The class of COVID-19: 2020 graduates navigate the lasting impacts of graduating during a pandemic

Genevieve Menyhart (right) poses in her cap and gown as she graduates from her living room with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography in May 2020. Menyhart is a wedding photographer and is hopeful for the future of wedding photography this summer.

Zoë Blank Reporter

College graduation is called commencement because it’s supposed to be a new beginning, but COVID-19 posed new challenges for the class of 2020. 

 A June 2020 study found that millions of students worldwide were facing uncertainty about their futures and experiencing high levels of anxiety and fear about their academic and career progression. 

On March 10, 2020, Kent State University made the tough decision to stop in-person classes and move to complete remote instruction, following orders from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.  

The adjustment to virtual learning and the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic made things difficult for Kent State 2020 graduates. Job searches took a while, if they succeeded at all, and those who found work were forced to work remotely and worry about job security.  

Emily Brown, who graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Education, said she searched all summer for a job using her integrated mathematics degree.  

“It was definitely a struggle, especially with COVID,” Brown said. “A lot of teachers left, but still schools weren’t hiring because they didn’t know where the year would go.” 

She had several interviews, but didn’t find a job until August, just before the school year began.  

From a job listing on Facebook, Brown secured a one-year full-time substitute teaching position at St. Gregory’s, a small Catholic school in Zelienople, Pennsylvania. She teaches math and computer skills to seventh and eighth graders. 

Her transition from being a full-time student to a full-time teacher was smooth, Brown said, because of the education and experience she gained at Kent State. However, her student teaching experience could not have prepared her for the shift to digital learning that took place at schools across the country due to the pandemic. 

“When I was a student teacher, it was all paper and pencil and a whiteboard, but now all the tests are online and there’s no handing in papers,” Brown said. “It has been tough, but at the same time it’s good experience, like, learning more about technology and how to connect with the kids in class on their Chromebooks.” 

Some graduates, like Jessica Colucci, were lucky to have jobs lined up before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Colucci graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Fashion Merchandising and currently works as an assistant buyer for Ross Dress for Less, one of the largest off-price retailers in the country. 

Colucci worried that she would lose the job offer after Ross stores closed in March 2020. A July 2020 survey by NACE found that 7.8 percent of employers had revoked or planned to revoke job offers to many students who were graduating in the spring of 2020. 

“I was hearing about Nordstrom and Macy’s taking back their offers for recent grads and canceling internships, so I was a little nervous,” Colucci said. 

The same NACE survey found that 58 percent of employers planned to start full-time hires working remotely, many with delayed start dates. 

In August 2020, Colucci was supposed to move to New York to start work in the Ross New York City office, but because of the pandemic she was forced to stay in Ohio and work remotely.  

She was disappointed, but she loves what she’s doing and is looking forward to working in the New York City office later this year, Colucci said. 

“I don’t really want to be there now because things aren’t fully opened just yet,” she said, “but when they let me back in the office, I’m gonna be running there!” 

While Brown and Colucci were both able to find jobs after graduating, some graduates struggled to find work in their field during the pandemic.  

Gena Menyhart, a wedding photographer who graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography, said it has been a tough season because of the pandemic. 

“My mom and I have been shooting weddings for about six years now,” Menyhart said. “But at the start of the pandemic, we did a couple of jobs where we were shooting and we noticed it was really hard, because we had our masks on and we weren’t able to do what we would normally do. We were kind of working out of fear and keeping our distance, and we weren’t able to be creative.” 

Because of the risks, many weddings were cancelled, Menyhart said. She went from photographing weddings every weekend to relying on graduation photos and photoshoots with friends to stay busy.  

She worried she and her mother would be out of work for a long time. 

“The mental strain of it all literally took off like 10 years of my life,” she said. “I’ve just had the worst mental health issues the whole year, but those few months after graduation were so tough, because everything was so up in the air.” 

Menyhart isn’t alone in these mental health struggles. About 95 percent of college students said their mental health was impacted by COVID-19, according to a survey

To make matters worse, Menyhart said the gallery show she and her classmates had been working on all semester was cancelled. The cancellation of this show and her graduation ceremony was a real loss, she said. 

“We had been planning the show for months and months when Kent [State University] closed,” Menyhart said. “We were isolated at home, we lost the gallery show and then like a week later they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re not getting a graduation either.’” 

The graduation she always imagined, a big celebration alongside her friends and family, was no longer a possibility. Given the circumstances, she said she appreciates that the Kent State administration put together a virtual commencement ceremony for her and her classmates last spring. 

“Graduating in 2020 was obviously difficult because no one knew what was going on pandemic-wise,” Menyhart said. “It can be very difficult to find a job in the arts right off the bat, and a lot of people are still struggling.” 

Menyhart was not alone in feeling upset about losing a traditional graduation ceremony. Caroline Henneman, who graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Public Relations, said not having a graduation ceremony kept her from “putting a bow” on her undergraduate experience. 

Missing out on the final goodbyes made her transition to graduate school difficult. 

“I didn’t get to have that final hurrah that I always thought would end that chapter of my life and begin the new one,” she said. “The transition wasn’t what I was expecting. I felt like I was just waiting for the next semester to happen.” 

Henneman is pursuing a juris doctorate degree through the University of Cincinnati. Attending law school virtually from her apartment, she said she spends her days in Zoom classes, reading and studying for exams. 

“I get out of my bed right here, then sit at my desk right there and then get back into bed right here,” she said. “It’s really difficult finding the balance of stepping away from your work and not feeling guilty or letting your mental health slip. It’s a really fine line with virtual learning, and I don’t think anyone’s really mastered it yet.” 

Learning in this environment has been quite an adjustment, Henneman said, but she feels lucky to have not been entering the workforce after graduating in May 2020. 

“COVID took a lot away from me, as well as my entire class,” Henneman said. “A lot of people are having difficulties finding jobs, networking and figuring out what they want to do next in life. I think I was a little more fortunate because I decided to go to law school in November, before COVID got bad.” 

The pandemic forced her to recognize what was most important to her and question where she wanted to be in a few years, which she said solidified her desire to pursue a career in law to advocate for the voiceless. 

Even through the hardships they faced, many 2020 graduates still value their time and experiences at Kent State.  

During her time at Kent State, Brown was involved with the National Society for Leadership and Success, the Kent State Council of Teachers of Mathematics and CHAARG. The great friendships she made through these organizations are her favorite memory from Kent State, she said. 

“I’ve met some of the best people in my life in college,” Brown said. “Kent was always filled with great people, even if you only knew them for a semester.” 

For Colucci, she credits the National Retail Federation Student Association, a club she was involved in while attending Kent State, with helping her land the job. The NRFSA gave her the opportunity to travel and talk with representatives from huge companies from all over the world, she said. 

Henneman credits the Kent State public relations program with preparing her for professional life by providing exceptional experience and networking opportunities. She was involved in student media, Undergraduate Student Government and resident assistance, along with various other extracurricular activities that she said further prepared her for the new part of her life. 

Though graduating during a pandemic wasn’t easy, many feel the class of 2020 persevered and made the most of the obstacles they faced. Like many people, they look forward to things getting back to normal.  

Menyhart said she’s hopeful for the future of wedding photography this summer. Moving forward, she hopes to branch out and develop her skills in different areas of photography. 

Feeling proud of herself and her classmates for accomplishing so much throughout such challenging times, Henneman said, keeping a positive attitude about the future of the pandemic is crucial.  

“At this point in the pandemic, we just need to keep going and keep putting one foot in front of the other,” Henneman said. “For anyone who is able to not give up and keep moving forward, that is such an accomplishment.”

Zoë Blank covers alumni. Contact her at [email protected]