For the class of 2020, nothing went as expected. Seniors lived out the ends of their college experiences at home and through screens, adding to the anxiety that most graduates in a regular school year have about the future. Mentally, physically and emotionally, everyone was shocked.
Students around the country realized that COVID-19 wouldn’t just mean a couple of weeks of online classes but an entirely virtual ending to the school year. As this sunk in, seniors entered a survival mindset.
“In March, my first thought wasn’t, ‘Oh, what’s this going to mean for my future,’ ” said Sakura Cannestra, former managing editor of The Daily Californian. “It was more like, ‘What’s this going to mean for tomorrow?’ ”
But that shock was surprisingly productive: It pushed recent grads into action. Milton Zerman, a former transfer student, was particularly disappointed to have roughly only a year and a half in Berkeley. However, he immediately sought any possible positivity.
“One big thing about this situation was that it’s been a kind of pressure cooker for us,” Zerman observed. “It’s pushing us to be entrepreneurial and think outside of the box, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Since the pandemic started, Zerman has co-founded a political, tech and consulting firm, hoping to influence politics in Southern California, Sacramento and beyond.
“There aren’t as many opportunities as there were to get a job at a big company like Google or some law firm, so it’s a time to build our own foundations and be creative,” Zerman said.
This self-starting, entrepreneurial spirit is a common one among recent graduates in all fields. Cannestra, who graduated with a bachelor of arts in English, was in the hiring process for jobs and internships in the spring, but the pandemic snatched opportunities away.
“In April, a lot of places were canceling their internships and stuff, so all of a sudden, people who were relying on the summer to get experience suddenly had nothing,” Cannestra noted. “We’ve always lived in a world where graduating with a humanities degree is difficult, but this year it’s so much worse.”
However, Cannestra forged ahead, rethinking how to get into her desired industry by reaching out to people in her network. Like Zerman, she has begun to pave her own path into the professional world.
“Just because no one’s hiring me doesn’t mean I can’t give myself work,” Cannestra said.
Amid her job search, Cannestra has been writing on Medium, and, of course, pondering graduate school, as every graduating senior does even without a global pandemic. More graduates than ever are considering furthering their education to wait out the pandemic-initiated recession, but it’s not a simple choice.
“Honestly, I’d caution other people thinking about grad school,” said Ryan Ellin, who graduated with a degree in mathematics and is pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin.
It had always been Ellin’s plan to attend graduate school after his undergraduate career. But he never imagined he would move halfway across the country only to be confined to his new apartment in Austin. He feels lucky, however, to be in his current position, having already applied to graduate schools before the pandemic threw his peers into a panic.
“This idea to hide out the pandemic and the economic recession is something everyone’s having at the same time,” Ellin said, describing how universities are cutting programs to mitigate costs.
“I was lucky, but the timing will be terrible for (current undergraduate students),” Ellin cautioned. “Don’t just bunker down, but make a plan. This has no definite expiration date. This is just life for a while, and we have to adapt to this.”
But knowing that you have to adapt does not make the situation any less uncertain or scary.
“I think about grad school probably every day,” laughed Sarah Abdeshahian, former president of Cal Berkeley Democrats.
Abdeshahian frequently ponders grad school because of the possible safety net it represents, although she has been employed a couple of times over the course of the pandemic.
“It’s a weird job market,” Abdeshahian said. “I just feel very lucky and very happy! I’ll be switching jobs soon after the election and helping out with a campaign in Berkeley, but I’m just trying to keep myself busy.”
Abdeshahian noticed how the shift to a digital workplace gave her the opportunity to not only develop new skills for all-digital campaigns but also allow her to take a breath.
“I’d been overworking myself — my schedule was always packed, I’d be on campus for 14 hours a day,” Abdeshahian said.
Focusing more on herself and putting events into perspective allowed her to ground herself and focus on her personal development in a new way. Although COVID-19 has complicated graduates’ ability to obtain jobs, it expanded the creative bounds of graduated seniors. Many felt lucky that, despite the chaos of the world, they still have control over their own futures, from home or otherwise.
“In order to grow you don’t have to start afresh,” Abdeshahian said. “You can grow where you are and that’s OK.”