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Work Advice: Recent college grad asks whether the pandemic set him back

4 weeks ago 34

Stripped of sentiment, graduation is little more than walking across a stage in a polyester drape to accept a symbolic piece of paper.

I know this. And yet, “Pomp and Circumstance” still raises a lump in my throat.

Of all the losses, big and small, we experienced during the pandemic, one of the most poignant to me was high school and college seniors missing out on traditional rituals such as graduation ceremonies before moving on to the next stage of their lives.

In that spirit, I asked the class of 2024 how attending college entirely in the covid era affected their outlook as they start building their careers.

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“I have both a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree without ever having donned a cap and gown,” Jacob Lewis of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., said via email. Although his pandemic-shuttered high school offered seniors a drive-through graduation ceremony in 2020, Lewis skipped it for work because he “had already given up any hope of even a remotely normal end to high school.”

That fall, as a freshman majoring in film production, Lewis lived in a single-person dorm room while taking most of his classes online. The few in-person classes he had were “small, awkward and socially distanced,” he recalled. Even when his university fully opened back up in fall 2021, class sizes didn’t start reaching pre-pandemic numbers until his junior year.

After completing his major and minor requirements as well as a couple of internships within three years, Lewis joined his girlfriend in Arizona and did his last semester entirely online, finishing in December 2023. He didn’t return for the commencement ceremony. “I think my willingness to do this definitely stems from the unconventional end to my high school career and the rocky start to college,” he said. “I wasn’t worried about missing out on a quintessential experience because that ship had already sailed.”

In addition to his internships, Lewis has worked as a freelance photographer, camera operator, editor and production assistant. But he’s now finding it harder to land full-time employment. Even with unemployment at record lows in recent years, “there are very few entry- or mid-level positions … and those that do exist pay unlivable wages/salaries,” he said. He estimates that he has applied to 300 jobs through job boards and company websites, resulting in only three interviews. The professionals with which he has stayed in touch from prior gigs encourage him to keep putting himself out there, saying “a significant part of success is luck,” but he fears there is a bigger issue.

“I do worry that my ability to make connections and network in college was hindered by the pandemic,” he said. “If I had had a more traditional college experience, perhaps I would’ve been able to get something through a professor.”

Lewis is already doing everything one might recommend: networking, taking gigs, maintaining an online portfolio. He is even looking into moving to Los Angeles, where industry opportunities — and competition — abound. Aside from beefing up his LinkedIn presence and reconnecting with his alma mater’s career office, there’s little I can offer in the way of advice.

But what I can offer is perspective.

It might comfort Lewis and his covid-era college cohort to know that struggle is standard at this point in most people’s lives. I wouldn’t relive my early job-hunting years for any amount of money — and as a 20-something English major with no relevant professional experience, “any amount of money” pretty well summed up my ambitions. Even after living, learning and schmoozing on campus for the standard four years, I spent months looking for an entry-level job where I could work with words and get paid enough to live on.

By contrast, Lewis already has real-world industry experience and a network of colleagues and clients who can vouch for his skills. He has not just the technical know-how to work from anywhere, but also the soft skills to build connections virtually. Perhaps the biggest advantage he has is knowing just how unpredictable circumstances can be — kind of like the millions of other adults who, even before the pandemic, have had to forge their own nontraditional trails through GEDs, night school, getting-by jobs and starting over entirely.

When you’re struggling to find your footing, it’s only human to look back and wonder whether starting from a different trailhead would have made for an easier climb. As Lewis put it, he just doesn’t know what a different path would look like, “because I don’t know what it’s like to be in this period of my life without all the turmoil.”

But he and his cohort need to remember they aren’t struggling because they’re doing life wrong or missed out on a few rituals. They are struggling because what they are trying to do is hard. And I’m confident they have the resilience and resourcefulness to find footholds despite their rocky start — maybe even because of it.

Reader query: Are you a member of the covid class? Does this experience resonate with you, or feel foreign? Let me know at [email protected].

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