Facing Uncertainty and Lost Opportunities, College Students Respond with Resilience

Published jul. 27, 2020

On Saturday, March 14, I received an email from Northeastern University stating that my fellow students and I had to vacate our dorms within three days. Millions of other college students across the United States received similar short and often vaguely worded messages in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the immediate loss of independence and instructional time, the rapid onset of the pandemic immediately disrupted, and in many cases ended, work-based learning experiences, which are vital to helping students explore their interests and potential future careers.

The full consequences of the loss of work-based learning opportunities extend far beyond the experiences of individual students. The pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color and members of other marginalized groups, including people from low-income communities and those who experience housing or food insecurity. A lack of access to work-based learning limits the career prospects and economic advancement of millions of youth and adults from those populations, especially as we face an increasingly uncertain future.

Despite the uncertainty and instability caused by the pandemic, college students are consistently demonstrating creativity and resilience.

I interviewed six of my peers, fellow students who are also attending four-year colleges, to learn how the pandemic has affected their educations and career plans, and to share their stories of resilience.

A Lot More to Learn

Mira, a second-year psychology and design student at Northeastern University, was two months into her six-month co-op—short for cooperative education program, the signature offering of Northeastern’s experiential work-based learning initiative—when the pandemic forced students to leave campus. She had originally wanted to pursue a career in design, but she had been doing her co-op at a psychiatric hospital, and she found that the experience was more rewarding than she expected. Despite the physical and emotional exhaustion that she often experienced at the co-op, Mira said, “You just feel accomplished seeing how people have improved.”

For Mira, two months was just enough time to understand what skills are required to be successful in a field, but not enough time to practice or perfect new competencies. Caring for the patients, “made me realize how my communication skills, especially to those people who are very sensitive to your tone and expression, are not enough,” she said. “There is a lot more for me to learn.”

Similarly, Michael, a third-year computer science student at Northeastern, had worked at a financial software development company just long enough to understand the workflow and recognize common problems, but he hadn’t had enough time to understand the intricacies of the field and the full depth of potential problems. “I got enough experience to know how it worked, but not enough time working at it to get to the type of proficiency I would have preferred,” he said, adding that his experience was “not strong enough to put on a resume.”

Long-Distance Connections

While many students lost or were forced to terminate their internships because of the pandemic, others have attempted to persevere despite significant logistical and geographic challenges.

Katherine, a Northeastern biology major, was just beginning to understand the background work required for clinical research projects at her co-op at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital when the pandemic hit. She had to relocate to South Korea to be with her family, but she wanted to find a way to continue her work at the hospital, despite the 13-hour time difference. She was barely able to secure an international plane ticket, and once she got home, she had to obtain a secure virtual private network connection to the hospital’s systems. But now, despite not having a U.S. SIM card, she’s able to work a few hours a week analyzing participant data.

Katherine wants to apply to medical school, and although she hasn’t entirely lost out on her work-study opportunity, the pandemic is stripping her of a chance to fully explore future medical careers and preventing her from registering for required STEM classes in the fall due to increased demand.

New Plans and Priorities

For students in the graduating class of 2020, the pandemic disrupted not only their final semester of college but also their job searches.

“Immediately post-grad, I’m trying to do a year or two of service to figure [my career path] out better,” said Sarah, a Boston University psychology student. She applied to AmeriCorps programs to help determine if she wants to pursue a career in nonprofit management or a career focused more on direct service, like counseling. But now that the pandemic has forced organizations to do as much work as possible remotely, she recognizes that she will lose aspects of community and emotional connectivity by working with youth online rather than in person.

For their part, some undergrads are using the guilt-free downtime brought by this pandemic to reflect on their career goals.

Catherine, a sophomore at Oberlin College in Ohio, has a passion for theater, and she found that her confidence in her abilities was reignited when she had an opportunity to stage-manage a school play last fall. The early termination of her spring study-abroad program, combined with the loss of her summer job working with youth in theater, gave her ample time to contemplate her career path. She has realized that her “dream life never has anything to do with what my career is,” enticing her to contemplate the “why” of her educational and internship decisions and reimagine a future that combines a more traditional yet lucrative job with activities and projects she is deeply passionate about.

Before COVID-19 struck, Tee, an MIT biology student, was conducting experiments in a lab; now his job consists of analyzing previously acquired data. Less busy than he once was, Tee has been thinking about wealth inequality and has decided that he wants to use biology to help alleviate poverty and inequity. “This pandemic really exemplified this [lack of parity] between the rich and the poor,” Tee said. “I wish that I could be a part of some organization or company that allows me to be bridging the gap."

Similarly, Michael is using this time to build new programming skills by developing his own version of the game Boggle. And Mira is reflecting on the importance of having a recession-proof job while taking advantage of unexpected extra time with her family.

Creative Responses to an Uncertain Time

Despite the uncertainty and instability caused by the pandemic, college students are consistently demonstrating creativity and resilience.

[College students] are building and drawing on our creativity and resiliency during this unique time as we reflect, re-envision, and reimagine what the future can be.

Students pursue work-based learning opportunities to explore future career options, gain resume-enhancing experience, and practice skills they learned in the classroom. While these experiences can benefit all students, they can play a much bigger role in the educations of students from low-income backgrounds, many of whom use work-based learning as an opportunity to build social connections and networks.

Moreover, work-based learning can help increase equity in employment opportunities for people of color. The loss of these opportunities can mean much more than loss of a temporary job experience—it has the potential to have long-lasting negative effects on their personal and career trajectories.

Through all of this, young people are overcoming obstacles created by this pandemic and finding innovative ways of focusing on the future through activities ranging from resume workshops to personal projects. Even as we face unprecedented challenges, many of my fellow college students and I are building and drawing on our creativity and resiliency during this unique time as we reflect, re-envision, and reimagine what the future can be.