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Post-secondary students brace for ‘tough’ graduation under cloud of COVID-19

Rita Stranges has been worrying about finding a job as graduation approaches.

“The job search in a COVID world is going to be a lot more challenging than it already is in a non-COVID world,” the Niagara College public relations student says.

It’s difficult to connect with people online, Stranges says, adding she has experienced heightened anxiety and uncertainty about the pandemic.

“(It) then trickles down to the uncertainty that I have with myself and with the job search and what I’m going to do next.”

After her professor arranged a Zoom call with a group of working professionals, Stranges says it was appreciated, but the social interaction aspect was missing.

“It literally felt like I was in a simulation. I didn’t feel full after it. I felt exhausted, and I wish it could have been in person.”

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Like Stranges, numerous post-secondary students across Canada graduating this spring are struggling with feelings of uncertainty around the pandemic and what the next steps in their life will look like.

Stefania Redigonda is missing out on two graduation ceremonies in a row. After completing her undergrad at Ryerson University in spring 2020, the now-postgraduate student is expected to finish her diploma at Humber College this spring.

“I never had a proper closure with my classmates and with the professors and everything. So, for me, I feel like the past four years never happened,” she says.

As a new grad, Redigonda fears transitioning into the workforce and networking.

“I think it’s hard enough to start in a new company… But then it’s even harder working from home because you’re new to the company. I’m just scared of being forgotten,” she says.

Redigonda adds she hasn’t even thought about this year’s graduation.

“There’s nothing really to look forward to and to celebrate our accomplishments,” she says.

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Ryerson media production student Kyle Damji was contemplating whether or not he should take an extra semester or year, but in the end, decided to apply to graduate this spring.

While his professors were supportive in pivoting to online school, like Redigonda, he feels like he missed out on a lot of opportunities to work on year-end projects and make connections.

“I’ve been having conversations with friends a lot and we’re all thinking, ‘This is going to be tough.’ It’s already a job market where full-timers are losing their positions. Especially in the media,” he says.

“(The pandemic) really just highlights all the doubts and worries.”

Damji says he is trying to remain optimistic for the future, and hopes that positions will open up eventually.

Click to play video: Post-secondary students navigating through new online normal

Masters of teaching student Stephanie Kroone is in a similar position.

“I think that the most jarring thing about this experience for me is the fact that each of us is individually experiencing this loss, and also collectively,” says Kroone.

“You’re feeling your own loss as well as your friends and those you’ve worked so hard to support or see every day, and no one has room to grieve because we’re all grieving.”

Kroone has received her Ontario College of Teachers certification to teach, but because of the government’s mandated math test — which has yet to be offered to two years of graduates now — she and others cannot get their full certification.

“There’s also a crisis right now and we need more teachers, but their system can’t recognize a temporary one,” says Kroone, adding that while she has a job, there’s an additional layer of stress on potentially losing her certification.

“Even if you can find a job, you’re still not guaranteed a job right now in our setting.”

Kroone adds other students she works with are finding themselves gambling with decisions around post-graduate studies and overall career planning.

“The morale is so low. Some of them don’t even try at this point because they just have no faith,” she says.

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Navigating periods of shifts and changes

Wincy Li, career education specialist at Ryerson University’s Career & Co-op Centre, says many students are experiencing a lot of anxiety.

“They follow the news, especially around the economy right now and where it’s headed,” says Li. “Even without the pandemic, that transition is oftentimes a daunting one. But we’re definitely seeing that anxiety getting worse during the pandemic.”

Tony Botelho, director of career and volunteer services at Simon Fraser University, adds the worries graduates are experiencing are combining with general pandemic ones.

“It is the sort of existential worry and wonder of what’s next: are there ever going to be jobs for people like me, are there going to be opportunities?” he says.

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While each student’s experience is different, Botelho says a key thing to remember is any life transition is always hard.

“It’s always challenging. Throwing in a pandemic and all the other stuff that’s happening in society today, it’s understandable that people are feeling uncertain or anxious,” he says.

Li emphasizes the importance of students not giving up.

“The world has seen some pretty big challenges before. And we have always found a way through it,” she says.

She encourages students to check out resources post-secondary schools offer for recent graduates, taking the time to tailor and package their job applications, as well as networking with people in their field to get a sense of their experiences and the labour market.

“Obviously, each individual is going to have to determine for themselves what they do,” says Li, adding that taking care of one’s mental health is also important to consider as they embark on their job-search journey.

Celebrating 2020 graduation with the class of COVID-19

Botelho adds very few people end up doing what they think they’re going to do and many end up shifting and changing along their paths.

“Part of the reason we say that is to calm people down in terms of their expectations, and encourage them to be open-minded and flexible during this period,” he says. “The reality of our work lives moving forward, particularly for younger people, is there’s going to be periods of shifts, change, stability and tumbles.”

As graduates move forward, Botelho encourages young people to look for ways to engage and to take action, like connecting with others doing jobs they’re interested in doing.

“Whether it’s a part-time job or volunteer gig, work harder or do more than what is expected of you, and have great relationships… One of the best things you can do for yourself in your 20s is to do stuff for others and make other people’s lives better,” says Botelho.

Click to play video: Making graduation special in the age of COVID-19

Looking forward to future celebrations

There are students in Stranges’ class she has never met but has gotten close to over the past year. She says meeting her teachers and classmates is something she is looking forward to.

“That’s what I’m looking forward to most — to celebrate our accomplishments and say this was worth it,” says Stranges.

Kroone adds she hopes students will be able to attend an in-person ceremony in the future but hopes they can all find a way to celebrate on their own terms.

For instance, Kroone is planning a teacher-themed photoshoot with her family and wants to buy all the cheesy teacher gear she has always seen herself having.

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“I look forward to a time when I can be excited about that again. I’m still excited in the sense that students will need us, now more than ever, to put everything we can into the classroom for them,” says Kroone.

Damji adds it’s important for graduating students to celebrate the best they can.

“It’s a big milestone, and going into university, I didn’t expect it to end this way. I’m going to make the most of it, and have a great time with friends and family virtually,” he says.

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