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Monday, May 10, 2021

Students and alumni share worry about graduating amid COVID-19

Without closure, alumni face ups and downs moving past their time at UF

Rachel Everly's plans after graduation went from teaching English as a second language in Spain to teaching Spanish at a high school in Washington D.C. in the span of a month.

Like Everly, 2020 UF alumni not only missed the chance to walk up the stage and celebrate the culmination of their studies, but some also had to unexpectedly replan or readjust their career plans. The COVID-19 pandemic brought on several challenges in seeking higher education and securing a place in the workforce.

“It's been a hard few months,” she said.

Everly, a 22-year-old UF Spanish alumna, is one of 11,684 students who have graduated from UF since the pandemic started. Another 3,788 students applied to get their degrees this Fall, Stephanie McBride, director of UF commencements, wrote in an email.

Everly moved back with her parents in Georgia when the COVID-19 pandemic spread in the U.S. in Spring. She stayed there until she began her job teaching Spanish at Ballou High School, a school for low-income students in the Washington D.C. area, she said.

“It was really weird to go from being a virtual student to being a virtual teacher in the span of less than six months,” Everly said.

Her original plan was to begin teaching English in Spain in August through a program offered by the Spanish Ministry of Education. But before traveling abroad, she worried for her health and decided to cancel it by the end of June, Everly said.

Everly teaches high schoolers whose ages range from about 14 to 20 years old. Although she understands the frustration and struggles virtual learning poses, she doesn’t feel able to transmit that to her students. She wouldn’t like her students to know her age and risk losing their respect because she is only a couple of years older than some, she said.

“It doesn't feel like I'm actually done with college,” Everly said. “Graduating in 2020, if nothing else, gave me a really good story to tell my kids someday.”

The pandemic allowed Fahim Chowdhury, a 22-year-old UF biochemistry Summer alumnus to apply for and begin a two-year long master’s program in public health and health care management at Emory University in Atlanta. 

He was concerned about getting a job during the pandemic and decided to apply last minute to Emory, which had extended its application deadline to July 15 due to COVID-19. 

He was volunteering at a COVID-19 testing site on UF’s campus when he found out he had been accepted and started shaking out of excitement. He was accepted about a month before the start date, Aug. 24, which only gave him a weekend between the end of his undergraduate studies and beginning of graduate school, he said.

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 “It was just extremely overwhelming — in a good way — to have gotten this incredible news after all the worries that came with COVID-19,” he said.

This semester, Chowdhury received classes online from home in Sarasota, Florida. He is hoping to move to Atlanta in August for Fall 2021 and be able to finish his degree attending in-person classes. He also said he is currently thinking about applying for a job related to his field, but feels nervous about not making as good of an impression through Zoom as he would in person.

“I think we're all trying to figure out how to make this work,” Chowdhury said. “Hopefully, this provides us with skills that will be useful in the future.”

Experts have said widespread distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine will help lift the economy as businesses will be able to reopen and people will feel more comfortable at being in public, crowded places, the Wall Street Journal reported. U.S. policy makers expect the country to recover to its pre-COVID economy by 2022. 

Daniel Luckman, a 32-year-old UF computer engineering Spring alumnus, now works as a system engineer for Textron Systems, a military contract company he interned with in Summer 2019.

“It was time for me to move on,” Luckman said about UF.

At his job, people work in cubicles for about nine hours per day, it is very quiet and distanced, he said. 

Luckman is not sure his job is something he truly enjoys because he is new, he doesn’t get to talk to many people and the overall environment feels monotonous. He doesn’t know if that is normal or just something caused by the pandemic, he said. 

“It could be helpful to meet people,” Luckman said. “I just want to find my niche — find something I enjoy.” 

Collin Hamilton, a 21-year-old UF mechanical engineering senior, is graduating this Fall and said he feels it is time for him to go onto a new stage in his life.

Hamilton hopes to go straight into the workforce after graduating. So far, he has applied to about 30 different places since August. He has been interviewed by about 10 companies, but he has not gotten any good offers, he said. 

His experience includes two summer internships and research experience in renewable energy at UF, but he still hasn’t found a job for after graduation. 

“The job market really sucks right now,” he said. 

In November, the unemployment rate of people with at least a bachelor’s degree was 4.2%, compared to 2% a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Nationally, the unemployment rate is 6.7%, still 3.2 percentage points higher than it was in February.

Hamilton has gotten in touch with companies through UF career fairs, LinkedIn and contacting companies directly, but his motivation is dropping, he said. He said he is not a big fan of work-from-home culture because he doesn’t get to interact as much with people as he would in an in-person setting.

“I think everything will eventually be all right,” Hamilton said. “It just might take some time.”

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