Counseling Today, Features

Starting post-college life in a pandemic

By Bethany Bray August 3, 2020

Spring 2020 college graduates have emerged into a world turned upside down by COVID-19. The job prospects and post-college lifestyles these graduates were imagining for themselves just a few months ago are today largely nonexistent.

Unprecedented seems to be the buzzword of the season, notes Roseanne Bensley, assistant director of New Mexico State University’s (NMSU’s) Center for Academic Advising and Student Support. The coronavirus pandemic has affected everything from relationships to career planning for new graduates.

“It’s not one part of their life, it’s every part of their life,” Bensley says. “Employers have uncertainty and don’t know, day to day, when things will lift. … No one has enough information to give answers. This is new territory for employers and job searchers.”

However, Bensley would like to add a second buzzword to the class of 2020’s lexicon: resiliency. As she points out, these students, many of whom had to unexpectedly finish their senior year coursework online, can claim an advantage when it comes to adaptability and comfort with technology.

Because of COVID-19, “New jobs and new ways of doing business are opening up. This is going to cause a new wave of change, and [employers] may not be going back to the way it was,” Bensley says. “These students are ahead of the curve. … They will be resilient with what they’ve learned.”

At a loss

Licensed professional counselor (LPC) Patricia Anderson recently worked with a new college grad who was experiencing a resurgence of anxiety this past spring during the pandemic. The young woman had switched jobs, and the restrictions associated with COVID-19 meant that she was unable to meet any of her new co-workers in person. Her entire hiring and onboarding process had been completed via video and electronic communication. She had also recently moved into her own apartment and begun living away from her family for the first time.

The client was stressed out, anxious, and struggling with her self-confidence, recalls Anderson, an American Counseling Association member who has a private practice in the Georgetown section of Washington D.C. In working through her feelings in counseling, it became clear that the young woman — an extrovert by nature — was experiencing grief over the large-scale absence of social connection, both at work and in her personal life.

During the pandemic, the client had stopped using an online dating platform. This resulted in her experiencing a sense of loss regarding opportunities to meet people and a decrease in the confidence she normally gained through interacting with dates and new relationships. Anderson worked with the client to establish a self-care plan that included making time for hobbies and exercise, as well as maintaining social contacts and reconnecting with friends with whom she had lost touch.

Anderson also focused on boosting the client’s confidence and equipped her with strategies for keeping her self-talk from becoming self-critical. In addition, Anderson helped the client recognize that what she was feeling was grief, which can arrive in waves. Together, they connected some of the client’s feelings to family-of-origin issues that were contributing to her stress.

Anderson also helped the client focus on the reality that her current situation wouldn’t last forever. “We talked about things she can look forward to in the future: going back to online dating, figuring out a new normal, looking forward to meeting colleagues face-to-face, planning a trip, and working on another business opportunity,” Anderson says. “Time spent away [from dating] had eroded the confidence she once had and had kicked up her anxiety. Staying ‘in the game’ can be beneficial for some [clients]. It’s a way to get to know themselves and push themselves socially.”

Many of Anderson’s clients are young professionals, current college students or recent graduates. Throughout the spring and summer, many of these clients have been wrestling with feelings of loss, she says. This includes the loss of rites of passage such as graduation ceremonies and in-person celebrations, the loss of internships and immediate job prospects and, for some, the seeming loss of entire career plans.

“Their world and their [sense of] structure have been upended, and they’re not really knowing which direction to move in,” Anderson says. “Some days, they feel like, ‘OK, I got this,’ and then other days, they have doubts about ‘Where am I going?’ The floor dropped out of what they thought was going to happen. … They have anxiety over the fact that everything got pulled out from underneath them, and now they don’t have a road map.”

It is vitally important that counselors first help these clients process their feelings of loss before trying to guide them to reconsider their job options or life path, Anderson says. Among the most consequential actions counselors can take are to listen to, validate and normalize the emotions that these young adults are feeling in the wake of COVID-19.

“Be with the client where they are,” Anderson says. “If they’re unable to go with a job that didn’t happen or was rescinded, really sit with them in that space before opening up and looking at the possibilities of ‘what else?’ It’s difficult to do that until they know that you understand them and where they’re coming from.”

All feelings of loss should be treated as real and valid, Anderson says, even if clients themselves express guilt over feeling that way or dismiss those feelings as being trivial when the world is facing weightier issues. For example, some graduates may still be dealing with disappointment that they missed out on a final chance to take a spring break trip with friends or weren’t able to study abroad because of the coronavirus. Counselors should reassure these clients that it is OK to have these feelings and then give them space to talk about it, she emphasizes.

“[Help them] know that they’re not alone and that it totally makes sense to struggle right now. They also may be scared at feeling unsettled, which may be a new feeling for them,” explains Anderson, who does contract work for the QuarterLife Center, a Washington, D.C., therapy office that specializes in working with young professionals in their 20s and 30s.

In addition to normalizing feelings, Anderson has been providing clients with psychoeducation on self-care, the nonlinear aspects of grief, and the importance of maintaining social supports and a structured daily schedule. She checks with clients to ensure they are staying connected with friends and family via technology and that they are equipped with coping mechanisms such as meditation and self-reflection exercises. She also asks if they are eating well, engaging in physical activity, getting outside, and taking part in other wellness-focused activities.

As Anderson’s clients talk in sessions, she listens for hopeful language that might indicate they are ready to rethink their futures. “I try to help them broaden their scope a little, if they’re ready for it. I let them talk about what they need to talk about, but then spend some time looking at other pieces of what else might be possible. [I] try and get them out of their heads just a little bit,” Anderson says, “because if I [as a client] always thought I was going to be a dentist, and come to find out that I’m not going to be a dentist, I have to grieve. But at the same time, maybe there are some things that free me up about not being a dentist.”

“If you can create a trusting relationship with a [client],” she says, “they know that you understand them, and we can explore all kinds of things, whether they [previously] seemed unrealistic or not.”

Rethinking career plans

Flexibility must be the watchword for recent graduates who are looking for jobs, says Lynn Downie, associate director of career and professional development at Presbyterian College in South Carolina. In her work with undergraduates and alumni of the small, rural college, Downie is finding that those who had a “hard and set, defined path” in mind, such as entering the health care or hospitality industries straight out of school, are struggling most.

Those who are currently seeking jobs can benefit greatly from the guidance and encouragement provided by a counselor, says Downie, who recently finished a two-year term as president of the National Employment Counseling Association (NECA), a division of ACA. “Give them reassurance that things haven’t changed completely. Highlight [the idea] that pathways to a particular goal aren’t always the same. There are other distinct pathways,” she says.

Downie is helping her clients identify workarounds as they adjust their perspectives to become more flexible and less discouraged by rejection letters or the idea of taking a job that might not have appealed to them previously. Some of her clients have readjusted their career plans to take entry-level or short-term work in positions or fields they wouldn’t have considered six months ago. Others have pivoted to opportunities in national service programs such as AmeriCorps.

Downie, a member of ACA, also reminds recent graduates that they just need to find a fit for right now. That doesn’t mean their long-term career goals have to change. “Help [these clients] realize that they’re not making a choice for the rest of their lives when they choose a job, or [especially] their first job,” she says. “Their life is going to be full of all kinds of pivots. Some are planned and some are unplanned and forced. There is a big arc from 18 to 65 or retirement age. … You can [still] have aspirational goals that are for down the line.”

Downie has worked with several business students who had hoped to go into health care administration, but because the industry is so in flux currently, there aren’t many administration jobs open at the entry level. With these students and graduates, Downie has focused on ways that their administration skills could be used in alternative settings, such as nonprofit, community development or public health organizations. Another tactic is taking lower-paid medical aide or assistant jobs in settings that are currently short-staffed (such as nursing homes) and that do not necessarily require special certification. As Downie points out, even working as a contact tracer as part of the COVID-19 virus response — a job that didn’t exist six months ago — could help these new graduates gain experience.

Similarly, a job in pharmaceutical or medical sales could provide these graduates with valuable exposure. “They would still be interacting with those in the medical field, instead of applying for jobs that don’t exist,” she points out.

Bensley notes that going with a “Plan B” job in a field or setting that a graduate didn’t originally intend to work in can demonstrate to other potential employers that the graduate possesses a good work ethic and thinks outside the box. She also urges students and recent graduates to widen their searches to consider temporary, freelance or even gig work instead of focusing solely on full-time employment.

“[A first job] may not be professional, but it’s work, and [the individual] can be introduced to people through that work,” Bensley says. “It also tells a [future] employer that you’re a hustler and not waiting for the golden egg to show up.”

When counseling clients who are rethinking their career plans, Downie finds it helpful to have them identify a theme they feel drawn to and then consider various types of work that fit that theme. For example, a graduate who enjoys building relationships can use that skill in any number of job settings. They might start out in sales but advance to building teams as a manager or even pivot to cultivating client relationships as a professional counselor.

“Find a theme for your life — that one thing you cling to, what you’re good at,” Downie tells her clients. “You can work on that in all types of settings. A core skill can translate into different fields, and sticking with it will give you a sense of continuity and purpose.”

Networking during a pandemic

Bensley often tells students at NMSU to think of how professional athletes are handling the pandemic: Their season may be on hold or even canceled, but they’re continuing to stay in shape.

“Just because the competitive side of their sport has stopped, they’re not watching Netflix for 10 hours a day. They are still keeping their skill set up, working out, training and preparing,” Bensley observes.

That same philosophy should apply to career planning during the pandemic, she emphasizes. Now is the time for job candidates to put even more energy into enriching themselves and expanding their professional networks.

“Don’t limit your strategy to just sending out résumés and waiting for a response,” urges Bensley, an instructor for the global career development facilitator credential through NECA. “While employers may have slowed down their original hiring plans, it does not mean that a candidate should also slow down. If anything, it means you might need to work harder at following employers on LinkedIn, reviewing their homepages and [thoroughly] reading job postings to determine if you have the skill set that employers require.”

Bensley suggests it is also the perfect time for recent graduates to flip the usual dynamic and reach out to interview professionals who are already working in their desired field. Job seekers can identify contacts through LinkedIn or other networks and ask if these professionals have 20 minutes to talk about their job or industry.

Bensley urges students and recent graduates to start with professors and mentors whom they already know or have worked with. They can then use those connections to secure introductions to other professionals in their desired field. Those professionals can recommend still others they would recommend connecting with, and so on, in a widening circle, Bensley says.

Professionals are especially open to such requests right now because many are working from home and are free from in-person meetings, conferences and business travel engagements. In many ways, motivated students and recent graduates currently have a “captive audience,” she says.

“This shows curiosity and a desire to learn about your craft, gets your name out there, and helps you evolve and have insights on what they [professionals] consider to be important,” Bensley says. “If an employer said, ‘We really value teamwork,’ there’s a hint: Everything [you might say in a job interview] should be focused on teamwork. Instead of saying, ‘I did X,” say, ‘We did X.’ That can be the small percentage you need to get ahead — understanding the value system of the employer because you’ve talked to them about it.”

Forward vision

As counselors offer support and reassurance to recent graduates and young professionals struggling to adjust to personal and professional lives upended by COVID-19, here are some important points to keep in mind:

>>  Focus on listening. Downie urges counselors to slowly ease in to therapeutic or career work with these clients. She often opens her sessions with a question: “What do you want to talk about today?” With so many concerns currently weighing on these clients, their answers might be unexpected and diverge entirely from the topics they have discussed in session previously, she says.

“Give them the floor to talk about whatever they want. We [counselors] always have to be good listeners, but now as we’re isolated, there’s a real temptation to give advice,” Downie says. “What is needed now, during this crisis, is to listen — listen more and not give advice. That’s been essential. Students who were slow to open up to begin with now need additional time to be comfortable. We need to build [therapeutic] relationships but also step back and allow for quiet. Right now, there’s so much chatter, [clients] need time to catch their breath before speaking.”

>> Consider the whole picture. College students and recent graduates may unexpectedly find themselves living at home and navigating family stressors, Downie notes. Regardless of the presenting issue that brings these clients to counseling, counselors should ask questions that will help them understand clients’ situations in full. Downie says she has worked with students who have needed to finish college coursework while sharing a computer with family members or to conduct their entire job search on a cellphone. Others found themselves scrambling to secure temporary work — long before they expected to start a career — to supplement household income because their parents had been laid off.

“When students went home and courses went online, family structures were being upended,” Downie says. “It took an emotional toll. … The level of stress has been enormous, even from day one” of the pandemic.

Some students and recent graduates have expressed feeling pressure from parents about their job searches or life choices (even if parents haven’t necessarily voiced those concerns) that they wouldn’t have felt living on campus. Counselors should be mindful that living at home adds an entirely new dynamic to these clients’ experiences, Downie says.

Administrators at Presbyterian College, including Downie, split up the student body roster and called every student to check in through the spring semester. This endeavor confirmed a saying that Downie had been hearing from colleagues: “We’re all in the same storm but not in the same boat.” The needs and stressors that students were experiencing varied widely, depending on their circumstances, she says.

“Really quickly, I realized the truth of that saying. For some, doors opened that weren’t there before. There were some who found themselves with new opportunities, yet their best friends were experiencing a very different [reality],” she explains.

>> Make clients the authors of a story in progress: Tina Leboffe, an ACA member and a counselor pursuing licensure under supervision at a therapy practice in Douglassville, Pennsylvania, uses narrative therapy with clients, many of whom are college students concerned about finding a job after graduation. “I see my clients as the meaning-makers in their own lives. When working with loss [related to the COVID-19 pandemic], I feel that it is important to walk with the client as they tell the story of their experience, while supporting their exploration of what they want this loss to mean for their life story. This can look like allowing space for the client to be present in feeling the emotions caused by loss and also to look forward at what they want their lives to look like as a result of the loss,” says Leboffe, an associate addiction counselor.

“When working with a client to refocus and reimagine their future, we can listen as they add context to their story,” she says. “Despite the setting of their story shifting, the client is still the author. We can support our clients as they integrate a new reality into their life story by asking questions that refocus on the client being the expert of their life. As counselors, we might not be able to change the job market, but we can guide our clients in an exploration of what they want their life to look like given the changes that have occurred. We can assist them in identifying decisions they want to make in the face of change.”

>> Seize the opportunity to explore identity: Leboffe and Anderson both note that while this is a time of stress and upheaval for young clients, it can also afford opportunities for personal growth. Counselors can help support and encourage that process.

“This is a good time for them to learn about themselves, learn about what their values are and what is important to them. … [It is] a time to explore their internal world and let them find out what their 22-year-old self is like,” Anderson says. “How are they with stress? How do they handle ambiguity? How are they capable and able to move forward and readjust in such a difficult time? Giving them space to talk allows them to process [these things].”

“In my experience working with young adults and recent grads — and being one myself not long ago — I have found that this time in their lives can be filled with identity exploration and transition,” Leboffe says. “They may be faced with new levels of independence and responsibility that can evoke questions like ‘What do I want my life to look like?’ or ‘Who do I want to be?’ This can be important to keep in mind as we work with or parent recent grads because it can serve as underlying context to help us be empathetic to their lived experiences while they are developing their sense
of identity.”

>> Remember that productivity is relative. Anderson has found it helpful to remind young clients that even though they’re spending much more time at home, they may need to temper their expectations about productivity.

“This shouldn’t be a time when you plan to be super productive. That’s hard to do when you’re going through something so emotional and so taxing,” Anderson tells clients. “It’s not a time to learn six new languages, clean your entire house or finish a major art project. Instead, focus on what works for you. What are things that calm you and help you [that] you can do routinely? Be less hard on yourself. At the same time, it’s a great time to try something new if you have the motivation to.”

>> Build confidence. Bensley urges counselors to focus on the positive when communicating with college students and recent graduates during the pandemic. “The No. 1 thing we can do for clients is help build their confidence,” Bensley says. “The tone of my emails has been, ‘Hey, you’ve got this. I’m cheering you on.’ I’m trying to use my language to be that [needed] encouragement, even if they don’t ask for it or seem to need it.”

>> Take them seriously. Transitioning to adulthood is hard enough without the added concerns and stresses of COVID-19. Validation from a counselor is pivotal during this time of life, Anderson says.

“Take their concerns seriously. We know in general that people will land on their feet and things will turn out OK as they make their way in the world. [But] they need to be held in the emotional space where they are right now,” Anderson says. “Moving into adulthood is really hard. It can be a very tumultuous time — and one that promotes growth.”

“[These clients’] struggles and needs are serious,” she continues. “Figuring out dating, jobs and social stuff — it’s all important. Stay with them in their space and create that [trusting] relationship. Know that their concerns are valid, even if we have all the confidence in them in the world that they’re going to figure this out. They really are worried that they’re not going to figure this out in the right way. And that’s valid [because] they haven’t been here before.”

 

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Entering the counseling profession amid COVID-19

Graduates from counseling programs certainly aren’t immune to the stresses and uncertainties that 2020 graduates in other fields are facing.

Darius Green graduated from James Madison University (JMU) with a doctorate in counselor education in May. Green says that he and many other counseling graduates feel the pressure of finding jobs that can provide financial stability “rather than being able to choose what positions best fit [our] personal and professional goals.”

I do not come from a background of financial privilege, so this rose to the top of my priorities,” says Green, a member of the American College Counseling Association, a division of ACA. “I [have] noticed a mix of success and difficulty among some of my peers in the job search process. For those who started early and found a position that matched what they were looking for, the process seemed easy. For my peers who had not been able to start searching early or just had not found the ideal position, there seemed to be more difficulty. … I struggled with finding a position that I wanted and carried out my job search longer than I had planned.”

This summer, Green is living in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where JMU is located, holding down both a full-time instructional faculty position with JMU’s Learning Centers Department and working part time as a counselor with the ARROW Project, a community mental health organization roughly 30 miles away in Staunton.

Green hopes that in this time of crisis, professional counselors who are already established will remember the role they play as advocates for the profession and will look out for new counseling graduates trying to enter the field.

“I think that counselors who are already working can be aware and sensitive to how stressful being in such a position [graduating during a pandemic] can be. I also feel as if counselors can advocate within their agencies or communities to do our part in making sure that existing opportunities are made known to recent graduates,” Green says. “That could include reaching out to counseling faculty members to share information or even connecting with colleagues who may know of new counseling graduates in need.”

“One thing that I would want [counselors] to keep in mind is that not everyone has connections to others in the counseling profession and other mental health fields,” he continues. “Some students come from backgrounds that may have lacked opportunities for networking or that may not value the mental health professions. I think it would be important to pay particularly close attention to those students so that they do not fall through the cracks or face another layer of oppression.”

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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