When a hard-earned degree starts to feel worthless

The Class of 2020 are feeling a little bit bitter about their graduation - and rightly so, says JM

We did it! We graduated during a pandemic! And yet couldn’t have entered the job market at a worse time…

Graduating was not like what they portrayed in movies, with grand ceremonies, fancy dresses and after-parties. No big reunions or holidays for self-exploration. For the many of us it was a digital cap and gown, with a green screen zoom background of a concert hall, and a digital audience filmed from an older event clapping at you through a screen.

It was a brown envelope posted through the door with a thick piece of paper with your name on it inside. Many of us have probably looked at it and thought “this is worth £45k?”.

It was all those emotional social media greetings from friends and family, socially distanced all around the world, wishing you congratulations, and a reassurance to party hard about this milestone once everything opens up again.

This make-do graduation was a hard pill to swallow, as we choked on missing out on this extremely huge rite of passage. We will never be able to experience walking up on the stage as all of our classmates and student bodies cheered each other on, grinning nervously as we shook the hands of the Chancellor – with a quick awkward wave to our parents screaming “I did it!” to them across the crowd.

We are the first graduates that missed our graduations because of Covid-19. So we are a little bitter about this. And I think we have the right to be.

What has it been like to be a graduate during this pandemic? The first month off after submitting our final works was spent cooped up at home, catching up on three years worth of sleep and indulging in takeaways, video games and movies. But that soon lost its charm. We wanted to see our friends again and celebrate, but virus cases were rising and social distancing was still in order. When summer hit and the hope of a new normal was still fresh, the opportunity to make up for these missed events felt like a possibility. But the risks were still not worth it. The sense of freedom soon wore off, and the anxieties of finding jobs, money and real-world adulthood responsibilities kicked in.

This pandemic has forced many businesses and industries to close down, which led to a high number of people being made redundant or put on furlough. This had a knock on effect for graduates and students, many of whom would have been working part-time while studying to help cover student overdrafts, rent and bills. Furlough was the government’s aid to provide income for many, but it is not enough to get by. For many of us, our student finances were capped at the minimum and could not cover the expenses of rents and personal bills. Therefore being unable to work meant living paycheck to paycheck, inevitably dipping deeper into our overdrafts.

This has also affected our mental health with the constant worry about income and stability of finances. My plan all along had been to work twenty hours each week which would cover my bills, go towards paying off my student overdraft, which I would then refrain from touching in my final year. And through carefully planned budgeting, this was achievable.

But when working hours were cut to allow for social distancing, followed by a national lockdown and furlough pay that was not enough to cover all my bills, I had no choice but to dip back into overdraft. Luckily, when places started to reopen, I was able to find work at a restaurant and continue freelance work for a company I interned at during my third year of studies. I was able to pay off my overdraft and recover my savings by working six days of 10-12 hour shifts.

But the early autumn saw a spike of Covid cases and two more lockdowns followed. Before the winter lockdowns took full effect, I had already started looking for freelance work, contracted work, part-time – you name it. I have fixed my CV at least fifty or so times and made a new portfolio, so I was grateful for some time off to be able to do this. But again, with so many people currently scouring for jobs, the competition is greater and tougher. Especially for graduates because we’re not just competing with our peers, but also those with a lot more experience.

Entry-level and graduate job descriptions have come under scrutiny for advertising an entry-level role seeking people ‘with 3+ years of experience’. It’s ridiculous to expect graduates would have this when we’ve been at university all this time.

On top of that, it’s been a real struggle to find internships, paid work or placement years which had led to many students working for free just to gain experience, but is still not perceived as enough to qualify for an entry-level role. I juggled a job, whilst running a society, working on my dissertation, and eventually pursuing an internship in my final year to get some industry experience for my CV, thinking it would help me land a job soon after graduation. The stress of this rigorous schedule in my final year caused me to have multiple meltdowns and burnouts.

Considering how competitive the media industry already is, the prospects of eventually having enough on my profile to secure a job kept me motivated. But sadly, this didn’t last and I went through a new cycle of meltdowns and burnouts after continuously receiving the “I’m sorry to inform you, but we have chosen to move forward with another application…” emails. This process, older friends of mine have told me, is the hardest transition from being a student because for once, we don’t have a schedule, deadlines or academic submissions to do anymore. Just the challenge of figuring out what’s next.

Being able to talk to other graduates in my network and through social media has been a way to deal and cope with these struggles. Though there has been some support for graduates through government signposts about job listings, sources we can use to up our skills etc, it’s still lacking in areas that deal with finances such as grants, or a wider range of services to aid with our mental health during this time. It’s something more universities could have offered to its 2020 and 2021 alumni, considering we already did not get access to many of these services during our final semester of education.

It may sound like we’re complaining and some would say that we don’t need to worry because we still have our whole lives ahead of us. But it will be harder for our generation to pay off our student loans or gain careers that can help us save up for our own houses. And that we might even find it more difficult to afford retirement in the future. So I cannot blame us for wanting to start early. We were called the lazier generation because of technology and how information comes easily to us. But it now feels like the responsibility to become the generation that undoes all the knots formed by our predecessors has been put on our shoulders.

So I want to tell my fellow graduates to be kind to yourselves and try to accept the fact that the next year or so may be difficult but these struggles will not last forever. We can take this as an opportunity to look deeper into ourselves and ponder about what we want to do and achieve once the world starts to recover. This is the time for learning and developing new skills to use in the future, whether that be learning how to finance better or how to become an entrepreneur. LinkedIn has been a great support in sharing resources to up our skills and gain tips for graduates, and for me – TikTok has surprisingly been a great source of bite-sized information, where creators have shared job-specific content and knowledge. And don’t forget to check-in with your friends or coursemates who may also be having a tough time. Because although graduation was not the grand process many of us initially hoped for, we can continue to cheer each other on and hope for the best.

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JM is a Brighton based creative who has recently graduated from Sussex University. She loves taking photographs and designing and making things and enjoys surfing through social media, tweeting about music or organising her Spotify playlists!

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