2020: The Lost and Found Year for College Grads

In May 2020, I virtually graduated from American University into a pandemic which created one of the most tumultuous, anxiety-producing, and unprecedented times in modern US history. Not exactly what any graduate hopes for, but I did get to proudly walk across my parents' living room holding a fake degree that my dad made online – every 22-year-old's dream! The Zoom graduation party my friends and I held post-ceremony was comforting though because we were all in the same boat. A boat nobody signed up to board or knew how to steer, but we were all right there weathering the storm together. 

  In all honesty, losing formal graduation was depressing, but ultimately the least of our problems. Some of my peers already had jobs lined up in fields related to business and accounting (even some of those got postponed), but for most of us, it was a struggle to find work and move out of our parents' homes, which most of us had hoped we'd never have to move back into. 

Starting our so-called transition into the "real world" seemed daunting. It felt like the pandemic had stalled this transition almost completely and we'd been asked to sit and wait to start our lives. So what does one do while they "sit and wait" to start their life? Well, in my case it looked like a lot of binge-watching New Girl, daydreaming about moving to New York City with my friends like we'd always planned, and reading articles about other 2020 college grads and how they were coping with the pandemic. 

Since the pandemic began, I've come across multiple articles with titles calling 2020 a "lost year," especially in regards to my age group, and even more specifically, recent college grads. As one of those recent college grads, I found that headline monumentally discouraging. It made me feel like I was literally losing a year of my life. But upon further reflection and investigation, I actually don't think that's entirely the case.  

After almost a year of riding the highs and lows of this pandemic, I wanted to check in with my peers to see where they were at in their personal and professional lives. Currently, job opportunities are few and far between, some job industries (like live entertainment) no longer exist at the moment, and so young people have had to pivot. All of my peers' lives have completely changed direction in ways they never expected. 

However, across the board, every single person revealed that they've gained a new perspective on the world and have reassessed their priorities. What's important to them now wasn't necessarily even on their radar a year ago. This type of self-reflection is so rare early on in life. Normally it feels like we're pushing forward non-stop. But the class of 2020, and really all current 20 somethings, have had a unique opportunity to not only find a new life path but to also find out a lot about ourselves, the world, and what we can and can't live without. We've lost so much but have also found/gained more than we even realize – mainly, gratitude.

 Harper Snyder, a 2020 graduate, lost the opportunity to work in live sports event management. She's still job searching, but since her industry doesn't exist at the moment she's had to consider other fields. The pandemic also forced Harper to postpone moving from New Jersey out to the west coast, so she's still living at home. It's also proven challenging to meet new friends or romantic partners – which is all of the fun of being in your 20s.  

Image: Depositphotos

However, with this free time, Harper has found a passion for health and fitness, mainly running. Back in April, she worked on her health by dedicating time to learn about her autoimmune disease – vitiligo – which causes skin changes and gastro issues. She created a better diet for herself and now physically feels better than she ever imagined she could. In May, she decided to train for a half marathon (13.1 miles). Before quarantine, she never ran for sport or fun. Harper made an Instagram account with her friend, Sophia, to keep them both accountable and motivated. Harper received screenshots from other friends who were also on their own running journey. She essentially started a community and ran two more half marathons after the one in May. 

Harper emphasized, "It makes me happy to see other women supporting each other. I never thought I'd be a runner, let alone inspire others to do it. I've also gained knowledge and a handle on my health/condition that I may never have had without the pandemic."

 Sage Merchant, a 2020 accounting grad school graduate, found herself in a tough spot when accounting firm KPMG in NYC furloughed her until January. She needed to find an income fast. She also didn't want to move to NYC in the pandemic so she had to quickly find a new living situation. It was stressful, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came her way when she was offered a job doing data analytics for the Biden Harris Campaign. She helped turn Pennsylvania blue and got to meet with inspiring politicians like Elizabeth Warren via Zoom. 

Sage also decided to make use of not having to live in one specific city. While most people haven't been able to travel much during the pandemic, Sage has spent the last four months driving across the country with her boyfriend and living in Airbnbs. They have worked remotely in Colorado, Texas, and California. They stayed in each state for about six weeks and plan to move to Oregon next. Sage says the pandemic has afforded her the opportunity to try out different cities and assess what qualities in a city she's really looking for when she ultimately decides to settle down. She also revealed that the pandemic has forced her to think about her health more than ever before. She really tries to be conscious of her lifestyle habits and even quit drinking. Sage believes the pandemic has helped her understand the importance of finding a job that provides good health care and benefits. 

2020 graduate Dustin Summers experienced a similar professional setback as Sage. KPMG went on a hiring freeze so he lost the opportunity to get a job with them. Instead, Dustin had to keep working as a waiter longer than he'd planned, and risk his health daily as a frontline worker. 

However, Dustin ended up finding a remote job at the Small Business Administration, a company that helps small businesses get loans that were impacted by COVID. Working in a job related to COVID helped Dustin gain a new perspective on the pandemic. He realized COVID didn't affect him or our age group in the same devastating way as people who had spent their whole life building a business. They lost everything. For us, we're only starting to build a life. This job made him grateful to be going through the pandemic at this stage in his life. 

Dustin explained, "The pandemic has allowed a lot of time for reflection. COVID affected us during a transition period in our life. We don't usually reflect at our age but we had to look back, not just look forward. Stop and get some perspective on how we were living our lives. What is it we actually want going forward after all of this? That usually happens midway through life. Not at 22. I'm grateful for that." 

For 2020 graduate Ty Guzman Touchberry, it's the basic things she once overlooked in life that she feels most grateful for now. Before the pandemic, Ty worked as a supervisor at The Anthem, a music venue in Washington DC. Ty's extremely passionate about live music and was devastated when she had to leave her job behind so suddenly. For the time being, Ty's lost the ability to work in her dream field – the live music/event industry.  Ty shared how she took for granted how accessible live music was, and she can't wait until she can go to a concert again. It will have a whole new meaning. 

With months to reflect, Ty has realized that there is nothing more important in life than the people we love. It's the little things in life that matter – being able to hug, laugh, and connect with the people we care about. Ty touched on how disheartening staying at home in your 20s is because this is the time we are supposed to be our most adventurous and social, but instead, we're all locked away inside. Isolating can be lonely and depressing, but it helps to know that we aren't alone in the feelings we're experiencing. 

Lastly, Nick Hannan discussed how much school had dominated his entire life up until graduating. After graduating in May, he realized that he'd never really prepared for what was next. School was literally all he'd ever known, and breaking out of that mold proved more difficult than he'd expected. The pandemic didn't make it any easier to create a new life plan, but Nick says he's made peace with the fact that he might not have a "dream job." The pandemic has given him a new mindset. The mindset that it's okay to just explore who you are and enjoy yourself in your 20s without putting so much pressure to rush out into the world. We're all in an unnecessarily stressful race to label ourselves and settle into a career we aren't even sure we want. Because who actually knows what's going on, what they want, or who they really are in their 20s?  

As for me, I've always been a highly anxious person who likes to have a plan for everything. Well, this year I lost the ability to plan anything. At first, this was a terrifying realization. Not being able to plan fundamentally goes against my operating system. When the pandemic hit, I literally had my entire 2020 mapped out – starting with my big move to NYC after graduation. That move never happened. Instead, I lived with my parents for six months. It felt like I was on a runway ready to take off, but instead, my plane crashed and burned before it ever had a chance to soar. 

At the start of the pandemic, I spent a lot of time harping on the "what ifs" or "what could have beens." But, I quickly realized this wasn't a good use of my time. So, I decided to spend the summer of 2020 working on my own writing and took various Master Classes like TV Writing with Shonda Rhimes. I also stumbled across a class led by the FBI's former lead Hostage Negotiator, Chris Voss. The class proved to be highly informative and entertaining. In September, my friend Marley and I decided to take a leap and become writing partners. We moved in together and have been working on a pilot script for the last five months in between our day jobs. The entire writing process has been incredibly rewarding and educational. And, our writing partnership almost certainly wouldn't have happened without this pandemic. 

So, after living through a year that's been one giant question mark, I've found that sometimes no plan is the best plan. We've now been taught at a young age how quickly everything we know can be taken away from us – nothing in life is guaranteed. It's been a gift to realize how fragile any "life plan" is, and how important it is to be flexible and roll with the punches. 

The truth is, life isn't on "pause." We've been forced to remotely work, go to school, and in these professional settings we're supposed to act like everything's normal. But, every day, people lose their lives to COVID leaving so many to grieve. We try to check up on our friends and family, but we know nobody is really doing well.  We're still supposed to go on virtual job interviews and dates and sell our "best self." We've adapted, but none of this is normal, and it's been incredibly challenging for everyone's mental and physical health. This version of life is without a doubt taxing and different than what we're used to. There isn't much we can plan or control. However, what we can control is the outlook we choose to proceed with, and how we treat those closest to us and those we don't know at all. How we choose to show up in the world still matters. 

Although this last year has been dark, devastating, and left us with more questions than answers about what our future holds, this pandemic has revealed how truly resilient, adaptable, and grateful people in their 20s are. I believe whenever we return to something semi-normal, people in their 20s will have a deeper appreciation for everything, from work to concerts to just singing our heart out in the car with a group of friends. Almost everything will seem easier than what we're living through now (trying to balance a social life – mostly virtual – outrun a deadly virus, and land a job…no easy task!). 

To all the 20 somethings out there: as easy and justified as it is to focus on all we've lost, maybe take a minute and do an intake of all you've "found" since the pandemic started. You might be surprised by what you find.