Frustrating, stressful, surreal: graduating students face a shaky future

young woman in cap and gown with her hands on her head looking sad or worried
A graduating student ericsphotography/Getty Images

In what feels like a stroke of cosmically bad luck, thousands of college students virtually graduating across Wisconsin in the coming weeks will be entering an economy and a job market that has been flipped upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Just as the classes of 2008 and 2009 graduated into the Great Recession, the class of 2020 is graduating into an economic downturn caused by the pandemic that has resulted in mass unemployment. Recent polling showed that 90% of students are concerned about entering the job market. 

Graduates have had to change plans and adjust quickly as companies freeze hiring, internship programs are canceled and international travel is shut down — all while dealing with the massive transition of shifting to online classes and processing the emotional fallout of ending college without a traditional send-off. 

Many students also have the looming threat of student loan payments waiting for them. While there’s little data showing how much debt current graduates hold, the average millenial has more than $34,000 in student loans. 

“Not only do we have this topsy-turvy market here, and a labor market bottoming out, students who have been in school and had plans set up, then drastically they’re told to transition online — which is a huge transition,” says Rebekah Paré, executive director of SuccessWorks at UW-Madison. “That plus the pandemic alone, for anybody, is a lot.”

Paré says that many members of the class of 2020 had already secured jobs before the world was shut down to prevent the spread of the virus, but some are still looking or have had plans totally change. 

“The stakes are much higher for them right now,” she says. “It’s really unbelievable. My heart goes out to these students. It’s such a topsy-turvy environment. It’s hard to feel like you have your feet underneath you.”

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.

For some students, Paré says, it can feel like the floor fell out from underneath them. Brennan Bahr, a journalism major at UW-Madison, feels exactly like that. 

In March, Bahr had landed a job in communications — his chosen field. But as the virus spread and the economic fallout became more clear, the offer was rescinded. All of a sudden, Bahr was back on the job market. Except now, his chances seemed worse. 

“I feel like the timing is obviously awful,” Bahr says. “A lot of frustration comes with it, too. Going to school four years and on top of school pursuing internships and extracurriculars. Then as soon as you’re entering the job market, you have the rug slipped out from under you … I thought I was the lucky one.” 

Bahr says he’s remaining optimistic, buoyed by the UW alumni who have reached out offering their experiences from graduating a decade ago. He says he’s also been in contact with career services, trying to come up with his next steps. 

But he’s also questioning some of his decisions. He chose to major in journalism because he believed a career in communications would be something he enjoyed. Yet now, as he’s facing an uphill battle, he wonders if maybe he should have considered a more practical choice. 

“I guess the frustration point for myself is I worked really hard in college, I wanted to do something I enjoyed and now I feel my choices are getting more and more narrow,” Bahr says. “Do you want to do something you enjoy or something you may hate but is more safe?”

Bahr’s doubts were compounded by the “robust opportunities” Paré says were available for students who’d chosen different fields. 

“We know that 3,000 jobs and internships have been posted since mid-March,” she says. “Hiring is continuing for jobs in K-12 education, manufacturing, healthcare, consulting and finance.”

Even for students who are choosing more unconventional paths, there’s been a significant amount of upheaval. Elisabeth Rusch, a communications and public relations major at UW-Eau Claire, received a Fulbright scholarship and was set to go to South Korea in July. 

With international travel out of the question for the foreseeable future, her trip has been delayed until at least January of 2021. In the meantime, Rusch has to look for a temporary job. She says she’s been applying to work at nonprofits, but the search has been stressful. 

College students around Wisconsin are graduating into a shaky job market. (Phil Roeder | Flickr)

“I’m definitely feeling stressed about finding something,” she says. “Right now, a lot of companies are either putting a hold on hiring or letting current employees go. I haven’t lost all hope, I know there are people out there who are hiring. I have to realize my first job out of college might not be exactly what I want or related to my field.” 

“I’m coming to terms with the fact my plan isn’t going to happen the way I imagined it,” she added. 

In the past, graduates struggling to find jobs could often find temporary work in another field — the stereotypical liberal arts student at the coffee shop, for example. Although underemployment — being overqualified for a job — is a separate issue affecting many millenials who graduated during the recession, even that option isn’t completely available for the class of 2020. 

The service industry is among those hardest hit due to closures forced by the pandemic, according to a Pew Research Center study

“There isn’t ‘I’m going to keep my bar job until something opens up for me,’” Paré says. “So much has dried up.”

Bahr and Rusch, who both said they’re frustrated and nervous about their short-term prospects, also had a more optimistic outlook for their futures. But studies have shown that graduating into a recession can have long-term effects on wages, housing and even the likelihood of getting married or having children. 

The uncertainty of the current world, even for students who are marginally more secure, can be difficult to deal with. James Elkin, a senior at UW-Madison with a major in operations and supply chain management, had already landed a job at a food supply company before the effects of the pandemic really hit. 

Elkin’s chosen field is especially important now as outbreaks of the virus and business closures have interrupted and changed supply chains. But, even in what feels like a secure field, he says he’s unsure of what the future will bring — something he saw firsthand when his two sisters graduated in 2009. 

“When they talk about, one in six Americans has lost their job in the past couple months, that is crazy, that’s unheard of in recent history,” Elkin says. “It does make you wonder what the one, two years down the road are going to look like. I feel lucky that what I went to school for is in pretty high demand right now, based on the nature of what I study. Hopefully, I would like to think I’ll be okay, but you never really know.”

Bahr, Rusch and Elkin were all coping with having their college careers abruptly cut short. 

Bahr said he has a weekly “sad session” with his two roommates to talk through how they’re feeling about the end of their senior year. 

“The weirdest thing for us is there’s no real hard transition,” Bahr says. “There’s so much ambiguity, it’s the sadness of not having that punctuation at the end of your college career but also that confusion of what you do now. It seems like building up to the top of a rollercoaster and nothing happening.”

Not having a giant ceremony for graduation will be a “big disappointment” for Elkin. But he also says he’s got friends who have now scattered across the country and he’s unsure when he’ll see them again. 

Rusch, who is still living in Eau Claire with her friends, says she is sad her senior year was cut short, but she’s more grateful for the time she was able to get. 

“I’m just glad I didn’t buy my cap and gown yet,” she says.