It’s one of the signature moments of people’s lives. Walking across the stage to receive a college diploma. It’s the culmination of years of study. Graduation day is special.
But this year, graduations may not happen at all.
“This is a unique situation,” said April Peterson, a career counselor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “I’ve done this work for a while so I’ve seen a couple of economic downturns. This is different.”
Career paths that seemed very promising at the start of the year because of a hot job market and near-record low unemployment are now strewn with obstacles because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There isn’t really a playbook for where we are right now,” Peterson said.
For example, just before the outbreak, Metro senior Kate Smith had eight interviews lined up for theatrical public relations jobs on Broadway in New York.
“Broadway right now is bleeding money,” said Smith. “They’re just bleeding money, so nobody said hey let’s reschedule.”
Corina Coulter had hoped to land a job in the computer field.
“It’s just come to like I’m not hearing back from companies or a couple companies aren’t accepting jobs,” Coulter said.
Besides mass layoffs, the pandemic has triggered a freeze in hiring in industries like retail, tourism and hospitality.
“Certainly there are fewer positions and so the job market is ever so much more competitive than it was,” Peterson said.
That’s left some soon-to-be graduates, especially those with high college debt, feeling more than a little anxiety.
“It’s frightening, it’s terrifying, it’s really disheartening,” Smith said. “It’s been very depressing.”
But career experts insist all is not lost.
“I think the biggest mistake they can make is to just bury their head in the sand and never come up out of that grief process that we’re all going through,” said Katie Flint, with Colorado State University’s Career Center.
Be flexible, she and others advise. Consider jobs that may not be your first choice to get you through these tough times. Maintain career connections, stay busy.
“This is a perfect time to create, start a blog, keep writing,” Smith said.
Or stay in school.
“We do tend in any recession to see an increase in students that start to explore continuing education as a possible pathway,” said Heidi Perman, assistant vice chancellor with the University of Denver.
Then there are the lucky ones. Nursing student Micahla Cowles, a Metro senior, is jump-starting her career by administering drive-up tests for COVID-19.
“A few of us students were able to get on board and start doing some clinical hours here at the sites, so we’re really grateful for the opportunity for sure,” Cowles said. “It’s mind blowing. I never would have guessed that this would have happened.”
She never would have guessed that her college experience would end this way. When these graduates will officially receive their degrees also remains a big question mark.
“I want to walk across that stage,” Coulter said. “I want to be handed my diploma.”
Like so much else in life, commencement ceremonies for the class of 2020 are up in the air as this school year ends silently, without the usual flourish.