Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

Millions of college seniors are graduating into an economy that is collapsing at rates not seen since the Great Depression.

When Jessica Doherty started her senior year of college, she had a vision of how it would all end: Her, on stage, sporting her graduation sash as she was honored for four years of hard work. There would be photographs with friends, hugs with family, and a celebration of what would be one of the biggest milestones in her life.

The 22-year-old had a plan for what would come next, too. Doherty, a journalism and theater double major at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, would apply for journalism jobs in Los Angeles and her hometown of New York City and go “wherever the opportunity arises.”

Doherty knew better than to assume things would work out perfectly. She majored in two “industries that people talk about dying all the time,” after all. But nowhere in Doherty’s wildest imaginations did she expect to be navigating a once-in-a-century global pandemic that shuttered her university campus and forced her to move back in with her parents.

Of course, that’s precisely what’s happened to Doherty and millions of other college students across the country as the novel coronavirus upended life as we know it. In Doherty’s case, it meant leaving behind her friends at USC in mid-March, and flying across the country to New York City.

“My senior year definitely did not go as planned,” Doherty, a journalism and theater double major, told COURIER. “Coming to terms with like, that’s how my college was ending, was really hard.”

Selfie of Jessica Doherty taken during a Zoom class (courtesy of subject)

Instead of celebrating the end of her college experience with her boyfriend, classmates, and professors and exchanging happy hugs on graduation day, Doherty is spending the final days of her college experience on Zoom. She will have the opportunity to participate in a graduation ceremony on Saturday—virtually,  from the comfort of her parents’ home in Long Island City. 

Doherty described the days preceding her decision to return home as a confusing and chaotic whirlwind driven by unclear and ever-evolving information from government and university officials. 

“We were in denial for a little bit,” Doherty said. “It was so fast and it was like this creeping sense of dread we felt in the beginning of March as things started getting postponed and things started getting canceled.”

Doherty finally realized the severity of the situation after hundreds of colleges and universities across the country canceled in-person classes and states began enacting stay-at-home orders. 

“That’s when it really set in that we’re going to be stuck in one place,” she said. “And at that point, my mom was like, ‘School’s not coming back, you need to come home,’ and I packed up everything I could within 24 hours and I was on a flight.”

It took Doherty a few days to adjust to being back home, but she eventually came to terms with the reality of how her senior year would end. She is also happy—and aware of how fortunate she is—to be riding out the pandemic at home with her parents in New York, where she’s also a stone’s throw away from her grandmother. Had she stayed in Los Angeles, Doherty knows she’d be handling the pandemic a lot worse, since her roommates also left and she’d have been alone in her apartment.

“Part of my decision in coming home was I was really worried. God forbid something happens to my parents or my grandma,” Doherty said. “I think I was still in LA, I’d be really nervous about my parents, really nervous about my grandma, and I’d be really nervous about myself.”

With the initial chaos of the situation in her rearview mirror, Doherty is now grappling with other questions, namely: What does the future hold for her career-wise? 

The graduating class of 2020 is entering into an economy that is collapsing at rates not seen since the Great Depression. More than 30 million workers have filed for unemployment in the past two months and the journalism industry, which Doherty is hoping to work in, has been decimated by layoffs, furloughs, and newspaper shutdowns. The list of affected media outlets, compiled by The Poynter Institute, is staggering.

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Doherty and her peers have no idea if, or when, they’ll be able to find employment, which has her re-evaluating her post-graduation plans. 

“Now that we’ve accepted that our senior year is over, we’re like, ‘we’re not going to have jobs,’” she said. “I was applying to a lot of internship programs, but the problem is a lot of those programs are being canceled or postponed or they’re kind of freezing them because they don’t know what to do about them.”

Doherty is doing what she can to prepare for the future, but it’s been difficult. “I feel like I’m trapped in a liminal space even though I’m trying to force myself to accept that I am now in the post-college phase of my life,” she said. 

This “liminal space” is one occupied by many of her peers. Doherty is one of the roughly four million students expected to graduate this year with an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or medical degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The crumbling job market, abrupt shutdown of campuses, and overwhelming uncertainty over the future has led to a surge in anxiety among students, many of whom are afraid they won’t be able to find jobs

Eileen Donovan-Kranz, associate professor of English at Boston College, told COURIER last month that her students were all experiencing similar feelings. “Who is looking to hire right now? No one is,” Donovan-Kranz said. “I really wish this wasn’t happening and this season of their youth wasn’t interrupted like this.”

Take Christa Widjaja, for example. The 26-year-old from Carrollton, Texas, is set to graduate from the University of Houston’s College of Optometry this month, but is unsure what her future holds. The coronavirus pandemic forced her and her classmates to end their rotations—where they shadowed optometrists and gained first-hand experience working with patients—earlier than expected, in mid-March. 

Worse, the pandemic has left her post-graduate career in a state of purgatory.

“The day before lockdown, I had two private practices that were supposed to send me contracts to look over and sign eventually,” Widjaja said. She never received them. 

“Neither of the practices has been able to send me anything because they’re just surviving,” she said. “They’re local businesses.”

Christa Widjaja (image courtesy of subject)

Instead of starting her first real job in July, as planned, Widjaja has no work lined up and has moved back home with her parents. She hopes to still work for one of those practices, if they’re able to take her on, but she just has to wait and see. In the meantime, she’s now considering applying for roles at corporate chains like Lenscrafters, which are better positioned to weather the economic storm.

But even that backup plan might be upended. Widjaja has finished all her board exams and was on track to get her license to practice optometry in July, but the Texas Board of Optometry has not been able to hold regular meetings during the coronavirus crisis, which may delay licensing.

Doherty finds herself in a similar haze of uncertainty. She has decided to continue living with her parents for the foreseeable future—unless of course, she’s lucky and gets an offer she can’t refuse in another city. But she knows how unlikely that is in the current landscape and has prioritized applying to jobs and internships in New York, where she could live rent free.

Her other option is to go to graduate school. She’s currently studying for the GREs as she tries to figure out what’s next, but that’s hard to do when, as she put it, “no one knows what’s next.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Jessica Doherty’s family lives in Manhattan, when they in fact live in Long Island City.