Students adjust their career plans amid the ongoing pandemic

Feb. 9, 2021, 8:59 p.m.

Around this time last year, Annie Tran Nguyen ’22 was focused on finding a summer experience to prepare for the M.D./Ph.D. programs she aspired to partake in after graduating from Stanford. She thought that summer would be the time to both enrich her career and earn money to support her parents, but that all changed when the pandemic took hold.

After her immunocompromised parents decided to temporarily close their hair salon in South Florida, their bills piled up, and Nguyen’s top priority became keeping her family afloat. 

Nguyen’s story is just one example of the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted students’ career plans and goals. Her experience echoes what Arame Mbodj, Career Catalysts assistant director, has observed while helping students navigate their careers at BEAM, Stanford’s Career Education Center.

“Some students had to make some difficult choices about either adding on an additional job, so that they’re able to make some money, or deciding not to do an internship,” Mbodj said.

In the beginning, Nguyen considered putting her certification as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) to use. After a few ride-alongs, however, she decided against the idea. 

“There were times when I was clearly just trying to help as an EMT, and people didn’t want me to because of the way I looked,” she said, referencing the rise in anti-Asian sentiment that occurred after the virus began circulating in the United States. “EMT work became really stressful and didn’t seem like it would pay off. In order to get the money I needed for my family, I would have [had] to work overtime, and that just wasn’t feasible with my class schedule.”

After not having luck with the research programs that grew even more competitive during the pandemic, Nguyen felt fortunate to receive a grant from the Office of Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education sponsoring her summer research for the anesthesia lab she had been working with.

“That helped me get my feet under myself and carry my family through that time, a really hard period, while also allowing me to work on something that would help me too,” she said. 

Though the pandemic disproportionately impacted students from lower-income backgrounds, its effects did not stop there. According to Mbodj, the number of internship opportunities available on Handshake in May 2020 was 50% lower than it had been a year before. 

“When the pandemic first hit, everyone hit pause,” Mbodj said. “Internships were frozen, a lot of start dates were pushed back and things got canceled overall.”

Graphic: CINDY YU/The Stanford Daily

Students who managed to secure internships last summer had to adjust to the remote world with their employers. 

According to Mbodj, some of the challenges remote schooling has yet to solve have also carried over to the working world. For students with disabilities, there was “this sudden shift to navigate a new landscape with everything being virtual,” while not necessarily having the same access, resources and support they might normally have. For international students, travel bans and policies set by the previous administration complicated the search for opportunities, some of which required candidates to be physically present in the country. 

Even now, remote work continues to present challenges for students. After trying to manage a west coast work schedule from Long Island, Michelle Schwartzman ’22 decided to relocate to San Francisco to continue working for the startup she is interning for during her gap year. 

“I was staying up until 3 a.m. Eastern time, waking up sometimes at noon Eastern time,” she said. “It wasn’t great work-life balance, but it was what I felt was necessary.”

While the pandemic has imposed all sorts of challenges on students and their careers, Mbodj has also taken note of some positive changes.

“As things went virtual, we saw alumni reach out and want to offer a lot more support to students,” she said. The sustained alumni engagement has contributed to the growth of the Stanford Alumni Mentoring platform, which now has over 6,000 alumni volunteering to help students navigate their careers.

Thoughtful and reflective conversations with students are another positive development that Mbodj and her colleagues observed.

“When I was meeting with students, our conversations were slightly different,” she said. “They were a little bit higher level in that they really wanted to understand what would be meaningful work for them.”

Mbodj believes this self-reflection helped students develop a more thoughtful approach in their searches and better articulate reasons for their passions.

For some students, this self-reflection was a direct result of the pause Mbodj referred to. Before the pandemic, environmental systems engineering major Shikha Srinivas ’21 was “very much someone who would want to apply for almost everything.” But as the pandemic demonstrated the importance of public spaces and the California wildfires emphasized the disproportionate exposure to crises some populations experience, Srinivas became more certain in her aspirations to create inclusive communities through sustainable infrastructure. 

“It helped me reflect on how an internship isn’t necessarily about what I can accomplish somewhere,” she said. “It’s about what I can be a part of that leads to some greater community effort or larger vision.”

For others, witnessing loss during the pandemic has caused them to reflect on what they wanted to do with their careers. Schwartzman recalled, pondering her aspirations during the earlier months of the pandemic.

“Being in New York during March and April of 2020 was devastating,” she said. “I know so many people who lost loved ones, and it was really, really sad. It forced me to take a step back. What do I want to do with my life? Why am I on this rat race when there are problems to be fixed in the world?” 

After interning for an education technology venture fund with portfolio companies that helped schools across the nation transition online, Schwartzman decided to take a leave of absence to join a seed-stage startup focused on disaster preparedness. She acknowledges that family support has afforded her the privilege to explore her career. 

“I’ve been incredibly lucky for this period of time to be so pivotal,” she said.

According to Mbodj, the internship landscape is recovering. Last month, there were approximately the same number of opportunities listed as there were in January of 2019 and 2020, and for last October, the number of internships posted in Handshake had even surpassed that of the previous year.

When asked about the long-term impact of the pandemic on students, Mbodj referenced the experiences of alumni who began their careers during the Great Recession. 

“I have talked to some ’08 and ’09 alums from our podcasts and panels, and a lot of them are fine now,” she said. “Although they don’t feel like it’s super comparable — what happened in ’08 and now — they do feel like they were able to pivot and figure it out.”

Contact Cindy Yu at yucindy ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Cindy Yu '22 is a desk editor for The Grind for volume 259. She is majoring in Earth Systems.

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