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Economic uncertainty looms over graduating students

As the United States unemployment rate is heading quickly for 30 million people, seniors who might otherwise be delighting in graduation and entering the workforce now find themselves on the brink of entering the worst economy since the Great Depression.

For some, like Zach Tucker, a historical studies graduate student, job offers that once existed have vanished into thin air. “One federal organization has gone silent [and] doesn’t reply to any communication, and the other private company has informed me that they will not be able to bring anyone on until June at the earliest. I was working two jobs and an assistantship before the COVID-19 shutdown. The shutdown immediately closed the two jobs I had,” said Tucker.

Tucker graduated high school after the 2007 housing market crash, which impacted his family and his ability to enter college. He joined the military after high school and completed a six-year cycle before coming to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Now he’s set to graduate into an almost identical economic disaster. “It feels almost cyclical in the worst way imaginable. It took years for the housing market crash to reverberate around the globe and the full effects to be felt. We won’t know the full extent of [COVID-19] for potentially years to come. It feels depressingly familiar and unknown at the same time,” he said.

Undergraduate students, like global studies major Sofia Barrios, share the same fears and feelings of uncertainty as many graduate students. 

Barrios was originally planning to apply for immigration nonprofit jobs in Baltimore or D.C. and to move out of her parents’ home, but like Tucker, she is now uncertain about what opportunities remain on the table. “I am unsure if I will be able to secure any position within the organizations I’ve applied for,” she said. “I don’t know if organizations that I applied for are still hiring, or how the positions or hiring process has been affected by COVID-19.”

For others, hopes for the traditional graduation ceremony were dashed first, with the announcement of commencement cancellation earlier this year. That includes Lauren Hall, who is receiving her Master’s in Secondary English Education and will receive her teaching certification from Maryland.

After her father passed away during her first year at UMBC, soon after, her divorce was finalized, and she hoped for a moment to celebrate all that she had accomplished in the face of difficulty.  

“Walking the stage in front of my children, partner and mom. Hearing them cheer my name. Swelling with pride at how much I’ve overcome to get here. That’s gone now. Every month I struggled to pay the bills, get good grades and be a present mother. Now, all that work and sacrifice isn’t going to be honored the way I had envisioned,” she said.

Her plans for celebratory trips and vacations are now nothing more than painful dreams. “We were to take a family vacation up to Maine in July to see my Great Uncle and Aunt. They have a cabin in the woods and it’s a beautiful (and free) place to stay and we usually drive over to Acadia for a few days. It will probably be too risky to go now,” she said. “There were talks of a trip with my mother to New Mexico. We wanted to sleep in the desert, like one of our favorite artists, Georgia O’Keeffe.”

Any plans that involve leaving the house are off the table, and for Hall, who planned to look for teaching jobs and also jobs with more creative elements, it’s about taking it day by day: “I still plan on writing [a] book because as Joan Didion says, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’”

Hall said she received assistance from her professors, especially Dr. Cheryl North and Dr. Kim Feldman, in the education department, whom she described as being “amazing and understanding through this whole process.” North and Feldman check in on Hall’s progress and have been working closely with her to ensure she is set to graduate and get a job in the fall.

The Career Center has upped its services to continue to provide resources to all students, especially those who are entering the workforce this May, according to Kacie Lawrence, associate director of Internships & Employment. The Career Center has included help for students to handle the switch to virtual workplaces, through guidance about virtual interviewing skills and networking through LinkedIn.

 “We’ve had a steady flow of career appointments and strong attendance at many of our workshops and career panels. We’re ready and willing to help the class of 2020 enter the professional world,” said Lawrence. “The Career Center is happy to advise students on putting their best foot forward online. We strongly recommend that students practice their virtual interviewing skills. The Career Center offers an online tool called Big Interview where students can record and receive feedback on their responses to a variety of interview questions.”

For students like Hall, there’s nothing left to do now but wait. “Take it day by day, try not to break down, try not to miss the beauty in my present by fretting over the losses,” she said. “Elaborate visions of beauty have always come naturally to me. It’s what’s kept me going these last five years working towards these degrees. I only have visions for today, no comments on the future.”