Overton-Healy: Overcoming the Unexpected Leads to Career Readiness
These are uncertain times, aren’t they? We have no model, no map, no collective memory for how to cope with COVID-19. Colleges are trying to respond, anticipate, plan, and revise on the fly. The media keeps using terms like “unprecedented,” and “crisis,” and “chaos.” We’ve seen hoarding of toilet paper, then the return of kindness and tending to our most vulnerable, and what I feel—underneath all the uncertainty—is a sense of togetherness and hope.
As the director for career services at St. John Fisher College, I work to create systems and processes to help our students build paths toward successful lives of purpose after Fisher. When it is time for them to move on, there are many emotions: pride of completion, excitement for the future, sadness at leaving Fisher, elation at being done. And this year, well, this year amplifies it all, and slaps a patina of fear on top.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 will leave in its wake a great deal of tumult. Every aspect of our, and the world’s, economy will change. The ways of working will modify: we will all get better at using technology. Some businesses will thrive while others will close up and never return. Entire industries, like hospitality and personal services, will be forever changed. Many jobs that have been around for years will simply disappear. And just as many jobs that don’t exist today will pop up as new job sectors arise in response to the pandemic.
All of this is backdrop for conversations I’ve been having with some graduating students, conversations that begin rooted in anxiety and end in confidence. What I’m helping students see is that while the future in the shadow of COVID-19 is certainly precarious, in reality, the future is always so. We never really know what will happen; all we can do is prepare ourselves for some (relatively) predictable outcomes. But in this new reality, our students are gaining some key skills highly prized by employers. We need to help them see this.
First: adaptability. Within the span of literally less than two weeks, our students went from their residence halls to their homes, wherever those may be. They went from living with friends to living with family. They went from learning on-ground to learning online. Student-athletes saw their seasons evaporate, internships were curtailed or seriously modified, and campus jobs disappeared. And yet: Fisher students adapted. They packed up and went home; they made sure they had quiet places to do their work; they’ve watched online tutorials on how to be a successful virtual student and improve time management. They are figuring it out. That’s adaptability: the capacity to change to meet the demands of the environment.
Second: teleworking. Fully one third of the industrialized world was teleworking at least part-time before this pandemic, according to Buffer.com. And according to VisionCritical.com, Generation Z has a strong preference for jobs that allow at least some remote work with a work-life balance as a top priority when considering a job offer. Our students have been experiencing some version of online learning since they were very young—they are digital natives—and extending that to their work life is natural. COVID-19 is, at some level, forcing everyone to develop skills in managing work (learning) from home, including setting consistent schedules, establishing boundaries, and taking time to engage socially as mental breaks (even if it is just a quick phone call to a friend, or a FaceTime chat during lunch). Building their abilities to manage the telework lifestyle is a huge advantage. Employers will adapt and see that teleworking can be highly efficient and our Cardinals can leverage this skill in their job interviews.
Third: resilience. We’ve all heard the Boomers call millennials and Gen Zers “these kids.” Yes, “these kids” who are facing a world-wide catastrophe that will have long lasting impacts. We’ll have to rebuild a new way of life ... and our students are just the ones who will help us make it happen. They will not abandon the future they have worked hard to build. Resilience requires us to face hardship and disappointments, to learn from them, and then move forward. Our students are flexing their resilience muscles to build a new future.
COVID-19 has altered the end of the Fisher experience for so many. But this situation has also given our students a unique opportunity to reframe their visions for the future and to quickly acquire new skills and adjust their outlook. In this, the pandemic offers not just panic but also possibilities and our Cardinals will, indeed, thrive.
Dr. Julia Overton-Healy is the director of career services at St. John Fisher College.