internship on Friday, Aug. 7.

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