The Pandemic’s Unique Toll On 2020 College Graduates

As the country literally started shutting down before my eyes a few weeks ago, I canceled my family’s scheduled trip to Virginia to see my husband’s twin sisters graduate from college. The next day commencement ceremony cancellations were formally announced. I couldn’t help but grieve for them a little differently – yes, this new pandemic shutdown was horrific for everyone, but for college seniors not only were they being robbed of such a cherished milestone celebration, they were simultaneously being thrust into a job market with more uncertainty than I’d seen in my lifetime.

While Amanda had accepted a more traditional corporate position with a Fortune 500 IT company, Alexis had planned to audition for professional dancing opportunities primarily on cruise ships….yikes! What do you do as a college graduate if your entire industry is potentially being upended (e.g. hospitality, airlines, leisure)? When I mentioned this to my husband, he reminded me that their generation also watched many of their parents experience financial hardship and career turmoil during the 2008 recession so it would seem they’ve had a rocky introduction to the world of work.

Arguably, empathy will be a critical part of our collective healing and eventual triumph during this difficult time, and part of empathy is understanding different perspectives/points of view. As such, I asked them to reach out to some of their college classmates to solicit feedback on their thoughts, concerns and anxieties. Clearly, it’s not a scientific study, but their anecdotal feedback is eye opening and sheds light on their unique concerns that certainly deserve voice.

1. Academic Impact/Degree Implications

For many seniors this last semester includes courses required for entry into graduate school or professional programs (e.g. law, medicine, engineering, etc.) and some are understandably stressed because they’re uncertain whether they will be able to accumulate the necessary credits. Public health major at the University of Virginia, Ibukunoluwa Omole explains, “Courses at my school are now being offered for credit or no credit, and I am not sure how this could possibly affect my ability to get into medical school.” Meanwhile, others expressed concerns about their ability to successfully complete courses online. University of Virginia senior who asked to be referenced only by her first name (Jen) explains her concerns about moving to an online instructional environment. “I am concerned about staying on track for my classes – especially for my ArcGIS class which consumed a lot of my time and is very confusing, We no longer have labs for this class so getting help for it is so much harder now,” explains Jen.

Understandably, colleges and universities around the country have struggled to adapt to this unprecedented situation by developing new policies and procedures that prioritize public health and campus safety while also continuing to provide necessary support and services to the student community. This letter provides an example of the University of Virginia’s communication to students, faculty and staff regarding undergraduate grading and other areas of concern.

2. Graduation Ceremony Cancellation Disappointment

The truth is that we only get a few major lifetime milestones – marriage, childbirth…..and for many, college graduation ceremonies would certainly make the list. These seniors expressed not just their own disappointment but also significant guilt about their parents being robbed of the opportunity to see them walk across the stage. While the graduates may certainly understand and even agree with the overwhelming public health rationale, there’s still a very real emotional toll. “I’ve dreamed about walking the lawn for graduation since I watched my brothers do it 12 years ago. It stings knowing that something I’ve thought about for so long won’t happen,” says Kaelyn Carroll, a computer engineering major at the University of Virginia. “Working so hard most of your life leading up to this big moment where you graduate in front of your family and with your friends just to have it taken away (at least as anticipated) at the last moment is a hard pill to swallow,” adds Agni Stavrinaky, another soon-to-be graduate of the University of Virginia. “Most of my friends will be split up after we all graduate, and we never got a chance to spend those last precious weeks together or even say goodbye.”

3. Lost Career Services Opportunities/Job Uncertainty
For these young adults, their first jobs don’t just represent a reward for their many years of work and dedication. They also form a foundation for their career path as well as the financial footing necessary to begin the daunting process of student loan repayment. For many college students, their first adult job also provides them the guidance and developmental experiences that are so critical during the first few years of their professional life. Beyond individual uncertainty about their specific job, some are also preparing to enter industries that may be completely changed or possibly even decimated. Of course, they’re also entering the job market amidst an increasingly fragile economic outlook. For these reasons and others, these graduates may very well have unprecedented career anxiety.

While just a few weeks ago many of these soon-to-be graduates were excited about the prospect of starting their first “big job”, that excitement and anticipation quickly turned to nagging uncertainty and angst for many amidst the rapidly evolving coronavirus pandemic. “In the last recession companies rescinded offer letters to recent graduates, and I am scared they will be doing the same thing now,” explains Halle Wine, systems engineering major at the University of Virginia. Similarly, Old Dominion University senior Ashleigh Bush echoes related concerns. “My internship is closed due to the pandemic, and now I’m not able to get the necessary hours needed to successfully complete my internship,” says Bush. “With the unprecedented situation at hand my advisers aren’t able to provide answers as to what my future may look like for the rest of the semester.”

In addition to deepening questions and concerns about pending job offers, some have valid concerns about the prospect of starting a new life in a different part of the country – especially one that might be particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Judy Nguyen a current Herndon, Virginia college senior, expressed trepidation at the prospect of traveling to Redmond, Washington for an exciting new role at Microsoft. “Before starting my first job, I will have to move across the country. Right now, flying seems treacherous and most offices are asking employees to telework to flatten the curve,” says Nguyen.

4. Immediate Financial Concerns

Everyone knows that college students are oftentimes just scraping by financially and when colleges and universities closed their campuses, many students also lost their only source of income – not just creating immediate financial pressure for them but also for their parents in many cases. Unfortunately, the abrupt campus closures left many students without housing, work (for those employed by the institution) or access to meals and other services.

“I am a first generation, low income student who is out of state and lives off grounds. I work at a student building and at a hotel off grounds. I lost both jobs in one day and now have no income. The building that had the food pantry is also closed so I have no access to that. My mother works in the service industry so she does not have a stable income at the moment, and my jobs were the most dependable. I am very worried about upcoming payments.” University of Virginia senior Jen

5. Physical Health Concerns

While college students are younger and thus thought to be at lower personal risk during the pandemic, many have underlying health conditions, and they also share concern for older relatives. Teaneck, New Jersey has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic and college senior Samantha Garcia understandably feels trepidation having abruptly returned to her hometown amidst the surge of COVID-19 cases.

“I am from Teaneck, NJ (considered a hotbed for the virus). Since I’m home with my family, my anxiety is an 8 because my mother is immuno-compromised and my grandmother lives with us. I try not to go outside often because I don’t want to bring the virus back home to them because they would be in great danger.”
Samantha Garcia

Similarly, biomedical engineering and African American studies major Nia Blibo shares health concerns. “I’m worried about my ability to get tested and treated if I contract COVID-19. Because I have asthma I’m at a higher risk of dying if I contract the disease,” says Blibo. Not surprisingly, many expressed frustrations about having to unexpectedly leave their friends, terminate long awaited vacation plans or otherwise be inconvenienced. Several shared poignant concerns about their overall mental health. For many completing their college requirements will be a stressful experience, and all of this upheaval has turned what should have been one of the happiest times of their life into a black hole of change enveloped in seemingly endless uncertainty. Perhaps Hallie Wine summarized the overall feeling best.

“Being pushed into adulthood into a really scary time with no certainty about your job or the future is terrifying, and I wasn’t ready. It’s a lot to take in and handle, and I should be allowed to be upset about it, but I feel selfish even saying that.” Halle Wine, University of Virginia Systems Engineering major

Indeed, they should be allowed to say it. We all should. What we’re experiencing is beyond inconvenient or uncomfortable – it’s scary. I’m sure that as a country we will get through it, and each of these graduates will ultimately be successful in their professional journeys. In this moment though it seems important to understand and validate the unique experience of the graduating class of 2020. College graduation is not just a symbolic initiation into adulthood – in many ways it’s quite a practical one, and the unique stresses that this pandemic places on the class of 2020 will undoubtedly be profound.

Dana Brownlee, Senior Contributor, Forbes, 4 April 2020.

By Laura Garza
Laura Garza Career Coach for Construction Engineering Technology, Construction Management, Engineering Management, Materials Science, and Mechanical Engineering Technology