Elijah Merritt isn’t sure he knows what a typical college experience is yet. Since he started his collegiate career in the fall of 2019, every semester has been completely different.
But he’s making the most of it by mentoring younger students and building out a community for students of color as president of Brother2Brother.
Merritt, a sophomore from Omaha, has also set his sights on becoming an entrepreneur and eventually giving back to his community back home.
Merritt sat down with Nebraska Today for a conversation about the unique experiences of his classmates, the importance of self-care and how he’s finding opportunity during an upside-down year.
What brought you to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln?
When I first was visiting here, I felt like this was definitely a place that I could be, but I wasn’t 100% sure, honestly, because I thought I was going to go to the University of Kansas. Then I received the Davis-Chambers Scholarship from Nebraska, and it pretty much covered my full tuition. I wanted to stay close to my family, or at least not be too far. It’s a Big Ten university, so I figured this is probably the place for me. And then, after first semester, I pretty much fell in love with it and the people, and I made a lot of different connections. There are just so many opportunities here for me. I think it’s a great place for me to be able to grow.
What’s your major and why did you choose it?
My major is supply chain management in the College of Business. I chose that major because when I came in, I was very interested in learning about computer science, but I also already had a very strong business background. Supply chain management is a mix of computer work as well as a lot of business and interactions with people.
Where does your business and computer background come from?
Throughout high school, I took a lot of different courses, as well as (involvement in) clubs. I was a part of DECA and Future Business Leaders of America. I took a couple of computer classes as well as accounting, so I have a pretty good business background through high school.
Is there anything in supply chain management that is particularly interesting to you or an aspect of it that you really like?
One thing about supply chain is that it’s needed for everything. It’s a job that’s always going to be around, because you’re going to have to be able to get products and move products, and someone’s going to have to be responsible for that. That was something that I found interesting — that pretty much everything that we need in life is affected by supply chain management. Thinking about the pandemic, there were a lot of breaks in the supply chain.
Have you all talked about any of that in your classes this semester?
Definitely. And being in the workforce, I was able to experience a lot of it. I worked at Home Depot, so I was able to see firsthand trucks not coming in, or not getting packages shipped to the store, as well as across the whole country.
As a sophomore, every semester you’ve been here has been different, from being a first-year student last year, and then having the pandemic affect courses and everything else. How has the constant change affected you?
First semester was definitely tough. I say it was challenging because it’s a huge adjustment from high school. Then the first semester to the second semester was even harder, I would say, because we were all on campus, expecting our spring semester to be normal, and we got the news (of the shutdown). We thought we were just going to be gone for a week or two after spring break. Now, it’s November, and we’re still here.
I think for a lot of us, being at home, the motivation factor started to decrease, because you didn’t really feel like you were in school anymore, connected with your teachers or the university. Those are all definitely challenging things that were affected from the first semester to the second semester.
Do you feel like there have been any other adjustments in this latest semester?
I’d say this is a completely different experience, as well, especially from freshman year, just because it’s half online, half walking into class. Even when you go into class, it’s mainly just you and your professor and a couple other students. That’s definitely a mental adjustment as well, because you’re not making the same connections being around other students in a learning environment. A lot of the work that we’re doing now is pretty much on our own. I think you really have to be focused and motivated to be able to finish this out.
You’re the president of Brother2Brother. How has your organization approached the pandemic, and how else have you built your community on campus, despite having your student experience interrupted by a pandemic?
I live in the Courtyards (on campus), and it’s apartment-style living and I love living there. There’s not too much going on, usually, especially with the pandemic, but there is a community.
With Brother2Brother, we’re just trying to unite everyone the best that we can, especially during these times. We’re trying to do events through Zoom. We had to figure out something to still try to reach out and connect with people.
I’m thinking about how upperclassmen have a lot of experiences in a variety of situations. What is your advice to first-year students in this unique time?
One thing I always tell students, especially my mentees, is that there are definitely a lot more mental aspects that they don’t talk about, especially the adjustment from high school to college. I always tell them to find ways to relieve the stress, to not let the stress build up and still enjoy time for yourself. Understanding that you are a student, but that you are also human first, so make sure that you’re taking that time out of your life to be able to enjoy and live your life, as well as to focus on your studies.
And how have you coped with extra stress this year? Are there certain things that you really enjoy doing?
Last year, we were pretty much at the Rec every day playing basketball, but that’s not an option now. Now I’m more focused self-care things. On Sundays, usually I have the whole day to refresh my whole body. I might take a bath, maybe do some facemasks and those things, cook some food and just relax. Usually my Sundays are my self-care Sundays.
This has been just an incredibly tumultuous, heart-wrenching year. What has most affected you?
I’d say definitely COVID first, because my mother is a police officer, and during the summer, she was working there in the Omaha riots. We believe that’s where she contracted COVID, and then she brought it home to my family. Pretty much my whole family, including my grandpa, got it. They all recovered, but seeing it affect the people that I love most was probably one of the biggest things. I’m also worried about exposing myself on campus, so I’m not able to go home as much to see my family. That is definitely one of the hardest things that I have to go through, especially during this time.
Was that difficult to navigate, as a Black man and the son of a police officer?
Yeah, I think that’s definitely an aspect that not a lot of people experience. Cops are taking a lot of negative things, and sometimes I’m thinking, ‘How do I go about this, especially knowing that someone so close to me is one of these police officers?’ It’s very hard to do. I think the perspective that I was able to take was understanding that my mom, it’s her job, and I know her as a human. I know those things being said about cops are not all true, especially since I know some personally and was raised by one. I try to have my own opinion and think for myself.
When you look down the road 50 years, how do you hope history will be written? What do you hope will have changed because of this year?
With such a challenging year, there are a lot of different aspects that you could go into. I hope 50 years from now, we’ll be able to look back and see a movement — that this was the shock that changed the world. I hope we can move better together as a society, with equality in general, and being able to accept everyone. I hope people learn to be vulnerable. I’d say, a lot of times, people feel too prideful to be vulnerable.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Where would you like to be?
In 10 years, hopefully, I have my own business, and I’m helping my community. That is one of the biggest things that I strive to do. I want to stay either here in Nebraska or somewhere close, but still have a lot of connections here in Nebraska, to be able to help the community that raised me, as well as being able to serve new people, and just help the world in general.
We talk a lot about resilience. Is there anything about this year or this experience that is actually going to make you stronger?
One of the biggest things I’ve learned this year is just being able to get through the year by progressing day by day. It seems like every single day is full of uncertainty. You don’t know what’s going to happen or what’s going to come next, so being able to … have yourself ready for whatever happens is definitely one of the things I was able to gain through this year.