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Maine's College Seniors Face Uncertainty After Graduation

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public File
A building on University of Maine at Augusta's campus

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a lot of stress on college students. In just a few weeks, many have had to pack their bags and leave campus, then transition to new, online classes. And for those set to graduate this spring, the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic has many on edge and some rethinking their plans after graduation.

Hunter Chesley says she has not gotten much sleep over the past month. She’s a senior at the University of Maine at Augusta, and she’s anxious about COVID-19: how it could affect her family and what it could mean for her future.

“It is hard because I feel anxious all the time," she says. "I'm nervous that I won't be able to get a job after graduation. So that's kind of all I'm thinking about right now. Just because I'm scared people are going to not be hiring."

Chesley's path toward a college degree has had a couple of twists and turns. She transferred out of UMA to study to be a medical assistant before eventually re-enrolling at the school to major in mental health and human services. She wants to get into social work.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has upended her plans. She's on a tight budget, and with businesses closing and millions losing jobs nationwide, she's stressed about how to make her finances work in an uncertain economy.

"The stimulus checks just came out. And because I'm a college student and my parents claimed me last year, I don't qualify for a check," she says. "So finances are definitely tight. And it's very worrisome. Especially where I don't know what's next for a job."

"Things were great a month ago," says Crisanne Blackie, the director of the University of Maine Career Center. "We had 2.5 percent unemployment. Everybody had job offers. It was this wonderful time and very optimistic. And then, boom! It was like this big crash of uncertainty."

Blackie says that constant uncertainty over the last month has been unnerving for students as they attempt to finish the semester online and search for jobs and internships. Because of the uncertain job market, she says some students are now talking about grad school instead.

But Blackie also sees some positive signs. Job postings, for example, are still coming in, she says, and she's encouraging students to consider opportunities that they might not have thought about in the past.

"I think if they can go for it and embrace the uncertainty and say, 'I'm willing, maybe, to take a job that I hadn't looked at before, because it wasn't really what I was interested in. But I could do this job, or I could do an internship, or I could volunteer,'" she says. "And look at everything that they do as an opportunity to develop skills, to learn about themselves. They may be surprised at where they end up — in a very different place than where they thought."

For some seniors, COVID-19 restrictions are already changing the location and type of jobs they're seeking. Timothy Kaplowitz, a senior from Bates College now living at home in New York, says a few months ago he was planning to move to a new city and start a career in film.

"But at this point, obviously, it's completely impossible to go look for apartments in some other city. So at this point, I'm just gonna try and find something near New York just because it's easier, and it's more manageable. So in that sense, it's really changed the course that I thought my life was going to take," Kaplowitz says. "In terms of what I'm applying for, I think I'm applying for similar things, for the most part, but I certainly am being much less selective over what jobs I apply for, and what jobs I don't. Just because I just need a job.”

Kaplowitz's classmate, Ryan Lizanecz, is a Portland-native and Bates Student Government President. He's had similar conversations with other out-of-state students who aren't likely to return.

"I've talked to a few students who've said, 'I don't have the economic means to come back to Maine anytime soon.' Or 'It doesn't make sense or me to come back to Maine anytime soon.' And for me, as a Mainer, it's really concerning to see all these really amazing, bright, young people who were going to stay in the state, now being, like, 'Okay, I don't see economic opportunities here anymore, with the economic decline. And also, I don't have the ability to come back.'"

At the University of Maine at Augusta, senior Hunter Chesley says she intends to stay in the state after graduation. She is also expanding the kinds of positions she's looking at. And in the meantime, she's helped to set up Zoom meetings for students three times a week where she and her classmates can talk about their lives and challenges.

"For students to be able to have a chance to talk with somebody who's going through the same thing," she says.

While the anxiety and uncertainty aren't likely to go away any time soon, Chesley hopes the meetings reassure students that they're not alone.