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Are Graduates Allowed To Grieve Their Careers During The Pandemic?

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

By: Celine Pun (Editor), Sara Marcus (Community Manager), Arshi Kour (Data Journalist)

Photo: r/memes

Seven months ago, the pandemic forced the graduating class of 2020 to watch their commencement ceremonies online. A walk across these stages meant so much for many families—especially for first-generation students who dreamed about this moment for years. Instead of tossing their caps, they watched in pajamas from their parents’ homes. Four years of paying for college soured into bad investments, financial anxieties, and lost opportunities. With the next graduation ceremonies in a few months, this turmoil will ripple through the class of 2021 once again.

Although COVID-19 vaccines were released in November 2020, there have been considerations for another year of online commencement ceremonies. New strains of COVID have been found around the world. The mass distribution of vaccinations has been challenging the vaccine inventory. Conflicts like these may extend the pandemic long enough for a few more graduating classes to experience similar anguish and displacement.

Sara Marcus is a senior at University of California, Santa Barbara, expecting to graduate at the end of spring quarter of 2021. Over a few Zoom meetings, she had settled in an apartment in Isla Vista, a college town in Santa Barbara. Marcus is alone; her housemates fled to their parents’ homes for the school year. She joked that she is in a hollow home in need of wall art. However, the lack of distractions allowed her to start a habitual morning routine. Marcus grieved, “I cried a lot. I already had my study abroad program recalled, which wasted my junior year. And now, my senior year wasn’t really happening.”

The graduating class of 2021 has little over a quarter left to decide their next paths, similar to the amount of time the class of 2020 had when the news of everything cancelling hit. Still, Marcus remains hopeful about her future plans. She will apply to Sotheby’s in London for her Master’s Degree in arts business. In the time being,, Marcus is looking into internships or a menial job such as one in the fast food industry.

If this pandemic continues, employment opportunities will remain grim, and those students willing to work might have to accept the jobs available that do not progress their careers. Saying that seems so strange. Going into college as a high school graduate, I remember being told to choose a major I am interested in because that will be the topic I will be a part of for the rest of my life. However, the pandemic brought a new perspective to the reality of that pressure.

Marcus thought of her transfer friend who went to community college to save money, in hopes of eventually being able to afford her dream school, “I think of people who have it worse than me and that usually calms me down and puts everything into perspective.”

Madi Thompson, who graduated from UCSB in 2020, wrote a Buzzfeed article last summer mourning her lost academic quarter and her uncertain future. In a recent Facetime interview, Thompson chatted from her apartment in Clovis, California. Throughout the call, Thompson remained bubbly and enthusiastic answering our questions. She remembered the moment after graduation, “I immediately came home and started crying when I saw my mom because I knew my college experience was over.”

This emotional turbulence was a valid response. Usually before college graduation, the only real responsibility and obligation students had was to obtain their education. Students were encouraged to prosper from the stress of studying for exams and internships, leading to a potential income, securing their livelihood. But, the pandemic changed everything.

Thompson felt the pandemic blow on her educational security, “Suddenly the buffer between my college life and the ‘real world’ was gone.”

With the pandemic stealing job opportunities, graduating students were still thrusted into the real world while their previous protection of education disintegrated. As a result, graduating students were not in the mood to celebrate such a milestone anymore. Students had become volatile to market conditions just like any other adult.

However, during these difficult times, Thompson managed to move out of her parents’ home, and into an apartment with a friend. She planned to find another job if her current internship fell through. Thompson concluded, “I was interviewing for post-grad decisions and stopped looking in spring because no one was hiring.”

Now, seven months later, Thompson is working remotely in Santa Barbara county continuing her previous internship. Unfortunately, most seniors were not as lucky. About half of the college students who graduated in 2020 are currently unemployed or underemployed—their jobs do not require a degree. Some of them lost their jobs while others were unable to obtain stimulus checks. A solid income felt intangible for most.

During graduation season, numerous members of the class of 2020 were also drawing up backup plans. Some graduating students decided to look closer into obtaining higher levels of education, even ones who weren’t considering to before. Some of their parents also encourage them to do so.

Thompson was hesitant about considering grad school. She stated, “I didn’t want to go back to school in COVID conditions.”

For low-income students of color, the pandemic caused more despair with greater disparities. Many students moved back in with their parents for more affordable living conditions than living in a college town by the sea, but clunky internet connections, family conflicts, and struggles to access relief resources stacked more unnecessary emotional turbulence on top of their scholarly stress.

Arshi Kour is a first-generation Asian American UCSB student who is expecting to graduate as part of the class of 2021. When news of the pandemic struck last summer, she planned to intern during her senior year and find work with the connections she sparked there. However, the pandemic slowed down her resume development. Too many students looking for jobs, not enough opportunities. Kour moved back in with her mom in Sacramento just as her mom was laid off from her minimum wage salon job. Kour cried, “There are so many people struggling whose voices deserve to and need to be heard. If something isn’t done soon, there will be a lasting negative impact on our generation.”

The concerns of these graduating seniors are crystallizing into reality, snowballing into bigger problems in the future. Their emotional uncertainty is a slow death. Researchers found that at the start of a recession, starting a career could spark extensive impacts for decades. Lack of financial stability in a capitalistic society may lead to homelessness, food insecurities, and other preventable vulnerabilities. Coming fresh out of college, not having these securities is problematic and is something to be concerned about. This pandemic will shape the rest of the graduating class’ lives, and not in a good way.

Bella Cardoso is another member of the UCSB class of 2020 living with her parents in Upland, California. However, she recently drove down to Isla Vista to visit her sister in the same sorority as Marcus and was available for an in-person, social distanced interview. During her time as a student, Cardoso tutored on campus. After she graduated, she could not find any jobs. Her emails flooded with so many rejections, so many ghostings. Discouraged, Cardoso found little motivation for having hobbies.

Like Cardoso, many students were forced into unstable environments that challenged their independence and health. Domestic conflicts gnawed at students’ wellbeings. Juggling social needs and safety concerns, Cardoso said, “There have been so many arguments and crying sessions as we all navigate how best to handle living in a pandemic.”

But, they were not allowed to cry. Not really. Everyone wagged fingers at them, chastising: suck it up, other people have it worse. People are dying.

Cardoso commented, “People really don’t know how to allow for multiple people to experience trauma or bad experiences without comparing them.”

As of late January 2021, over 443 thousand people in the United States have died from COVID-19. Moreover, first responders and essential workers are risking their lives every day to save others. Medical workers are overworked, while saving COVID-19 victims.

Relative to these pandemic problems, yes, the problems that the graduating seniors are facing may seem insignificant. Yes, they are very privileged concerns.

It's worth noting that workers during the recession in the 1980s had a higher risk of dying in middle age from drug overdoses and health problems. If history repeats itself, we should be more concerned about the well-being of our graduating students. We should let them mourn.

If this pandemic continues, students might have to look into websites that focus on polishing resumes and interview for remote jobs like TopResume, CollegeGrad, and Handshake. The traditional ways of finding a job through connections and in-person interviews have shifted to remote platforms. The rules have changed. Firm handshakes have become trivial. Now, there are lessons on video etiquette. Students might also have to trade in interview clothes to invest in technology that presents themselves better than the competing job applicant. Freelancing is another possibility.

But, Cardoso is not waiting for the pandemic to end. “I wake up every day, apply for jobs, read my rejection emails, certify for unemployment benefits, and try to keep myself and loved ones from falling apart.”

These are the possibilities the class of 2021 has to consider. Internships and job opportunities are limited. How can they develop well-rounded portfolios and resumes when they have to quarantine?

Kour disheartening said, “Seeing 900 other applicants for even minimum wage positions makes me just want to close my laptop, and curl up in my sheets in the fetal position.”

How could they not fear for their financial futures?

Thompson said, “I feel bad for [the class of 2021] because I think [graduating seniors] are overlooked since online school is so normalized now.”

If remote learning and remote graduating and remote jobs are so normalized, would grieving be normalized into insignificance?

Marcus’s family hasn’t had a college graduate in thirty years, so a lot of pressure was on her shoulder to walk the stage. Marcus believes, “We are the most fucked graduating class in history since Pearl Harbor when seniors had to be shipped off to war before graduating.”

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