Times are tough for everyone, but for upcoming college freshmen and graduating college seniors, the COVID-19 pandemic is changing everything.

By Kristi Pahr
May 01, 2020
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Jena Ialongo, an upcoming freshman engineering student at the University of Maryland, says it's been a bumpy road for the high school class of 2020. "We had to cancel a lot of senior events," says Ialongo. "I think they are trying to reschedule graduation, but a lot of things have been canceled, which has been disappointing."

But it's not just the cancelation of graduation ceremonies, proms, and other annual events that has them concerned though. With the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and expected economic recession, new grads are stepping out into the world on shaky footing.

For incoming freshmen, their much-anticipated plans are potentially being put on hold as many colleges and universities weigh the possibilities of fall semester classes being held online and campuses remaining empty. For many graduating college seniors, an unstable economy and massive layoffs mean leaving the cozy environment of their college days without job prospects. So how are these young adults expected to manage?

What College Looks Like For Incoming Freshmen

The days of freshmen dorms and late nights in the library might be put at a standstill for now. Colleges and universities across the country are looking into remote learning for the fall semester, many expecting to make the decision over the summer. Some schools hopeful for in-person classes will also enforce social distancing and safety constraints to make that happen.

This leaves incoming freshmen unsure if they will get the opportunity to have a true college experience in their first year. "I believe that the meaningful social interactions and discussions with other bright students, as well as the activities outside of the classroom, are as valuable as the education I will be receiving in my classes," says upcoming Harvard freshman Ahmad Alsheikh. "Those activities and extracurriculars are what will help me grow as a person and develop my character." 

Alsheikh says he remains "undecided" as to whether or not he will attend Harvard in the fall. He's not alone: A poll by Strada Education Network found 11 percent of adults "canceled their education plans because of COVID-19." Another poll by the Art & Science group found about 63 percent of prospective students are worried “they may not be able to attend their first-choice institution” and for many it’s because of new financial burdens on their families.

Some like Alsheikh are considering taking a gap year in order to avoid this makeshift college experience. But unfortunately, COVID-19 has also put the brakes on many gap year opportunities, including internships and study abroad options. 

Compounding the disappointment is the uncertainty surrounding living arrangements for upcoming freshmen. Ialongo, whose engineering program requires students to live on campus, says the living situation is still up in the air. "Since I got into a special program for females in engineering, the school requires you to live on campus with the other girls in the program," she explains. "My parents aren’t saying yes to it quite yet; they’re a little hesitant about this, given all of the unknowns, so I'm not sure of my plans just yet."

College Seniors are Facing a Rocky Transition to the Workforce

During a time when college seniors should be looking forward to starting jobs in their fields of study, the class of 2020 is unsure what the future holds.

"The job market for the class of 2020 looks bleak. The U.S. is facing a possible recession. People are losing their jobs, and no one seems to be hiring right now," explains Pierre Huguet, CEO and co-founder of college consulting firm H&C Education. "Graduating college seniors should expect to spend the next three to six months without any real job or internship opportunities."

Adding to an already stressful time is the fact that many universities are switching to a pass/fail grading scheme during the pandemic, leaving some students to wonder if it will negatively impact their job prospects. "Some college seniors are worried about graduating with resumes that may look weaker compared to applicants who were able to finish four full years of college," explains Huguet. "Some of my students have expressed concerns about the pass/fail policy adopted by their universities: 'Will an employer prefer to hire a student with a 4.0 GPA over a student with outstanding grades, but with a last transcript full of pass?'"

Is There a Silver Lining?

All hope isn't lost, however. As dire as the next year for new grads may sound, there are opportunities for college freshmen and graduating seniors alike to make the most of their new situations. "Students can find ways to gain real experience from this situation," says Huguet. "For instance, students interested in journalism and communications can cover stories in their communities, while STEM students can offer their knowledge and help to volunteer. This year is tough, but students who can use their imagination to be helpful and develop new skills during the pandemic will have a compelling narrative to tell during the next hiring season."

Ialongo is doing just that: she's used the weeks before her high school graduation to serve her community and says it has been a valuable coping mechanism. "The first few weeks after school shutdown was rough, but getting into sewing masks and giving back to the community helped me stay motivated," she says. Along with her robotics team, Ialongo has helped make 3D printed face shields. They then began sewing face masks after a friend said they were needed. "Our goal is to sew 888 masks and currently we are at 736 masks in three weeks," says Ialongo.

Even though times are tough, especially for those making big life transitions, there's still a way to make the most out of this complicated time. "Now is a great time for students to help their communities and build their resumes with meaningful real-world work experiences," says Huguet.

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