Yale’s class of 2020 expected a graduation. A clunky robe and slightly askew cap, family and friends traveling from around the world to sit through a drawn-out ceremony with thousands of names, one second of erupting in cheers, and then pictures, hugs, tears and a celebratory dinner. They expected a transition: college to not, adult to adult, space, independence, something that made it clear that they were one thing and now they are something different. Moving forward in some way, whatever that way may be.
We all know what they got instead. Or, at least part of it. We know about the virtual graduation, clunky robe and slightly askew cap still intact. We know about the canceled senior trips, lack of hugs and the more subdued celebratory dinners. But we don’t know much about what happened after that. What graduating into a COVID-19 economy meant for their jobs and, even more broadly, their sense of direction. What it means to move into a new city but never meet coworkers in-person. How to decide if you hate your job, or just hate it in COVID-times.
The News spoke to four Yale alumni from the class of 2020, each of whom found their post-college life severely impacted by the pandemic. One lost three separate dream jobs to COVID, one can’t tell how seriously to take his current discontent, one is planning to renege on his work contract and go back to school to weather out the pandemic and recession and one, working remotely while at home with her family, is using the year as a chance to take stock and reframe.
Not one, not two, but three dream jobs
Tarek Ziad ’20 had everything figured out. He got the first and only job that he applied to; his dream job as a wildlife conservator educator at a New York zoo that was the perfect combination of his two majors, ecology and theater. Since his start date was in May, he found a place in New York and ended his New Haven lease for that month. And then came COVID-19. Because of the nature of his job, it and other educational positions at the zoo were cut, leaving Ziad not only without a job but also without a place to live. He scrambled to find a sublet at the Yale track and cross country team house, but that was only a temporary measure.
Ziad began an almost straight-out-of-a-sitcom few months that involved him and his friend Austin Stoner ’20 starting their own proxy moving business for undergraduates and others who still had belongings in the dorms and needed someone else to retrieve them (and generating significant revenue), teaching online, selling “everything I ever owned,” temporarily working at the Peabody Museum to help evaluate their renovations, pitching himself and skills live on CNBC in the hopes of networking, and then, finally, hearing back about a potential job as an activities associate at a social club in New York.
“We were vibing, [the hirer] was like this is great, going to put in a proposal for a position,” Ziad said. “Then [the club] had a hiring freeze. That job was also taken from me because of COVID-19.”
Ziad moved to New York anyways and signed a Sept. 1 lease, having made enough money off of online teaching and the move-in business to “survive.” Currently, he is still teaching online, as well as helping a doctor in North Virginia with a new podcast. He hoped to produce his senior thesis, an original solo show, in the “real world,” but “COVID-19 has destroyed theater.” So Ziad is in limbo.
He credits Yale’s networking events and options for helping him secure his current jobs, both of which he found through a Yale jobs Facebook group. He was able to perform a five-minute standup set for a show with performances from Sara Bareilles and Taye Diggs through a chain of Yale connections as well. And the other job he lost, reshooting some scenes for the first-year orientation videos, came directly from Yale too.
Despite everything, Ziad told the News that he is enjoying what he’s currently doing.
“I love working with kids,” Ziad said. “At this point, I spend more time with people under the age of 15 than I do with anyone else, but they’re so funny and so smart, so I really love it.”
He’s currently hoping that his initial job at the zoo opens back up, or that a different zoo, which may have a potentially similar position, offers him a spot. “Life is kinda up in the air right now,” he added.
“It’s a little scary, honestly”
Ed Gelernt ’20 Zooms in from his apartment in Philadelphia where he currently lives. Gelernt is a ninth grade math teacher at a charter school in Ewing, New Jersey, and the soon-to-be head of the after-school math club. Currently, he teaches completely online.
Gelernt began his job search in April, during the throes of COVID-19, but he wanted to be a teacher before then. Still, he’s struggling to find fulfillment in the role.
“It’s hard, and it’s frequently disheartening. I just don’t get a lot of enthusiasm and engagement from the kids,” Gelernt said. “Most of their cameras are off, so a lot of my teaching is just looking at a screen of black squares.”
He added that his school serves a lot of kids with “poor educational backgrounds and unstable home backgrounds,” so he wants to find better ways to help them, but the online format has not been conducive to doing so.
One of Gelernt’s larger worries is whether these struggles are indicative that teaching is not the right profession for him or solely related to the current pandemic.
“Part of the internal challenge of being at a job you don’t love for the first time is that you don’t really know how much of that is because it’s online and how much of that is because of the job itself,” he said. “I never really planned on teaching being my career forever, so I figured only if I fell in love with it would I stick with it for a long time, which obviously hasn’t happened as of right now.”
As of now, Gelernt is planning on sticking with teaching for another year, and then revisiting. But for him, the problems with starting a new job right now also extend to every other aspect of life. Because classes are online, he doesn’t have the opportunity to regularly meet with coworkers, and he recently moved to a new city. He mostly spends his days inside his apartment.
He added that these sentiments, both in the professional and social aspects, are commonly shared among his friends who graduated in 2020.
“A lot of us … wonder how much of our lives right now is because we’re trapped inside without seeing anybody, and how much of it is just because this is life after college,” Gelernt said. “Hard to make friends, seeing people less often. It’s a little scary, honestly.”
Benefits outweighing consequences
A class of 2020 grad, who wishes to remain anonymous due to potential workplace and law school retaliation, was one of the lucky ones. He secured a government job in February 2020, before the pandemic hit.
Initially supposed to travel to Canada, he decided to weather out what he assumed would be a short pandemic at home. He ended up staying until July 15, when he “moved [his] whole life to New York.” He worked from his home there until November, when his office canceled their in-person plans. At that point, he decided to go back to his family in California, which is where he was when we Zoomed. As of now, his tentative plan is to go back in March, once he hopefully gets vaccinated.
Working from home has been hard, though he acknowledges that it would have been much harder if this had happened when he was less mentally resilient.
“Mentally things are harder when you have less autonomy,” he said, adding that “I feel like a little kid again.” Having a “secure home and secure apartment in New York,” as well as a job that “I’m not afraid of losing” have also helped.
Even so, he is planning to quit and, in doing so, violating his employment commitment. This stems from, similar to Gelernt, missing out on the full post-college experience that he envisioned, one that is both social and professional.
He’s only been able to make one friend through his time working remotely in New York and working at home, a stark contrast from his initial plans of clubbing, attending lots of social events and having some sort of in-person support network.
“Without having a social outlet, I think my job isn’t worth it,” he said.
Instead, he is currently applying to law schools, which initially he wasn’t planning to do until next year, after working for two years.
“I feel bad about it but not that bad,” he said, but “it’s just a job, and they’re not paying me that much anyway. If I can’t have a chance to make friends and have the life I was hoping for at this point, I would rather make progress towards my future goals than stay stuck.”
He acknowledged that this was a privileged position to be able to take, and compared to many of his friends who lost jobs, one of the most fortunate. But he thinks that his path of going back to school next year is going to prove popular among his age group, especially since he doesn’t believe that employers have done enough to encourage workers to stay, instead emphasizing a “work as usual” approach that is both “impossible” and “deeply frustrating.”
Dissolving the stigma
Julia Kahn ’20 initially had planned for a 2020 summer of a cappella tours, traveling, hanging out with family for a little and then moving out to the Bay Area, so that she could easily commute to Facebook’s headquarters, where she was planning to work.
Instead, she found herself at home in Chicago — where she still is — and doing the same job, but remotely.
Kahn is acutely aware that she should be in California right now and entering a new period of her life. But she’s also grateful for what this year has been and what it’s forced her to rethink.
“There are so many things that I was so excited to acquire and accomplish, and what happened instead was that it just made me very grateful for what I have,” Kahn said. “My family is stable and my job is stable and I’m in stable situations. It’s not ideal, it’s not how I imagined my post-college life to be, but I’m just trying to be grateful for what it is.”
She added that any stigma surrounding people moving back home after college should be “dissolved,” and that “there shouldn’t be any shame” in some sort of familial dependence after college.
Of the four people interviewed by the News, every one of them hoped that something regarding their current plans would change post-COVID. Kahn was the only one of the three who felt secure in the job path that she was currently on, although she hoped to ultimately change locations. While Gelernt felt unsure of whether or not he would stick with teaching, the other two planned to either reapply for old jobs that were lost to the pandemic, or completely switch directions for the time being.
Much of their sentiments can be summed up by Gelernt’s thoughts near the end of our call: “Is it quarantine, or is it just life?” Hopefully, the class of 2020 will be able to know the answer soon. And, for the rest of us, hopefully we’ll never have to figure it out.
Madison Hahamy | firstname.lastname@example.org