Episode 80: Students are graduating during a pandemic…again

In this episode, we talk to a few students about their plans after graduation and how they’re feeling with commencement in less than three months. We also get insight from those who are working with students, including career counselors, university coordinators and recruiters, and speak with a 2020 graduate about his experience with virtual commencement last year.

Ava Kian and Yoko Vue

INTRO MUSIC

YOKO VUE: Hello everyone, I’m Yoko Vue. 

AVA KIAN: I’m Ava Kian. And you’re listening to “In the Know,” a podcast by the Minnesota Daily.

VUE: We’re halfway through the spring semester and graduation will soon be upon us. As students celebrate in the ways that they can, they will also be entering a new chapter in their lives. Graduate school or getting a job are top priorities for many. 

KIAN: As the pandemic gripped the country, the unemployment rate in the United States was at 6.7% in December of 2020, more than double what it was in 2019. The highest unemployment rate was 14.8% in April last year.

VUE: For this story, we put together an online survey to get a better sense of how University of Minnesota seniors are feeling as graduation approaches. In our survey of 26 graduating students, about 73% have not secured a paid position in their career field after graduation. Nearly 81%  agreed or somewhat agreed that the pandemic has impacted how they feel about graduating, with mixed feelings ranging from anxiety to excitement. 

CHRISTINA HARISIADIS: It’s still like the completion of like years of hard work, but you know, it just— it doesn’t feel as rewarding in certain ways, which like, I hate to say because I know how much school I’ve been in. I know how much money has been spent on this education, but the sentiment just doesn’t necessarily transfer in that way.

FUECHAI VANG: It doesn’t really, really feel as satisfying because like, this is my last year here and there wasn’t really much of an experience on campus.

VICTORIA SERVETAS: I guess I’m a little upset that the world is so shut down because I’m thinking, oh, if I don’t have a job, I could just travel. Like that’s what everyone wants to do after school anyway. But that seems like that’s not possible either. So it’s kind of frustrating because I want to get a job. Like, just start immediately since there’s nothing else to really do. But I also am feeling a little, you know, worried about starting the rest of my life right after school.

KIAN: You just heard from Christina Harisiadis, Fuechai Vang and Victoria Servetas. We will hear more from them about their post-graduation plans and worries as they prepare to graduate this spring.

TRANSITIONAL MUSIC

VUE: Christina Harisiadis is a senior majoring in strategic communications. She was looking forward to walking across the stage at Mariucci but as plans for commencement have not been solidified, she is thinking about other ways to celebrate.

HARISIADIS: I’ve been brainstorming because if we don’t formally walk at graduation like I probably will still have someone stand at the end of Northrop or the mall or something and I’m going to walk and my dad can record that and that’ll be really exciting.

HARISIADIS: I’m a big family person so being able to celebrate that moment with my family and being able to, you know, have that joy in some capacity I think is really great.

VUE: Christina was one of the students that filled out our survey, and she said she has strong feelings of uncertainty around finding a job. 

HARISIADIS: Honestly, I feel like when I thought about the job search, that was something that I was kind of like, do I want to be working right now just because it is a very weird time and like it’s very much so not what, kind of like I said in my survey, I expected when graduating.

I ended up diverging from that path and applied to grad school. So that’s more the path that I ended up looking at and then I’m considering right now I ended up getting accepted to the program that I applied to.

VUE: That program is the mass communications master’s program at the Hubbard School, but graduate school was not on her mind until the end of fall 2020. 

HARISIADIS: I wrote a thesis in the fall and I was like, I really liked that experience and I would love to be able to continue that. Grad school isn’t something that I considered previously, but now it’s very much so on the table for me and so that decision was made, to apply, days before Christmas.

VUE: For Christina, graduate school means she gets to keep gaining new knowledge in her field, which she finds exciting. 

HARISIADIS: I’m very much still in this role of learning and like taking in new information and investigating things and so I think in that way, like in my head, it very much still makes sense to continue that body of work and I would love to further explore the questions that I had after my thesis, my undergrad thesis, and be able to take that into grad school and build an even larger body of knowledge that I could eventually take into the professional world.

And so I think that with research and grad school, that could be another opportunity or a way of approaching the work that I eventually want to do in the future.

TRANSITIONAL MUSIC

KIAN: Fuechai Vang is a senior majoring in accounting. He has secured a summer internship and is planning to go to graduate school for a Master’s of Accountancy next fall. I asked Fuechai what he’s looking forward to with this summer internship. 

VANG: So this is an accounting internship at an accounting firm and this is my first actual experience out there in the field. 

I’m pretty excited to just actually learn and apply what I’ve been doing in school instead of actually just having to study, cram, do tests, study, cram and then forget eventually. So hopefully I can apply this. 

KIAN: While he’s excited, Fuechai also feels the virtual internship lacks personal interaction and connection, something it would have had if it were in-person. 

VANG: Even the experiential program I had last year was also virtual, because the COVID scare happened in March or so. So in the summer, everything was virtual and I didn’t get to go in person and do all those events and activities with the actual company. They told me I could have went on a boat cruise. I was like, “Oh wow. I missed out on that.” But basically, it misses out on a lot of personalization. 

So it’s kind of hard to just get something that’s more guaranteed and get your own personality out there for them to see you, what your worth is.

KIAN: Fuechai also worries about whether he will enjoy working in accounting full time, considering the financial and time investment that goes into getting a degree. 

VANG: I’m so scared when I do learn what I’m doing, I end up not liking it. And I committed my whole time in college and this internship for this. So I guess everyone’s always scared of that, but I guess for me, it’s just always been scary because I’ve decided this since day one and I just stuck with it because I wanted to believe in it. And I went into the class for the first time and I ended up liking it because it was my major. So maybe I brainwashed myself into liking it, who knows. So I’m just really scared that I ended up not wanting to do this later on. And I committed all this time and money into being in this field. 

KIAN: Graduation holds particular importance to Fuechai’s family and himself, as he says it paves his way towards success in the future. 

VANG: Graduation, it’s just, it’s always been an expected thing for me and my family. I’m the only son in my family. And I guess in that kind of household, that kind of traditional household, they really expect a lot from you, especially to go out there and be successful and provide. So I guess this is just the first stepping stone for me. And there’s going to be more expectations after this, but at least I had that first stepping stone down and I guess that’s one thing, one less thing I have to worry about when it comes to my family. 

KIAN: And what Fuechai thinks is different about this graduation, is the impact that a graduating class leaves on a community.

VANG: Usually when you think of college, you’re not just paying for the classes and the credits and everything you’re paying for the whole experience and opportunities and networking that you can create here about yourself within all the diverse communities on campus. And I think that’s just something that really is missing from that graduation feel. That you didn’t create or get involved in anything within your last year. So I’m really not sure how to feel. I guess it’s kind of bittersweet, but hey, at least I’m graduating, but what did I leave behind? 

TRANSITIONAL MUSIC

KIAN: Victoria Servetas, a senior, is studying industrial and systems engineering. She also thinks about all the missed opportunities due the pandemic. 

SERVETAS: It definitely doesn’t feel like something that I’m doing like as a college or as a major anymore. We’ve definitely kind of lost that connection with our peers, definitely it’s fizzled out over virtual communication. So I’m a little sad, you know, walking around campus sometimes I’m like, “Oh, like what could have been” like walking to class and just, you know, having that experience again. So I am feeling a little bit, you know, like sad about that. But kind of just excited to get out of this, you know, out of the pattern of just sitting at the computer all the time, hopefully having an in-person job or just like in-person opportunities or just meeting new people would be nice.

KIAN: She’s in the process of interviewing for a job. Like many other graduates, the pandemic has impacted her post-graduation job search.

SERVETAS: A lot of the companies that I’ve been talking to and getting interviews with, have been talking about how they’ve been wanting to fill the position, but they’ve been on like hiring set limits. So it’s just been kind of adding to the stress that already would be there of not graduating with a job. Just thinking that maybe, you know… the world isn’t really sitting on the right stage right now. 

KIAN: Victoria says while there are jobs available in her field, the pool feels relatively small. She says that her friends who aren’t in engineering are settling for jobs not necessarily in their majors. 

SERVETAS: A lot of the kids in my major, haven’t had jobs yet either. So we’re all kind of worried because we feel like we’re applying to the same jobs and we know the competition is relatively similar since we have the same experience. So that is a little worrisome. I feel like though for engineering the opportunities have still been a little bit like out there, but my friends and other colleges, they have other plans of working kind of oddball jobs this summer, if they need to. They’ve kind of already realized that might be the case as they still keep looking for jobs. 

KIAN: She’s been looking at jobs in the manufacturing field and is optimistic about an operations manager role at a Target distribution center. 

SERVETAS: Right now I’m interviewing for a job that could either be a four-day 12-hour shift or a three-day 12-hour shift and that might include overnights. And I never even thought I would ever even consider that. But now that I’m graduating in a few months, I’m like, okay, anything that will get me, like experience,  I’ll do it. Might have to change up what I thought life looked like if I become like living at night, but, you know, taking anything to get to kind of just start my career.

KIAN: While this job isn’t necessarily her ideal position, she feels lucky for the opportunity, given the state of the job market for other majors. She has one more interview with the Target recruiter.

SERVETAS: So I feel pretty good about it and it is like a really good opportunity… So I feel like, down the line, it’ll turn into, you know, maybe less of a commitment to change my whole entire lifestyle. But I think that right now, just like any opportunity from hearing about people in other majors where the industry kind of closed down right now, I feel like just taking something and being like, accepting of what there is, is kind of just the best way to move forward. 

TRANSITIONAL MUSIC

VUE: Recruiters and employers are echoing students’ thoughts about the job search right now. We spoke with Nou Chang, a talent recruiter with the city of St. Paul, and Naweed Ahmadzai, a university engagement coordinator for Hennepin County, about what recruitment looked like pre-pandemic versus right now. 

CHANG: Definitely recruitment during the pandemic is different. And if I said different, it’s still an understatement. Prior to COVID, we were doing an in-person type of event, we were able to go to the career fairs, be able to be on employer panels, meet with students, do informational interviews in person, right. And so, therefore, during the pandemic, a lot of those activities have actually been shifted to the virtual world.

AHMADZAI: Right now with the virtual setup that we have for our virtual site visits, it’s actually a little bit easier in a way. You know, there’s a link. You could be at your bedroom, you could be in a class, you could be wherever you just join and you’ll be able to get information, just right away. But again, it is going to be challenging. It is hard to speak sometimes to a group of people where their videos are off, you know, and you feel like you’re just speaking in a place where there’s no response, you know, if you’re making quirky jokes or anything like that, nobody’s going to laugh at it.

KIAN: Naweed said that because of the strong relationship between recruiters and schools, he has still been able to recruit for positions despite the pressures of the pandemic. 

AHMADZAI: Different schools, they know how to get to their students. It falls on us to basically communicate those opportunities to connect with students and offer the ways that we can connect with the schools virtually.

KIAN: He also said that because of the increase in accessibility through remote sessions, they are seeing more students attending compared to previous years. 

AHMADZAI: For a virtual site visit that I did for the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, whenever we were having students come in, there was about 15 to 20, but when we offered it virtually, we actually had, I think it was like around 25 students show up. That just shows that when we get rid of some of those barriers to getting to somewhere, then the numbers can go up. But as far as the engagement itself during the session, we don’t know exactly whether it’s good or bad yet

VUE: Nou said it seems that students graduating now are in a better place than 2020 graduates. As virtual work settings have improved, they have become the norm for students.

AHMADZAI: So now that we’re seeing this virtual setting to be the new norm for at least a little while more, those supervisors weren’t hiring, they were like, “Oh, I can’t deal with this right now. You know, I have to worry about my employees, you know, figure out how they’re gonna do their work on off-site.” They’re coming back. You know, they see the value in interns, they see the value, like in college-level or graduate, high school and they’re coming back and, you know, we are giving them the support that they need in order to hire. Just to summarize we— the supervisors are learning how to work better with students better in a virtual setting in 2021 more than they were in 2020. 

KIAN: As professionals who regularly interact with graduating students, they both see students struggling to find jobs. 

AHMADZAI: There’s a lot of frustration also on the student’s side, which is very much understandable, you know. I would hate to be a graduating student right now looking at the job markets, especially, in a job that requires you to be on site.

I think it’s really important for students to still stay engaged with their favorite employers or to whoever aligns with their beliefs and core values because that’s important. Even if the recruitment is not happening right now for some of the positions just still continue engaging with us. And when the jobs are right, we will remember those folks who are interested for the long term and those are going to be the ones who are getting some sort of priority. 

VUE: Technology has changed the recruitment and hiring game. Both Nou and Naweed say that without the ability to do things like remote work, the economic situation would have been much different. 

CHANG: So some of the advantages that their graduates have today really is having that flexibility to potentially do remote work a hundred percent of the time or majority of the time. Whereas probably before we weren’t in the COVID environment where that wasn’t even an option that we may not necessarily want to consider, but with COVID, it really pushes organizations to think about, okay, can we do this remotely? 

TRANSITIONAL MUSIC

KIAN: To see how the University of Minnesota is assisting its graduating students amid the pandemic, I spoke with Katy Hinz, the assistant director for Career Counseling and Engagement in the College of Liberal Arts career services. 

KATY HINZ: I think, inherently job searching tends to be pretty stressful for many of us, overwhelming at times, and then you add a pandemic to it, right. And so it often exasperates like how that feels. And you know, some of what we’re hearing is just a lot of questions around how do I job search during this time?

KIAN: And are you seeing differences in how and what students are like worried about compared to last spring at the beginning of the pandemic versus this spring?

HINZ: I think a little bit, so some of what I would say is probably, you know, things have maybe settled a little bit in terms of the job market. And working from virtually has become more normal and for a lot of our organizations. And I think it’s in some ways, a lot easier or maybe there aren’t as many concerns from students. And we also just have more information cause we’ve been in this long and have stayed in contact with employers that virtual internships are happening, virtual full-time positions are happening. And in some ways that open up more opportunities because students can be looking at virtual experiences outside of where they’re geographically located. 

KIAN: Katy said that the career counseling center is seeing high engagement, as a high number of views on the center’s youtube page and increased enrollment in career courses. 

HINZ: A big message that I want to share is you’re not in this alone and to connect with people and to be able to process with others to know that your experience, often there’s someone else who’s going through that. That’s something that counselors this morning we’re sharing too, is that a lot of students are saying like, is this normal, or I’m scared or I’m nervous, or I don’t know what to do next. And sometimes these feelings of like, I’m the only one feeling this way. And as counselors, we know that actually we hear that from a lot of students that we meet with. And so it’s normalizing those feelings a little bit to be able to kind of work through that.

TRANSITIONAL MUSIC

VUE: As we look forward, we can learn from those that have walked the path before us. I spoke with Mahad Omar who graduated last spring with a degree in global studies. He is currently a small business intern with the Metropolitan Council but hopes to find something that aligns with his interest in human rights. Graduation held a lot of meaning to him as a first-generation college graduate. 

MAHAD OMAR: That, that was a turning point in my life one hundred percent because a lot of the work that I put in, to get to the place that I am right now, that graduation was that token, that certificate of accomplishment that I did everything that I’m supposed to and I’m on my way to bigger and greater things. 

VUE: Graduation was a mix of emotions for Mahad. 

OMAR: But I was hit with a lot of emotions. Like ‘Oh my god, I’m almost done,’ and like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not going to have a ceremony.’ Oh my god, like am I ready to be out there with a bachelor’s degree trying to put myself in front of employers? It was an area of different feelings, but I survived. I’m here now.

VUE: The Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence, or MCAE, is a center that serves students of color to achieve academic success through different initiatives. One of their most anticipated events is the Multicultural Celebration of Achievement that they host with the Office of Equity and Diversity. This event, more commonly known as MCAE graduation by students, is a celebration that brings together students from traditionally underrepresented populations to recognize their accomplishments and achievements, according to their website.

OMAR: Like being able to be part of something strong and interculturally intersectional through MCAE. Being able to wear your cultural guard, being able to be within a space of BIPOC folks that feel just like you, you know, at a PWI. I was really hoping to be in something like that cause I’ve been in the past three MCAE graduations before I graduated and I was just waiting for my turn.

VUE: When it came to virtual commencement, he was dressed as he would have for an in-person ceremony, but watching from bed.

OMAR: I was still a CA at Pioneer house so I couldn’t leave my building. So I was just watching virtual commencement and graduating from my dorm room while everybody else was not in the building, which was a surreal moment. Cause I was expecting to be like among thousands of people with family members, you know, like everywhere. I have decked out in my graduation fit with my stoles and accolades, my good haircut. I was ready for everything, you know, but then the reality was that I was dressed the part, but I was in my room inside of an empty dorm because I was working to make ends meet. And I was watching commencement, my own commencement from an empty building in my own room from my bed.

VUE: I also asked Mahad what his advice is for the 2021 graduates. 

OMAR: Like it is very hard to be in this kind of position, but it’s also the best opportunity for you to learn what kind of person you really are, and then figuring out how you want to pivot from there.

OMAR: Take everything at your own pace, take care of your health, but also realize that we’re living in the age of technology. We can access a lot of information that we want via the internet. Why not use this time to figure out who you want to be and what kind of opportunities you have available to you for you to get yourself to where you want to be eventually.

VUE: March will mark a year of virtual learning and social distancing. Though it will take time to move forward and progress from this pandemic, we will take the lessons we’ve learned and continue to adapt. 

OUTRO MUSIC

MEGAN PALMER: In other U News: Palmer’s Bar in Cedar-Riverside plans to reopen after multiple community fundraisers; President Gabel expressed in an interview with the Minnesota Daily that fall instruction formats will depend on public health guidelines; and the state of Minnesota’s trial against Derek Chauvin will begin on Monday. We’ll see you next week.

PALMER: Music in today’s episode was provided by FreeSound.org.