College seniors are graduating during an unprecedented time for the U.S. economy and job market. Scott Olson/Getty Images

What college seniors are losing in their last semester because of COVID-19

Katherine Wiles May 13, 2020
College seniors are graduating during an unprecedented time for the U.S. economy and job market. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Across the U.S., college seniors have had their last months of undergrad cut short as the coronavirus pandemic spread. Campuses abruptly closed down, classes moved online, commencement ceremonies went virtual.

That’s left a lot of students grappling with loss. In just three years, Melissa Yue earned her degree in psychology with a clinical specialization from the University of California, San Diego. She worked relentlessly to graduate a year early and was looking forward to her final months of college. 

“In this last quarter, I was planning on actually spending a lot more time with friends, [and] doing college, social life things before graduating,” Yue said. “I’m just feeling like I’m losing a lot of things.”

UCSD announced it would hold its virtual commencement ceremony on June 13 to “acknowledge the strength and resilience of the Class of 2020.” But a virtual commencement just isn’t the same.

“It’s a little disappointing because you spend your whole childhood getting ready for college,” said Lynn Cohen, a senior at UCSD. “I remember being in elementary school and talking about college and seeing graduations in movies.” 

Cohen said it doesn’t personally bother her that UCSD’s commencement is virtual because she’s cared more about her experiences in college. But, for her family, it’s a big deal.

“I have a lot of family who live out of the country, and they were planning on flying in,” Cohen said. “For them, it was really kind of a proud moment of the family coming together.”

Cohen, a cognitive and behavioral neuroscience student, always planned to work for a year after college while applying to graduate schools. 

“I’m also a little worried about finding a lab job because I have a feeling it’s going to be pretty difficult to really find one,” Cohen said. “It was already pretty difficult, but now there’s going to be a lot of graduates looking for positions that they wouldn’t normally go for — like volunteering instead of looking for jobs that pay.”

“I’m just feeling like I’m losing a lot of things.”

Melissa Yue, senior at UCSD

Seniors have had to shift their plans as record unemployment hit and programs were canceled or postponed. Itzel Mercado, a senior sociology student at the University of California, Los Angeles, was accepted into Teach For America, but isn’t sure if she’ll do the program. She was assigned to work in the San Francisco Bay Area, but as a financial contributor to her family, she needs to stay in Los Angeles.

“Especially with COVID-19, moving five plus hours away from home, I wouldn’t be able to just take a quick drive home or catch a flight,” Mercado said. “Everything is still kind of up in the air right now.”

Itzel Mercado (left) received an offer from Teach For America, but might not take it due to COVID-19. (Courtesy Itzel Mercado)

She’s applied for a transfer to L.A., but isn’t sure she’ll get it.

Rebekah Pryor Paré, executive director for career services program SuccessWorks at the College of Letters & Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said the transition out of college is already a difficult one. Now, she’s seeing a lot of students feeling anxious, even if they have a job secured. 

The university has moved as many services as it can online, and is trying to keep students connected as much as possible. 

“Nevertheless, it’s daunting, and being removed from the services that are available to them —  or at least feeling really disconnected from those types of support services — can make it incredibly challenging,” Pryor Paré said.

Robin Mwai attended her virtual commencement ceremony from the comfort of her couch. (Courtesy Robin Mwai)

A lot of students, she added, are trying to figure out how much effort they should be putting into finding a job given the dismal job market. 

Robin Mwai just graduated from University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is trying to figure out that balance.

“It’s like feeling this sense of a lot of uncertainty and lack of control, but also wanting to do something to try and maximize the little power I do have,” Mwai said. “It’s been a weird time to not know where my efforts are most logically placed. I’m sending out a bunch of applications every week, even though companies are all in this weird limbo space.”

She’s still living in her apartment on campus, and said the usually-busy downtown feels like a ghost town. 

“The spring semester at Wisconsin is a super, super special time,” Mwai said. Normally, students hang out at the lake on the docks and soak in the good weather. It was weird, she said, to have her last day of actual, in-person class be a rainy, dreary one. “You feel like all these things that you just loved about the university just aren’t going to happen anymore as a student. It just feels disappointing and sad, like you’re kind of grieving this loss of your past life.”

Mwai attended her virtual commencement ceremony on May 9 from the comfort of her couch.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

With a slow vaccine rollout so far, how has the government changed its approach?

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced changes to how the federal government is distributing vaccine doses. The CDC has expanded coronavirus vaccine eligibility to everyone 65 and older, along with people with conditions that might raise their risks of complications from COVID-19. The new approach also looks to reward those states that are the most efficient by giving them more doses, but critics say that won’t address underlying problems some states are having with vaccine rollout.

What kind of help can small businesses get right now?

A new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans recently became available for pandemic-ravaged businesses. These loans don’t have to be paid back if rules are met. Right now, loans are open for first-time applicants. And the application has to go through community banking organizations — no big banks, for now, at least. This rollout is designed to help business owners who couldn’t get a PPP loan before.

What does the hiring situation in the U.S. look like as we enter the new year?

New data on job openings and postings provide a glimpse of what to expect in the job market in the coming weeks and months. This time of year typically sees a spike in hiring and job-search activity, says Jill Chapman with Insperity, a recruiting services firm. But that kind of optimistic planning for the future isn’t really the vibe these days. Job postings have been lagging on the job search site Indeed. Listings were down about 11% in December compared to a year earlier.

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