Historic Unemployment Leaves College Students Fighting for Jobs, Futures


Camilla Hernandez, a San Francisco State University fall 2019 graduate, has kept her job search focused on companies that offer remote work, in part to protect her family's health. Courtesy Camilla Hernandez

Instead of celebrating milestones as they prepare to enter what a few months ago was the best job market in half a century, college students throughout the Bay Area are worrying about their futures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the historic wave of unemployment it has unleashed. 

Students who earned their diplomas in the fall are still struggling to secure work. New graduates are finding that job opportunities allowing remote work are even harder to come by. And those who are only part way through college are grappling with how a potential shift to online classes in the fall will affect not just their undergraduate plans but also longer-term goals for graduate school and future careers.

“There’s definitely this unspoken understanding that life is knocking us down,” said University of California, Berkeley, sophomore Jazmin Diaz, who has been connecting with classmates via videoconferencing apps. “Some of my friends work to help provide income for their families and others are dealing with their own mental health, so we spend the time we have together trying to keep the mood light.”

For the last seven weeks of the spring semester, all of Diaz’s classes were taught over Zoom — and with the new format, she found it difficult to learn and retain information from her lectures. In addition, some professors didn’t adjust their expectations for students struggling with their mental health.

The school has also left students in the dark about what the fall semester will look like. A message sent to the campus community by Chancellor Carol Christ and Executive Vice Chancellor Paul Alivisatos said plans for the 2020-21 school year are still unclear.

“Because we don’t know what the spread of COVID-19 will look like over the course of the next few months, each committee has been asked to develop plans for three scenarios for the fall semester,” read the email. It said the final decision about the fall semester will be announced by mid-June. 

For Diaz, the uncertainty and the challenges she expects online education to present based on her experience so far has her considering withdrawing for the fall semester.

Meanwhile, recent graduates are stuck in limbo.

Due to the massive surge in unemployment, Camilla Hernandez, a San Francisco State University fall 2019 graduate, has been competing with experienced candidates for entry-level positions. Close to 39 million Americans have applied for jobless benefits over the nine weeks ending May 21.

Census taker was one of the jobs Hernandez applied for. Although she got a response to her application, it went nowhere. “They were like, we’re gonna have to wait three months to call you back because there’s a really long wait list,” she said. 

The pandemic has left Hernandez anxious about more than her future. It’s fueled concerns about her health and how that could affect her family. The risk of infecting her family was in the back of her mind as she filled out job applications, so the only jobs in her field she initially applied to were those offering remote work. She eventually moved out of her parents’ home so she could broaden her job search and keep her family safe. 

“I lived with my parents, aunt and uncle who are all very high risk; they are all old or have various diseases, so I was just scared,” Hernandez said. “So, if I did get a job there’d be a chance I’d have to leave my house.” 

Although no potential employers have responded, Hernandez views her bachelor’s degree in health education with a minor in women’s health issues as her ace in the hole. 

“The main part of my field is community organizing, getting involved with people and disease prevention which I think will be a more prominent thing in the post pandemic world,” Hernandez said. 

Like Diaz, Brontë Sorotsky found the adjustment to online classes difficult at first, especially in her news production class. She’s just completed her final semester as a broadcast and electronic communication arts major at San Francisco State University.

At the start, having her production class moved online prevented her from being able to use the studio and the equipment needed to shoot the weekly newscast the class produces for the university. But by the end of the spring semester, her class had learned how to successfully produce the show using online video tools instead, she said. Sorotsky is applying to small news broadcast markets in Eureka, Bakersfield, Redding, Chico, as well as towns in Washington and Oregon. 

“At first it seemed a bit grim, but my professor Dina Ibrahim kept reminding us that places keep hiring,” she said. “I know it’s not all doom and gloom, but there are definitely a lot fewer job openings.” 

She said she feels fortunate to have been able to experience a part of her final college year on campus, something her friends who will take online classes this fall won’t get. “They don’t know if what happened to us is going to happen to them,” Sorotsky said. “We don’t know how long this pandemic is going on. So I think everyone is just feeling a bit lost, maybe even more so for people that are continuing school.”

That’s certainly the case for Diaz, who’s weighing whether to return to school this fall.

“If I decide to take a semester off from school and wait for things to settle down, I lose almost a year and set back my four-year plan to graduate with my two majors in Spring 2022, which then sets back my plans for law school,” said Diaz. “It’s a ripple effect that I need to consider closely before making any decisions.”

If the administration comes to the decision in mid-June that fall semester is going to be exclusively online, Diaz expects to live with her family in Garden Grove instead of living on campus.

Because the school hasn’t yet given students clear guidance on how instruction will be handled this Fall, UC Berkeley sophomore Jazmin Diaz is weighing the possibility of withdrawing from college. Courtesy Jazmin Diaz
Brontë Sorotsky recently graduated from San Francisco State University and is applying for broadcast journalism jobs throughout Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Courtesy Brontë Sorotsky

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