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Work & School How coronavirus is affecting college seniors

Apr. 29, 2020
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I want to preface this by saying I know the issues that I’m about to talk about aren’t as serious as what doctors, nurses, vulnerable populations, and ill people are facing. There is no shortage of suffering right now. I just want to talk about the struggles I and other seniors are facing as our last year of college has been upended by this virus. It’s complicated to understand this kind of specific grief in the larger context of the pandemic—but it helps to talk about it. 

I, like many other seniors, spent the beginning of this semester fretting over what to do for my thesis project. This week, in my Zoom thesis class, my professor kindly, calmly let us know that everyone is two weeks or more behind. No one was particularly shocked by that statement; it was clear we were all struggling to work on our projects from home. Our professor has been understanding, making it clear that these setbacks won’t negatively impact our grades. But still—as design students, a lot of our projects had to be changed completely since we no longer have access to the same resources. “I just feel like I don’t care anymore,” one of the other students told me. “This isn’t what I wanted the project to be. I don’t even know if I’ll put this in my portfolio.” Almost everyone else feels similarly. It’s hard to invest so much time and energy into a project that you ultimately can’t complete in the way you wanted to. For most of us, it isn’t about the grade; it’s about the project or the thesis not being what we hoped it would.

Another student I talked to was Allie, who’s a senior at the University of Rochester and is writing a traditional senior thesis. “It’s just really hard to keep it on track,” she said. She mentioned she has mental health struggles, which culminated in her thesis already being difficult to write, but now in quarantine, it’s even worse: “I rely on things like going to class and hanging out with friends to give me structure and support but since we’re in quarantine I obviously can’t do that and Zoom just isn’t cutting it. It’s weird because when I’m depressed I tend to lock myself inside and isolate anyway, and now that I’m being forced to do it it’s almost like I’ve entered a depressive episode that I wasn’t really anticipating. It’s like quarantine is reinforcing my depressive tendencies and it’s really hard to do things like keeping a routine and getting dressed, so trying to write my thesis has been kind of impossible.” 

While this is hard on all students, it feels like a particularly heavy burden for seniors to have to carry. Your thesis is supposed to be a piece of work you’re proud of, and for a lot of students right now it’s a struggle to even get the work done. A thesis requires a huge investment of time, research, energy, and innovation, and having to do that alone in your room without the support of your peers and professors is especially difficult. Your thesis is expected to be the best work you produce in your college career; it’s supposed to be good enough to get you into graduate school or a job or a research grant. 

Even if we do manage to produce incredible thesis projects, it feels unlikely that they could lead to jobs, which is another point that has come up again and again when I’ve talked to my classmates. Unemployment claims have reached 22 million over the past month, which The New York Times pointed out is “roughly the net number of jobs created in a nine-and-a-half-year stretch that began after the last recession.” In a matter of a month, virtually all of the jobs created after the 2008 recession have been decimated. One of my professors opened our first virtual class by telling us he’d just been forced to lay off almost all the designers on his team; he’s now on a team of only one. In a time when job recruiters are supposed to be working double-time to find eligible seniors, the number of new jobs posted between February and March dropped 29% compared to 2019, according to The New York Times and ZipRecruiter. These statistics don’t sound good, especially to seniors like myself who were already intimidated by trying to get their first post-grad job.  

“Do you know what your post-grad plans are?” I texted one of my friends. “No!!!” she messaged back, “unless attempting to disappear counts.”

And then there’s the sad reality of losing senior-week events and graduation. 

My senior commencement has been officially and indefinitely postponed. “My heart goes out to the graduates and their families: this is a tremendous disappointment to them, capping a spring semester full of disruption and uncertainty,” the president wrote in an email to students, faculty, and family. The CDC recommended canceling any events with groups larger than 50 people, and in a matter of weeks, college graduations all throughout the United States were postponed or canceled. 

“It’s hard to not be upset about it,” one student wrote to me. “I was looking forward to celebrating the fact that I made it through college.” Another student wrote a similar sentiment: “It’s really tough to have worked so long and so hard and not get to fully celebrate it.”

For a lot of students, myself included, college hasn’t been easy. There have been failed papers and unforgiving professors and presentations for which we weren’t prepared. There’s been stress and breakdowns and breakthroughs. At times it’s been an uphill battle, but knowing that you were in it together with your friends and peers made it exciting. And now we don’t have that. There will be no sense of late-night camaraderie in the library during finals week; there will be no collective class-skipping on days when the weather is finally warm and sunny. There won’t be any senior balls or parent appreciation dinners or spring weekends, and there won’t be a graduation. 

I asked my friend Tim, who graduated from Fordham University in 2019, about his senior year. I wanted to know what I’ll be missing out on. “Senior week was full of joy for me,” he said. “I can’t remember too many times in my life when I’ve felt that much joy. Those last three or four weeks felt like a microcosm of my entire Fordham experience in such a short time. That probably sounds dramatic, but it’s how it really felt. I was new and old and sad and happy, and I had this unspeakable and impossible bond with every person I saw. The night before graduation, a lot of people went out to the bars and I remember seeing and hugging and kissing every person I loved in those last few hours. The morning of graduation, a bunch of us stayed up for the sunrise and watched it from the bleachers, and we were all hungover and sleepless and delirious, and it was so special. It’s hard to explain, but it felt like something was beginning rather than ending. I think everyone deserves to have that experience of camaraderie and union.” A lot, it turns out, is the answer to my question. I’ll be missing out on a lot.

It’s painful and heavy and incredibly difficult to have to be dealing with all of this. It can feel extra complicated because a lot of these feelings of sorrow come with a side of guilt—these problems aren’t very significant in the big picture. This is a hard situation, but it’s important to remember it’s going to be over eventually. We’ll be able to hug each other again. While this has been a difficult and unprecedented year, it’ll certainly be a memorable one.