Elenie Gonzalez, assistant coordinator of University Relations, helps a student locate the section of Sun Bowl Stadium where he has been assigned to sit for graduation this weekend. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The University of Texas at El Paso graduation ceremony is only a couple of days away and senior Sydney Nixon doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life after she walks across the stage — and she’s completely OK with that.

Nixon’s initial plan was to become a family mediator, but now she’s thinking about traveling and teaching abroad.

“Everyone expects you to leave school and jump into something,” Nixon said. “There’s so many things out there and I just don’t want to get caught up.”

For many college seniors, deciding on post-graduation plans can be a daunting task. And the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made that challenge harder for some students.

Mary Sue Richardson, a professor of applied psychology at New York University, said cases like Nixon’s aren’t unusual anymore. As the world changes, so do people, she said.

“It wasn’t about changing your plans, it was about following through on what your plans were,” Richardson said. “Things have radically shifted in the past 20 years and there’s much more attention to the fact that people need to change course because the world is changing.”

Nixon has earned a degree in communications, which she said makes her feel like a “jack of all trades.”

“I can have a conversation with anyone on just about anything,” she said. “I know a bunch of miscellaneous information but I don’t know a bunch of information about one thing.”

She admits not having a specialty can become a challenge, but her broader knowledge can also open a lot of doors, she said.

Still, she’s nowhere near making a decision.

“I wish people would normalize just not knowing,” Nixon said. “I feel that it is perfectly fine that I’m 22 and don’t know what I want to do.”

Nixon said she’s moving to Georgia after graduation, where she will stay with her godmother and think more on what she wants to do.

“The answer is ‘I don’t know’,” Nixon said.

A change of plans

UTEP senior Katherine Espinoza’s plans also shifted, but that was more a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. She is now going to apply for graduate school and a teaching assistantship at UTEP after graduation.

“My plan pre-pandemic was to teach English abroad and do a year with that. Then I would start graduate school later,” Espinoza said.

While graduate school was always in her future, she says the pandemic “sped up the process.”

She said the thought of not being in school and also unemployed motivated her to go to graduate school sooner.

“The job market before the pandemic wasn’t the best, but now it’s much worse,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza was furloughed from her job during the pandemic last year and wasn’t able to find employment as a contact tracer until six months later.

“I hope for a stable job with insurance and a manageable income so I can go out to eat sometimes,” she said. “But sometimes I feel bad because I feel like that’s asking for the bare minimum.”

Richardson said the pressure on college graduates is “extremely stressful” under normal circumstances. The pandemic has made that even more overwhelming, she said.

“We’ve been talking about radical change for the past 20 years but no one was expecting the pandemic,” Richardson said. “It has cut out entire industries.”

Students like Espinoza, who are immediately returning to school to complete a master’s, will eventually finish school and make their way back into the economy, Richardson said.

“Going to graduate school is a safe haven while all of this change is occurring and getting a second degree makes sense,” Richardson said. “But eventually you have to graduate and start making your way.”

Espinoza isn’t alone. Stacy Huhn also is going to graduate school after she receives her bachelor of business administration in business management.

The pandemic has allowed her busy family to spend more time together, but also has shifted how she thinks about her future.

“I want my occupation to have time for me to spend with my family,” Huhn said. “I don’t want to be a workaholic.”

Despite feeling that she’s had to change her plans due to the pandemic, Espinoza hopes it will pay off in the future.

“I’m hoping that the decision I’m making now will help me be in a better spot five years down the road,” she said.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.