One of my biggest fears throughout college was the possibility of graduating into a recession. I was only in middle school at the height of the last economic downturn, but even as a sixth grader I couldn’t ignore its impact. It was on the TV, both in the evening news and in references on network comedies. I remember hearing adults in my life talk in hushed tones about who had lost their job and who was considering signing up for food stamps.
Even as the economy started to turn around, the threat of another recession loomed. I entered college in the fall of 2016 to study something I loved, but with the understanding that the purpose of a degree was to better my chances of getting a job. Some might say I was putting passion over job security by choosing a career in journalism, and there were a lot of days I would go into a panic thinking the same thing. But as the semesters went on I grew more confident in my skills and my employability, and I wouldn’t have wasted my time studying something I didn’t think I could do professionally.
Then came coronavirus, and the highest employment rate in the history of the nation, and I was reminded that there isn’t much you can do about finding a job post-grad if there aren’t any jobs to be had.
It’s ‘much more difficult than I ever could have anticipated’
It’s not a good time to be a first-generation college student without a safety net. I’m fortunate enough to have secured a fellowship at ProPublica, where I’ll be working for the next year, but what’s become clear to me in the past couple months is that it’s always a good idea to have a plan B, C, and D. (More on those plans next time.) When the only option to get ahead is to work, you find a way to work.
I spoke to Louis Lin, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, who’s in the thick of the job search during this unprecedented time. Louis studied political science and health and society in his undergrad and is set to start a Master’s in public health this fall, so he’s attuned to the gravity of the pandemic, but that hasn’t done much to ease his anxieties about the future. We spoke about adjusting expectations and the financial toll of interrupted plans.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ZO: You’re a week or so removed from graduation now. Looking back, do you feel like you got out of college what you had hoped when you started?
LL: Penn has met and exceeded all of my expectations. Academically it’s allowed me to grow. I went in studying pediatrics and wanted to go into neurology to work on creating more accessible healthcare through the medical route. But because of the classes that I’ve taken at Penn, it helped me open my eyes to more of the public health and government policy side of things that have even more of a widespread systematic impact though. I’ve found my closest friends through Penn and it’s also where I’ve been able to explore my extracurricular activities and be able to grow as a person in those spaces.
ZO: How has being a first-generation college student shaped your experience?
LL: As a whole, first-gen students have a very different experience at Penn then other students given the institution’s wealth and privilege. That being said, I do think that Penn has moved towards a direction that has devoted a lot more resources to first-gen, low-income students. I personally have been involved in most of the advocacy work that happened over the last four years. I served on Penn First, which is our first-gen income student union. I helped plan some of the new student orientation things for first-generation low-income students and was a peer mentor this year.
ZO: Are you currently working?
LL: I’m doing a remote public policy internship for the Council for Opportunities in Education as a public policy intern. But this is going to end by the end of the summer and I am in the process of finding full-time jobs because I plan on going part-time with my masters and getting a full-time job to help with the costs.
ZO: Have your plans around grad school and work changed in the last couple of months?
LL: When I initially applied for the Master’s in my junior year, I wasn’t planning on going part-time. But I realized completing it in a year would be a time crunch and financially hard so I committed to going part-time. I’m now realizing that while I still wouldn’t go full time because of the financial costs of being a full-time student, my plan is complicated by the fact that job searching is much more difficult than I ever could have anticipated.
ZO: How has the job search been going?
LL: There are two sides of the coin. I’ve had the time to sit down and force myself to go apply to more jobs, write cover letters, and things like that. But also, the applications that I sent in over a month ago are now coming back saying that they are no longer hiring people for the position. I can’t stop looking obviously because I’ve got rent to pay and plans for the future. It’s been difficult navigating all of that while understanding what it means to be in a time of a public health crisis but also feeling the frustration of not knowing where I’ll end up.
ZO: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what my plan will be if we’re still in a recession a year or two from now. Have you thought about any contingency plans?
LL: All the time. There’s a lot of volunteer fieldwork I can do in my field to build experience, but I ultimately hope to go to law school and I would really rather have paying work so I can pay off some of those costs. But should things come down to it, I’d have to think about adjusting my expectations a bit. It’s something that’s on my mind and I have tried to push it off with the hopes of that not being the case.
ZO: How does your family feel about you graduating and all these plans for your future?
LL: Graduation was always something that we looked towards because, at the end of the day, this wasn’t just about me graduating — it was also my family graduating. Losing that in-person commencement was shocking at the time, but moving forward, I think they’re trying to be optimistic about me finding opportunities.
ZO: And what about you? Are you optimistic about the future?
LL: Coincidentally, I do have an interview later today! I have applied to dozens and dozens of jobs and this is the first job interview that I’ve had in a while. I am hopeful, maybe to a fault but I have hope that things will work out the way they need to.
- I recently spoke with The Takeaway for a radio feature about first-generation college students graduating in the time or coronavirus. You can give it a listen here.
- “In response to coronavirus, this Harvard sophomore created a free tutoring service for low-income NYC students,” by Alex Zimmerman for Chalkbeat
- “Facing Adulthood With an Economic Disaster’s Lasting Scar,” by Eduardo Porter and David Yaffe-Bellany for New York Times
- “The fraught return of working at home,” by Eliza Brooke for Curbed
- “A Note From Your University About Its Plans for Next Semester,” by Tiffany C. Li for McSweeny’s
Thanks for reading,