College seniors miss graduation and enter uncertain job market
Spring semester 2020 was made for procrastinators.
Work from home, pass-fail, distance learning — these words are music to the ears of those in the ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ fraternity. The apex of this sanctioned laziness is being able to attend your own graduation in pajamas by flipping open a laptop on your coffee table, which is exactly what thousands of college seniors are doing across the country this month.
Online graduation ceremonies have taken the place of in-person gatherings as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to tear through social norms and milestone events worldwide. The change may be a dream come true for college slackers too lazy to iron their graduation robes, but for ambitious seniors trying to put a cherry on top of their education and jumpstart a career, it’s much more like a nightmare.
“It’s just bizarre, I keep thinking this can’t actually be happening,” said Osceola native Emily Smith, who graduated from the University of Southern California last weekend. “We worked so hard for four years.”
Smith was drawn to California in the way so many Midwestern kids are. It represented a chance to get away, to see someplace different and experience a whole new kind of existence.
She spent four years there studying communication, all the while looking forward to graduation. She watched the ceremony online with her family last Friday, 2,000 miles away from USC’s campus. She wasn’t even able to share the experience with the friends she’s made over the last four years.
“Graduation is the one thing everybody looks forward to,” she said. “It would’ve been a lot easier to handle if you could take all of these punches while you were surrounded by your friends. But suddenly we all had to return to the corners of the world where we’re from.”
Virtual graduation punctuated a spring of disappointment for Smith, who said learning from home has been less than ideal and has raised questions about the high pricetag on credit hours she’s now had to complete on her own.
“USC is one of the most expensive schools in the country,” she said. “And you don’t really pay to teach yourself your final semester of collage.”
The changing landscape will follow Smith into her post college world. Job markets are collapsing as the pandemic fueled recession looks as if it will be here for some time to come. Smith focused much of her studies on sports and music journalism — photography in particular. She was interning at Live Nation Entertainment in Los Angelos prior to COVID-19. When the pandemic hit she not only lost the internship, but the possibility of a fulltime job there after graduation.
“They were very upfront with us that our internships were essentially cancelled midway through the semester and that we shouldn’t be expecting to be hired,” she said.
Smith has applied for over a hundred jobs this spring and has been given the chance to interview for one.
“As soon as this all started happening I started getting a lot of email responses to my applications saying ‘sorry we’re no longer hiring for this role, or sorry we’re on a hiring freeze.’ So that’s where I’ve been at so far,” she said. “At one point this semester I just wanted to apply within the music industry. But now I’ve turned to applying for a lot of jobs I hadn’t been thinking about before. I’m looking for essentially anything that has the word communication in the title.”
Other seniors are experiencing much of the same, regardless of their area of expertise. Macie Steffen is about to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Superior with a degree in elementary education. She’s been student teaching third graders from home this semester (an entirely different kind of challenge) and applying for jobs when they come up. Opportunities are limited however, as schools tighten budgets and competition for open positions increase.
“School districts are losing some of their budgets so there’s been a lot of teachers being laid off for things they can’t control,” she said. “So searching for a job is hard because there’s a lot of experienced and skilled teachers also looking for jobs.”
Steffen has interviewed for several positions so far, but has had to rely on virtual interviews.
“It’s hard to not be able to shake people's hand and really get to know them,” she said. “It’s so much harder to get your personality across a computer screen.”
Steffen said the deflated end of her senior year has left feeling a little lost. UW-Superior is giving current graduating seniors who missed out on a ceremony the chance to walk this coming December. Steffen said she’ll probably do that, but that she doesn’t know if it will feel the same.
“I feel like I’m stuck in limbo,” she said. “I did graduate, I did the four years, but I don’t feel like I got anything at the end of it.”