I’m Part Of The ‘Graduating Class Of COVID.’ This Is What Sets Us Apart.

"Though COVID is officially declared 'over' worldwide, this graduating class is entering the workforce with a unique skill set borne of unprecedented conditions."
The author went from full pandemic isolation and online learning during college to a gradual return of in-person options.
The author went from full pandemic isolation and online learning during college to a gradual return of in-person options.
Peta Wilton

There was no fanfare, interview or phone call — just a letter in a white embossed envelope confirming my college application’s success. I couldn’t celebrate with anyone physically, as we were locked down. I had a glass of wine on my balcony overlooking the park, alone.

Like many students who started college in July 2020, I did the bulk of my degree under COVID conditions, graduating in March 2023 just as things began to open up. Though COVID-19 is being officially declared “over” worldwide, this graduating class is entering the workforce with a unique skill set borne of unprecedented conditions.

My courses were completely online in the first year, including orientation week. Presenters spoke about how they met their future partners or made lifelong friends during their time in college. I couldn’t even see my classmates’ profile pictures. We had to keep the cameras off in our Zoom sessions to stop the screen from freezing. Most of the time I was staring at gray boxes.

I sat at my manual stand-up desk in my spare room week after week, watching the pre-recorded lectures and live-streamed tutorials on my laptop, many of which seemed hastily cobbled together. I was 42 when I started college, so I had a lot of life experience beforehand. But this wasn’t the college experience I signed up for.

My degree was supposed to be on campus. The pandemic meant mandatory online learning, which removed my choice of study mode. The group and environmental cues I normally rely on in a classroom setting were also gone. Though online learning isn’t new, courses designed specifically for virtual delivery have effective and existing systems in place to support students.

COVID conditions required lecturers to quickly adapt the content they were used to teaching in-person to an online format using unfamiliar platforms. We lost valuable time figuring out how to work the system at the expense of the knowledge and practical activities we were there for.

I expected lively debates that would spark ideas and strengthen or change my viewpoint. It’s hard to have a spirited discussion when the bandwidth only supports one person speaking at a time. I saw myself hanging out with my classmates in the library as we individually worked on our assignments, sharing the creative energy our ideas generated. Social distancing killed that vibe.

As a writing student, I was lucky that my courses didn’t require hands-on experience. My friends studying nursing, dentistry and exercise physiology struggled to learn anatomy and course procedures through books and demonstration videos, while their specially equipped labs and workshops remained dormant.

After eight months, we were told we’d be returning to some in-person classes on campus. Having studied only remotely, I found the transition stressful, abrupt and jarring. At home, I had everything set up for my comfort: drinks and snacks, two monitors, background music and effective temperature control. I could stop the videos when I needed a break or go back and listen to something I missed. Live tutorials don’t come with a pause button or 10-second rewind.

I found myself simultaneously craving social connections with my peers and struggling to be around them. As much as I enjoyed the interaction of being back on campus, there was a sense of unease that was hard to ignore. Masks were uncomfortable to wear, made conversations challenging and served as a physical reminder of the unknown. I found the uncertainty mentally and emotionally draining.

After the first year, a handful of on-campus events proceeded with strictly enforced conditions. I and a small number of other people volunteered with the Student Guild to help staff them. Volunteering is how I met most of my college friends. None of them was studying for the same degree as I was. I feel like I missed the chance to make more friends because of the lockdowns.

This was my first time at college, so it’s hard to know what my experience could have been. I envisioned more parties, movie nights and random celebrations where I could meet people from different backgrounds. I imagined discussions and complaining about assignments over lunch or coffee. If they were still running, there might have also been opportunities for internships and projects to develop my skill set. I’m certain I would have gotten to know my peers better.

Despite my challenges, I was fortunate to have a strong support network in my non-college friends. Knowing I had suffered from depression, panic attacks and anxiety in the past, I shared this and asked them to check in occasionally. These checks helped to keep me grounded and provided a break from academia.

The pandemic pushed me to grow in ways I never imagined. I had always been an extrovert, thriving on social interaction and connecting with others. But with lockdowns and social-distancing measures in place, I was forced to confront my internal struggles on my own.

I had to learn to open up and be vulnerable because the only way I could get through this unprecedented time was to ask for help when I was struggling. Since I was always striving for the illusion of perfection, that was a hard lesson to learn.

Very few people escaped learning how to manage and adapt to change to survive the last few years. Higher education students who started or continued to study under COVID conditions also had the added pressure of doing it in an unpredictable environment while trying to train for our future roles. I believe this is what will set us apart from other generations.

The students who rolled with change, who were resourceful and persevered with their degrees are better positioned to succeed. Those who can repurpose their pandemic experience into tangible abilities employers seek, like critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration, will have a competitive edge.

An article in the Higher Education Quarterly reports that the uneven recovery of global economies and industries post-COVID significantly affects graduates’ negative career outlooks. Over two-thirds of the 2,871 survey participants admitted struggling with job prospects after graduation because of the pandemic, despite feeling qualified for the jobs they applied for.

My experiences are similar, although I am fortunate enough that my degree gives me a freelancing option. But the skills I developed have prepared me for uncertainty. The constant changes I encountered as we entered and exited multiple lockdown periods built resilience, the ability to think critically, to solve problems and to collaborate with others. These are also skills valued in any workplace.

Though I may never have the experience of sitting in a lecture theater surrounded by hundreds of other students or engaging in the on-campus activities that were available pre-COVID, I believe that resilience and adaptability are survival skills that will serve me and every pandemic graduate in the future.

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