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Graduating amidst the chaos

Three recent college graduates reflect on their time as students during the global pandemic.

Graduating from college is no small feat, but graduating in 2021 is almost another thing entirely. 

Students were challenged with adapting to online learning. Most college seniors spent their final semesters online.

But losing their social lives, campuses and many resources did not stop the world from turning. Being a young person in the pandemic came at the cost of missing celebrations, birthdays, and other milestones. 

The Education

Hayley Berbower, a recent graduate of California State University Long Beach, continued to be surprised by the trajectory of her college career. 

Hayley Berbower smiles while taking her senior portraits on Long Beach State’s campus.

Berbower earned her degree in communication studies and consumer science focusing on human interaction and the economic perspective of being a consumer. She also received a mediation certificate. 

“I really enjoyed [college] when it was in person,” Berbower said. “I thought I was going to transfer but I ended up really enjoying my major and my professors were amazing. I just felt pretty disconnected when everything went on Zoom.” 

Berbower loved the interactions with her professors but once it was gone felt the weight on her education. Luckily, her tenacity allowed her to network and earn a post graduate position at the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. Her role will take her up and down the coast of California, educating children on skin cancer prevention.

“I got the internship for summer of 2020 and then it got cancelled. I was heartbroken,” said Berbower. “I kept in contact with them all year and they brought me back on for this summer. I could not be more excited to teach kids super valuable and important information that will help them be healthy.”

The job market is tricky to navigate with an undergraduate degree during normal times, but the pandemic has elevated the stress. 

The Next Step

Alexis Pinela, a USC graduate, found herself on the hunt after finishing her degree. Pinela graduated as a Global Scholar, a Renaissance Scholar and a Discovery scholar with a degree in Psychology. 

Alexis Pinela is pictured celebrating graduation.

While at USC, Pinela cherished her time in the Dornsife School of Letters and Sciences. She is now on the hunt for research positions and is adjusting to post-college life. She also plans to apply to PhD programs in two years.

“What I’m looking forward to is having an organized schedule,” Pinela said. “I think as a student, you don’t really get time off and it’s really hard to create a work life balance that is healthy. I think going into the workforce for two years will give me a sense of adulthood.” 

As a student, Pinela worked grueling hours to achieve her many accomplishments and honors. Even though her time as a student is over she continues to search for work, noting her career trajectory was knocked off sync by COVID-19.

“This past year was the time when we were going to have a lot of formative experiences that make us competitive candidates and because of COVID we didn’t have them,” Pinela said. “I think my career outlook was affected by COVID.”

Scheduled lab research was cancelled and the opportunity to work in new fields was gone. Pinela also noted many of her peers’ theses were directly impacted by the pandemic. 

“Losing those formative experiences really dampens our competitiveness in the field,” Pinela said. “Whether that was applying to PhD programs this cycle or in my case looking for jobs where having that experience is very necessary.” 

USC graduate, Ellie Lo Re, saw her degree as an opportunity to pursue her love of the outdoors and service after graduation.

Ellie Lo Re sits next to USC’s original mascot, George Tirebiter.

Lo Re graduated with a degree in neuroscience and religion and is heading to Alaska in August to work at a mental health and substance misuse clinic. 

She is a part of the Alaska Fellows Program, a fellowship started at Yale. 

“The program was designed to bring smart college graduates to Alaska to stop the brain drain that happens when people move to New York, L.A. or San Francisco after graduation,” Lo Re said. 

Lo Re wanted unconventionality and loves the outdoors. She knew the program was perfect for her. 

“I’m really excited about becoming part of the community because with my job I get to work directly with the tribe of Sitka,” Lo Re said. “It will be cool to get outside of my bubble and experience other cultures.” 

Lo Re is going to miss her life in sunny southern California but her excitement masks any fear she may have.

The Ceremony

Despite the many negatives Berbower, Pinela and Lo Re were able to walk for their  in-person graduation ceremonies. 

“Things kept getting worse, I think at a certain point I [decided] I was not going to have expectations for anything anymore,” Berbower said. “This is a really bad time in our lives and I braced myself for whatever cards I’m dealt.” 

She worried the unique traditions would pass her by just like so many other things had in the past year, but then around March, hope returned. In May of 2021, Berbower walked in her graduation at Angels Stadium. 

“I honestly really enjoyed it,” Berbower said. “It was a nice little bow on my experience, but what really sealed the deal and made it special was running into my two favorite professors as I was leaving the ceremony.” 

Pinela and Lo Re both graduated from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

Lo Re felt content with the button on her time at the university. 

“I feel so grateful for the time I had at USC,” Lo Re said. “It was really nice to have an person graduation ceremony. It was so [special] to show off campus to my grandma and to have people fly back who weren’t around campus for the whole year.” 

Pinela looks at graduation as a sweet and sour. 

“It’s both exciting and bittersweet. On one hand, we got to experience historical moments being one of the first graduating classes who did a whole semester online during a pandemic. We get to talk about that for the rest of our lives, but at the same time, the pandemic took a lot of the traditional events we were looking forward to,” Pinela said. “But I think it prepared us for the real world.” 

Sophia Ungaro
Sophia Rose Ungaro is Culturas resident writing intern. Ungaro hails from San Pedro, California. Growing up with a Navajo/Meztizo mother and a Sicilian father has given Ungaro a unique perspective on the world. In 2021 Ungaro will graduate from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Journalism. Her beats are race, pop culture, and entertainment.
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