#FOCUSDisruption: Struggles of COVID-19 Era College Alumni

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Published April 25, 2022
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The Montclarion
Elena Plumser graduated from Montclair State University in May 2020 with a bachelor's degree in television and digital media, at the peak of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Elena Plumser

#FocusDisruption is a collaboration of all the media outlets within Montclair State’s School of Communication and Media. Our goal is to report stories that highlight the effects or disruption of the last two years and the solutions that have come out of it. All aspects of day-to-day life have been altered but we will be primarily focusing on how mental health, education and the workplace have changed.

It’s not controversial to say the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has taken a hard toll on everyone, in more ways than one. Even with the return of some in-person opportunities, college students are burnt out, completely exhausted and pushing themselves to stay motivated through a computer screen. It’s just not the same.

But what happens when that remote learning turns into remote adulthood? Or when online school becomes online career-searching? There’s no emergency manual to teach today’s young people how to thrive in a pandemic-stricken job market, or how to snap out of the mental turmoil that isolation brings.

There’s plenty left unsaid about how college alumni are not only swimming in debt but also drowning in the employment pool with COVID-19 pushing them down further.

According to the Pew Research Center, college graduates in the year 2020 were less likely to be in the labor force or employed by their 2019 predecessors by 9%. The world has changed dramatically, and recent college alumni are faced with trying to apply their new knowledge to an economy not strong enough to include them all.

Some peak-pandemic Montclair State University graduates, like Elena Plumser, felt the pressure of finding their place in the real world. Luckily, she was able to learn some positive lessons.

“COVID-19 made job searching and future planning harder than ever imagined,” Plumser said. “I got laid off by everyone and there definitely weren’t any new opportunities available for some time. Being forced to do nothing but relax taught me how toxic of a society we’re in with everyone forcing you into the real world immediately after graduating.”

Despite this valuable lesson, finding a positive outlook wasn’t always easy for Plumser. Her college career technically came to a close in May 2020, the onset of the pandemic.

“We got cut off right at the last two months of our senior year, the most crucial months,” Plumser said. “We were so caught off guard and left with an uncertainty that so many people around the world were feeling. For us living in the dorms, our independence was taken away in just days and we were forced back home with our parents earlier than we expected and for a longer amount of time than planning for.”

The following year, in 2021, things still felt unusual and tense. COVID-19 cases in New Jersey kept fluctuating, keeping everyone on their toes about whether we could actually get back to “normal” or not. Many Montclair State graduates were hoping for the best celebration possible for their accomplishments, especially since circumstances were disappointing in 2020. But the pandemic still managed to get its way.

2021 graduate Loren Vitali reflects on a graduation ceremony that was sufficient, but less fulfilling than she’d dreamed.

“We couldn’t have the big ceremony with all my peers in one venue because of the severity of COVID-19 cases at the time,” Vitali said. “Considering college graduation is one of the most important milestones in one’s life, I would have wished to change that.”

Vitali was able to sit next to one of her friends and sorority sisters, despite having a smaller graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Loren Vitali

Montclair State 2020 graduate Loren Vitali (left) was able to sit next to one of her friends and sorority sisters, despite having a smaller graduation ceremony.
Photo courtesy of Loren Vitali

Vitali is different from many in her graduating class, as she earned her degree in three years rather than the traditional four-year plan. The pride she wanted to have for finishing early felt diminished because of the underwhelming celebration.

“I worked tirelessly to ensure the best for my career while making my dreams and goals achievable to graduate in three years with a bachelor’s in business administration,” Vitali said. “It really saddened me to not have all my family there. I still feel as though I haven’t fully graduated because it was not ideal and what my friends are going to experience this upcoming graduation season.”

Many college graduates in the era of COVID-19 have had to solely rely on online job-searching platforms to find work. Not only that, but the pandemic itself has now become a very apparent factor in the hiring process.

“When applying to jobs, specifically on LinkedIn, the application process included a series of COVID-related questions as to disclose my vaccine status and if the company is in person, remote or hybrid,” Vitali said. “It makes you really take a step back and assess more than just the role of a job because COVID-19 is drilled into my brain to make informed decisions for my health as well.”

Vitali works remotely as an anti-money laundering analyst for one of the "big four" accounting firms. Photo courtesy of Loren Vitali

Vitali works remotely as an anti-money laundering analyst for one of the “big four” accounting firms. Photo courtesy of Loren Vitali

While the same can’t be said for every college grad, it’s not all bad for Plumser or Vitali. Both young women have managed to find jobs to support themselves and have found ways to regain a sense of independence.

Plumser has taken on a variety of roles, from being technical support at a remote company to coordinating Montclair State’s Summer Journalism Workshop and coming full circle with a position at Broadcast and Media Operations (BMO), right at the School of Communication and Media (SCM) where she studied television and digital media.

“Since September 2021, I’ve been in the SCM every day working for BMO,” Plumser said. “I’m constantly on productions, helping oversee the equipment cage, assisting professors and students when needed, posting on social media and so much more. It’s not a full-time position and was only for this academic year, but I’m hoping to continuously return.”

Plumser coordinated the 2021 Summer Journalism Workshop alongside other journalism students and Professor Tom Franklin, where high school students and incoming freshmen received hands-on journalism experience. Photo courtesy of Elena Plumser

Plumser coordinated the 2021 Summer Journalism Workshop alongside other journalism students and Professor Tom Franklin, where high school students and incoming freshmen received hands-on journalism experience.
Photo courtesy of Elena Plumser

At the end of the day, having the right people in your corner can make the transition from college to real adulthood more bearable, even when you feel submerged in a chaotic pandemic.

“I’ve been very lucky to have such a great work environment [at Montclair State] with very supportive and helpful colleagues,” Plumser said. “Some days are better than others and it can be easy to fall back into student habits, but every day I’m working hard to improve and learn.”

Since September 2021, Plumser has been working with Broadcast and Media Operations at Montclair State's School of Communication and Media. Photo courtesy of Elena Plumser

Since September 2021, Plumser has been working with Broadcast and Media Operations at Montclair State’s School of Communication and Media.
Photo courtesy of Elena Plumser

Vitali has found success in working from the comfort of her own home. While not ideal, she’s grateful for an opportunity to gain new experience.

“Since graduating, I am fortunate enough to have a remote position with one of the big four accounting firms working in anti-money laundering,” Vitali said. “There is definitely a human component missing from working remote, but nonetheless I enjoy working in my field.”

Vitali graduated from Montclair State University a year early in May 2021 with a bachelor's degree in business administration. Photo courtesy of Loren Vitali

Vitali graduated from Montclair State University a year early in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Photo courtesy of Loren Vitali

Even after having experienced a smaller graduation ceremony and a multitude of anxieties about moving on from college, Vitali believes every victory is worth celebrating and nobody should underestimate themselves.

“I’d advise people to stay vigilant and not take the first role that comes to you,” Vitali said. “Enjoy the moments that you have been given and celebrate all your accomplishments no matter how small, because going to school in the pandemic definitely played with our overall educational experience.”

There’s no way of knowing when or if things can ever be “normal” again, but there is hope for struggling graduates when it comes to becoming alumni during COVID-19, even if it means you have to look for success from six feet away.

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