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Seniors face uncertainty, job cancellations as they enter the workforce amid coronavirus

Senior Gretchen Wright accepted an internship with the Nantucket Historical Association on the Monday of spring break, looking forward to a summer on the picturesque island and an internship that could help springboard her career. 

But the next night, President Vincent Price announced by email that spring break was extended and classes would be online until further notice, a decision that came amid swelling concern about the coronavirus outbreak. About a week later, Wright’s offer was rescinded as the NHA shuttered its doors for the foreseeable future. 

“As soon as I saw they had shut down the museum, I figured my internship would be affected,” Wright said. “It wasn’t supposed to start until June, so I was hoping it would just be postponed or shortened.”

Derailed plans

With half the world’s population now under directives to stay home, the widespread shutdowns needed to contain the virus are fueling economic uncertainty. Almost 17 million Americans filed for unemployment in the past three weeks, shattering previous records. 

For some seniors, the crisis has done more than postpone their commencement ceremonies. The economic upheaval has affected their post-graduation plans. 

“Now it’s a huge question mark,” said senior Josie Tarin. “Are people even hiring? I don’t know.”

Tarin applied for a fellowship that would begin in late August in Washington, D.C. She was also planning to apply for nonprofit openings during March and April, as well as take the LSAT in the fall so she could apply for law school in the next year or two. 

Now, she’s at home and taking care of her 18-month-old nephew full time. As of March 21, Tarin said that she didn’t have WiFi at home, but that Duke was going to provide the equipment for it. She said she plans to apply for jobs near her home in northwest Arkansas. 

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to apply to law schools at the end of this year,” she said.

Senior Lauren Hadley, who is majoring in environmental science and public policy, planned to spend the summer in Washington, D.C. working on environmental policy. She did related fieldwork the past several summers, but it was going to be her first hands-on dive into the policy side of the field. 

Looking ahead

Hadley had been working on applications to think tanks, nonprofits and organizing groups, but she started hearing back from places that they had suspended hiring. So instead of heading to Washington, she’s thinking about spending the summer back at home in New Hampshire and going back to work on a local farm. 

Although a recession could be a good time for Hadley to go to graduate school, she doesn’t want to risk getting a graduate degree in something she hasn’t yet had hands-on experience with. 

“I don’t want to go into debt without knowing exactly what I want to go to graduate school for,” she said. 

As for Wright, instead of moving to Nantucket for the summer, she said she might get an apartment in Burlington, Vt., about 30 minutes away from where her family lives. She’s hoping to work at the jewelry store there, where she has worked at before, if it re-opens.

“I have all this time, and I feel like I should be looking for places where I can apply, and drafting a resume and cover letter, and I just don’t think it’s worth it at this moment because no one is going to be reviewing applications for months,” Wright said. “So it’s a really weird period of waiting, of not knowing what is going to happen next.”

She expected to be unsure about next steps after the Nantucket Historical Association internship ended in the fall, but not in March.

“I count myself as very privileged and lucky that I have a great home to come back to, and parents and food, and I’m not trying to whine or complain about this,” Wright said. “It’s just frustrating that the best part of college is taken away, and then everything going on after that is taken away too.”

No end in sight

But for now, there is no end in sight to the economic uncertainty.

“I think this pandemic is going to cause a continued drag on the economy, long after it is safe to travel, long after life sort of returns to life as normal,” David Robinson, professor of finance and James and Gail Vander Weide professor in the Fuqua School of Business, said recently.

Alumni that graduated into the 2008 recession also faced an uncertain job market. Paul Kim, Trinity ‘09, decided to get a master’s degree in accounting when he graduated from Duke, since fewer places were hiring than before. 

He worked at an audit firm for nine months before he decided that he didn’t like accounting, so he switched over to wealth management before going back to business school. 

“There was a ton of panic on my part. But I think the big difference between then and now is that the stuff we saw was happening in the spring and the fall, so there was a lot of lead time,” Kim said. “I had time to think about coming up with a game plan if I wasn’t successful in getting a job.”

Thamina Stoll, Trinity ‘17, now works at LinkedIn. She said that students who are looking for jobs should leverage the Duke network as much as possible, and she has never reached out to a Duke alum who was not willing to talk. 

For Alexandra Herold (née Bellis), Trinity ‘09, the recession meant she wasn’t able to get an advertising or marketing job right after she graduated. She spent five months at home and worked at a restaurant before getting an offer from a job that wasn’t quite what she wanted. She took it, and a few months later, she ended up in the field she wanted to work in.

Her advice to current seniors? Reset expectations.

“Go easy on yourself a little bit,” Herold said. “I think especially Duke students have really high standards for themselves and had grand plans that are having to shift, so I think you can only do what’s reasonable in terms of finishing out work for the year and looking for the next step, and knowing that a lot of this is out of your control.”

Editor’s Note: Wright is also a columnist for The Chronicle.

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