The Pandemic Launch

The classes of 2020 and 2021 faced daunting challenges when entering the workforce in the midst of a global pandemic. Wellesley talked to five recent graduates about what it’s been like to start their postgraduate lives in this uncertain time.

An illustration depicts a woman wearing a mortarboard, seated in her house with a laptop filling out applications.

“What are you doing after graduation?” It’s a loaded question to ask a Wellesley senior, even in normal times. Will you pursue graduate school? Look for a job? Get an apartment? How will you cope with living on your own for the first time, without the safety net of college or parents?

But a global pandemic makes answering those questions even more complex. Moving back home with your family is common (and extended). You’re still expected to get a job or go to graduate school or, you know, figure things out, but everything is harder. The economy? Not great. The job offers that usually come during your senior year? Delayed. The actual jobs? Also delayed. And when jobs are acquired and start dates set, the actual work is … remote.

“My desk is four and half feet from the bed I sleep in … my world is very small,” says Catie Kenyon ’20.

Graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 are entering the workforce during a historic time, grappling with a global issue while also living their local lives. “We saw students making very different decisions, living in different parts of the country, many going home, and not having the same early career start that I think many of our students did before,” says Jennifer Pollard, associate provost and executive director of Career Education at Wellesley.

For these graduates, not much looks the same as it did before.

This didn’t go according to plan

For many Wellesley alumnae, senior year is a fond memory. (It’s easy to gloss over the chaos and fear once you’re out of it.) There are traditions like Hooprolling and Stepsinging and Senior Week to ease you into the notion of leaving Wellesley for good. For the class of 2020, it was less of a transition and more of a sudden shock when the campus closed abruptly in March 2020 due to the pandemic.

“I very much wanted to enjoy my senior spring,” says Kalyani Saxena ’20. “So, I was applying to jobs, sending out cover letters for entry-level positions, thinking, ‘I’ll get around to it, I still have two months before I graduate.’” She laughs. “Obviously, that didn’t happen.”

At first, it was unclear how long the closure would last. Hope to be back on campus in time for commencement was held onto, then it slipped away. “You just felt this overwhelming sense of hopelessness. The world is falling apart, and I’m about to graduate college. At the time, the economy was tanking,” Saxena says. “It was really terrifying to look at that, and think, ‘Oh, it maybe isn’t going to work out, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be OK again.’”

For some, worrying about the fate of the world actually eased the pressure of worrying about their state of employment. Before the pandemic, there was a lot of pressure to find a job, but in some ways, the crisis changed that, Andrea Marenco ’20 says. “When I graduated in May, I felt uncertain about what I wanted to do after graduating, and I felt more uncertain because of everything going on with the coronavirus,” she says. “When the coronavirus happened, it seemed like it didn’t really matter that much.”

So, Marenco took some time that summer to consider her next steps, which became a common theme for 2020 graduates, whether they wanted to or not.

You may experience some delays

In a typical year, about 50% of the Wellesley students who will be entering the workforce after graduation have offers in hand in the spring of their senior year, Pollard says. The class of 2020 was no different—until it was. Those in Career Education worried about two potential problems for the class at that point: rescinded offers and the effects of widespread hiring freezes.

“We didn’t see rescinded offers for our students, we saw delayed starts,” Pollard says. “That created an entirely new problem, where most of the students who had offers in hand were getting bumped to August, September, October, November of 2020.” Those who were still searching for jobs faced similar issues. Career Education worked with alumnae to help. “We started to create these post-grad internships through the Hive and through our Wellesley alumnae … to bridge that gap for students and help them to build their network,” Pollard says. These were short internships, typically between two and four weeks, and could be completed virtually. They offered graduates a chance to test out different industries, gain experience, and make connections. “Those led to a lot of jobs for our students,” Pollard says.

The delayed starts for the class of 2020 had a ripple effect, however, pushing back the timeline for many in the class of 2021. Although that delayed recruiting efforts from the fall to the spring, the class of 2021 did benefit from what Career Education had learned from 2020. “In the class of 2020, we started building the network and mentorship … right at the time of graduation. The class of 2021, we started the moment they got back to campus their senior year, so they started participating in virtual pod mentorship, where we had three to four alums partnered with three to four students,” Pollard says. Career Education is working to expand the program—in September, alumnae were invited via email to join the Wellesley MAP (Mentorship Affinity Pods) Program.

Not for the faint of heart

Making those connections and getting advice was critical for many graduates, whether or not they led directly to a job. Marenco returned home to Atlanta and was considering applying to law school. “I felt like there wasn’t really much out there for me,” she says. “I was living at home with my parents, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I felt like I should just try to go to grad school.” But she connected with several Wellesley lawyers, who advised something different: She should work in a law firm to try it out.

In September 2020, she started researching and applying to different firms focused on immigration law. “I was interested in any kind of law that was more social-justice oriented,” Marenco says. In October, she was offered a position as a legal assistant with an immigration law firm in New York, but the coronavirus had a surge at that point, and she didn’t want to leave her family. The firm came back with an offer for remote work, and she started a full-time position in December 2020.

Getting to a full-time staff position took a bit longer for other 2020 graduates, although making connections and networking was still critical. Saxena wanted to work as a journalist, a field with no recruitment efforts and high barriers to entry, particularly for people of color. “I didn’t see a path for me to get from graduation to full employment,” she says. “I already felt like I was going off the beaten path, and suddenly someone came and erased the path and destroyed the road that I was standing on.” She felt paralyzed and struggled to even apply for positions, but with the support of her family (yes, she too had returned home), she started applying for anything related to her field.

Saxena was contacted by a politics podcast launching that year and was offered work, albeit unpaid. “A lot of applicants of color … you start to believe that they’d never hire you with money and a salary, like you’re not worthy of a full-time staff position, so you continue to accept positions for which you’re overqualified because you think that’s what you deserve,” she says. “That’s a terrible trap that a lot of journalists of color fall into, myself included, and I think the pandemic only made it worse.” While working this unpaid position, Saxena also applied for an internship at NPR. “I spent a lot of time on my cover letter and networking with people at NPR,” or “cold-DMing,” as she puts it. That work paid off, and she was an NPR intern on the Washington desk through the 2020 election. After that, she was offered a contract position on NPR’s All Things Considered, which she did for seven months, and then, at last, she was offered a full-time staff position. She’s now an associate producer for WBUR on Here & Now.

Catie Kenyon ’20 took a similar road to full-time employment after graduating. After interning with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (USUN) in the summer of 2019, Kenyon had applied in early 2020 to return to that work, before the pandemic threw everything up in the air. Uncertain about her job prospects, Kenyon reached out to Career Education for guidance. “To be honest, I applied to dozens of jobs … and heard back from one of them,” Kenyon says. Through the Hive, she connected with an alumna who suggested she look for work with a congressional campaign, which she did. Unfortunately, all they had was unpaid work, but she took it anyway. After she had worked there for about seven weeks, Kenyon was contacted by the USUN and offered a temporary assistant position in the fall. That led to her current job as a full-time program assistant.

“I didn’t see a path for me to get from graduation to full employment. I already felt like I was going off the beaten path, and suddenly someone came and erased the path and destroyed the road that I was standing on.”

The same … but different

For the class of 2021, finding work was still a process, albeit a slightly less chaotic and difficult one. “The challenges over the past two years have not been uniform,” Pollard says. While the class of 2020 had to deal with a seismic shift in the immediate job market, 2021 had other effects to handle.

Kira Hamilton ’21, a first-generation college student, hadn’t acquired much work experience by the time they graduated. “I was almost always more focused on how I’m going to make money,” Hamilton says. They had lined up a prestigious Wellesley in Washington internship for the summer of their junior year, but the pandemic put an end to that. Their lack of experience “was something that I struggled to try to articulate in job interviews,” Hamilton says. They didn’t start their job search in earnest until the summer after graduation. “I wasn’t someone who knew for sure what I was going to do,” Hamilton says. After so much uncertainty, thinking long-term was difficult.

After graduation, Hamilton moved to a sublet in Boston and worked at Whole Foods to cover living expenses while they searched for a different job, but they struggled with the position and what it meant. “I think I felt really ashamed that I didn’t have a job immediately post-graduation,” Hamilton says. The expectation of what work a Wellesley grad does weighed on them, as did working in person during a pandemic. Outside of work, they were focused on their job search. “I had a period of two weeks where any moment I was not working, I was interviewing. I think I did 12 job interviews in two weeks,” Hamilton says. After about two months of looking, they took a position as a search coordinator with Isaacson, Miller, an executive search firm for nonprofits.

Although the class of 2021 saw some delays in offers and hiring, “there were a lot more opportunities opening back up,” Pollard says. The experience of Isha Gupta ’21 reflects a bit more of how things were back when they were “normal.” As a political science and history double major, Gupta was interested in working at a think tank or law firm post-graduation, and she started her search during winter break of her senior year. “My line of work is not as structured in terms of job opportunities, so I was taking the job search pretty seriously,” she says. “I was talking to Wellesley alums, I was talking to the fellowships and Career Education offices, but I was also looking at Indeed every single day.” She applied to several fellowships at the same time—one of which she ended up getting. By the end of March 2021, she was offered the Stimson South Asia Junior Fellowship, a yearlong position at a think tank in Washington, D.C. “It was a huge weight off my shoulders, especially since I was fully aware with the pandemic that job opportunities were more scarce,” Gupta says.

Welcome to adulthood

Getting a job is just the beginning of the journey for recent graduates. During non-pandemic years, the path from graduation to first job to first apartment can be somewhat linear, if always a little different for everyone. But some experiences are universal: No one is ready.

“I thought all of these different things were going to happen that were going to be these rituals that sent me out into the world,” Hamilton says. “I feel like I blinked, and I thought it was going to be a two-week spring break, and now I have a 9 to 5, and I have to decide how much to contribute to a 401(k).” And even for this tech-savvy generation, all this computer interaction feels a bit … strange. “I feel very much like I am playing at being an adult,” Hamilton says. “I’m on a computer, and I log in, open my Outlook, sit in on my meetings. … It totally feels like I’m playing an office simulator game.”

Many recent graduates, like Hamilton, are working remotely, and while some companies are planning for a return to in-person work or a hybrid situation, that timeline is uncertain. Remote work has its benefits (safety, flexibility), but it can be challenging, too. “When you start your first job in the middle of a pandemic, it can feel really isolating,” Gupta says. “Basically, you are working by yourself all the time. You don’t have people sitting next to you at a desk in an office, you don’t have people you can even make small talk with.”

Some alums felt lucky to have the luxury of returning home. “One of the very exciting aspects of the pandemic has been living at home with my family,” Kenyon says, laughing. “My work world and my home life are all contained in the same place.” As the oldest of four, she is home with her parents, three siblings, and the family dogs. “It’s just been a lot of shushing going on in the past 18 months,” Kenyon says. “When you have five or six people trying to use one Wi-Fi system, it certainly places a strain on the electronic resources.”

Having to do everything remotely often requires coming up with creative alternatives to office resources. Saxena lives with her parents as well, but as a journalist in radio, sometimes she needs more than just a computer. For her first on-air reporting piece, she needed quiet. And ideally, a recording studio, but needs must. “I recorded it in my closet with my podcast mic on a plastic tub of clothes, with a blanket over my head,” Saxena says. She also didn’t think to bring a stool in with her, so she ended up recording the whole thing while on her knees. “I’ll always have that as my first reporting experience,” she says.

Jennifer E. Garrett ’98 is a writer and editor living in the Boston area. She worked at a hardware store for months after graduation. And she lived at home. And it wasn’t even a pandemic.

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