‘Your life can’t stop’: class of 2020 faces the ‘real world’ during COVID-19

A “real world” filled with higher-than-usual uncertainty greets 2020’s college graduates,
as long-held plans and goals have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Graduates including Mikale Milne (left), Christi Rutz (at right) and Ashley Farnsworth
are regrouping as they alter plans — and find new directions. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

By Stella Harvey

— Pandemic shutdown… unemployment… business closures… social unrest: This is the “real world” this year’s college students faced upon graduating and trading class assignments and course credits for career prospects or moves to another state or country. No other graduating class, except those graduating in wartime, has faced as much uncertainty as the class of 2020. 

Despite the challenges, recent graduates are still looking for ways to use their education to benefit themselves and their communities.

Christi Rutz graduated from Western Washington University this year. She thought it was a temporary change when Western’s administration made the decision to close the campus and move classes online last spring.

“At the time, nobody knew how long it was going to be. In March we were like, what is this going to be, like two weeks?” Rutz said. 

But online classes dragged on and Western eventually announced plans for a virtual commencement ceremony. Rutz realized the larger impacts the pandemic would have on her plans for the future.

Rutz earned a degree in linguistics. She had planned to job-hunt after graduation and then travel through Europe. After that she hoped to relocate with the Teaching English as a Second Language certificate she earned at Western and begin teaching in another country. 

As more and more countries implemented travel restrictions to protect against COVID-19, it quickly became clear to Rutz that her plans were on hold. Looking for some semblance of normalcy, she decided to stay in Bellingham with her family and look for other work. 

Hard jobs outlook for Generation Z

In March, a Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 50% of Generation Z members ages 18 to 23 reported that they or someone in their household had taken a pay cut or lost their job as a result of the pandemic.

Because of those numbers and seeing that many of her friends were having difficulty finding jobs, Rutz said she did not expect to find one herself.

As the months went by with no offers, Rutz said she needed to find new ways to manage her new-found and unanticipated free time. So she started cooking more, making singing videos to post online and taking long walks around town. Staying busy while she looked for new job opportunities was important to maintaining her mental health.

With bachelor’s degree in hand, more
school is ahead for Ashley Farnsworth.
(Courtesy photo)

Ashley Farnsworth, a 2020 graduate from Skagit Valley College, said her household has also had to get creative while working and attending school from home. Farnsworth said being stuck at home often looked like her partner, with more spare time to fill, playing video games in one room, and her working or finishing homework in another.

Working as a paralegal at the Lummi Nation’s Office of the Reservation Attorney in the child welfare department, Farnsworth had quickly learned that in order to become a clerk or an attorney, she would need a bachelor’s degree. Having attended SVC in 2002 after graduating high school, Farnsworth said returning with new aspirations in 2018 was a full-circle moment.

Over the last two years, Farnsworth attended online and in person classes as part of the college’s applied management hybrid program, which allowed her to keep a full-time job while completing her degree. 

“I knew that getting into this program was going to give me more options,” Farnsworth said. “I knew that having that piece of paper, that diploma, makes you [eligible] to earn more, even at my current job.” 

Benefits in online learning

When Gov. Jay Inslee implemented the Stay Home Stay Healthy order in March, Farnsworth’s work and schooling moved completely online. Fewer in-person classes meant she could dedicate more time to assisting attorneys who needed extra help as a result of the pandemic. Farnsworth said in her experience, virtual classes benefited her work and her learning in some ways.

“There were some silver linings,” Farnsworth said. “I almost felt like there was a benefit to being able to talk face-to-face with my professor [over Zoom] without the distraction of other students.” 

While her professors had already utilized programs like Slack and Office 365 for online learning, Farnsworth said the pandemic forced her to perfect her virtual communication skills, which translated directly to her career. 

Mikale Milne, a member of the Aleut Tribe who graduated from Northwest Indian College this spring, said that the college, like many schools, wasn’t prepared to move all classes online with such short notice. For the first few weeks of spring quarter, his professors were experimenting with how to best teach their classes in an online format. 

Milne said without a webcam on his computer, he’d often multitask while attending virtual class lectures and make meals while listening to the lessons. 

For Farnsworth there are still some downsides to a virtual education, like not having a traditional, in-person commencement ceremony, but she’s glad a program like Zoom still allowed her class to celebrate their graduation face-to-face.

In Rutz’s case, before Western officially announced that commencement would be moved online, she prepared for the worst.

“I was mentally preparing myself the entire time,” Rutz said, “but I was still devastated.”

Having attended and celebrated several friends’ graduation ceremonies, Rutz said she couldn’t help but feel disappointed that she wouldn’t get the same opportunity. Even though her family prepared a celebration of their own, without walking across the graduation stage and hearing her name called amongst other graduates, something just feels missing, Rutz said. When she remembers that she graduated, it almost doesn’t feel real.

Milne said Northwest Indian College’s virtual graduation ceremony was also much different than he anticipated, but having never experienced another commencement ceremony, he doesn’t have much to compare it to. Milne said as he was preparing to graduate, he also had to deal with the stress of moving out of the dorms, since NWIC had to close its campus shortly after graduation.

While the pandemic disrupted nearly every aspect of his final quarter of college, including moving his Native Environment Studies capstone presentation online, Milne said his work has gone largely unchanged. During his time at NWIC, Milne worked at the Salish Sea Research Center (SSRC) through a work study program and was offered a position as a lab technician when he graduated. 

Now, he splits his time between the SSRC and one of Whatcom County’s COVID-19 testing centers. Suited up in layers of personal protection equipment, Milne carefully extracts COVID-19 swab tests from vials and tests for COVID-19 DNA in a lab. 

“It can definitely be stressful knowing that one of these tests is probably going to be positive,” Milne said.

Moving on

Although Milne enjoys his work and is thankful to be employed, he is hopeful he will be able to move forward with other plans soon. 

Before the pandemic, Milne planned to move to Canada where his girlfriend currently lives. Before the borders closed, Milne said he traveled back and forth to visit frequently. Now, they can only have short visits about once a week at Peace Arch, a park on the border between Canada and the United States.

“You can go to Peace Arch Park any day of the week and find couples and families and friends, all just hanging out. Then you’ll see them make their goodbyes at the end of the day.” 

Milne said the most challenging aspects of the pandemic have been the uncertainty and knowing that even though his girlfriend lives less than an hour away, they can’t yet move forward with their plans. 

“My life is pretty much in limbo,” Milne said. “It’s not bad though. I have a job and I can afford to pay my rent, but pretty much everything from here on out is just a waiting game, a long waiting game. I guess the worst part is that there is no end date that I can look forward to.” 

Since graduating, the pandemic has given Rutz time to reconsider her future goals.

“I’ve been thinking about what I want with my life,” Rutz said. “Through all of that thinking, [I realized] I don’t actually think I want to do what I went to school for.” 

Rather than teaching English abroad, she now aspires to open her own karaoke business in Bellingham. Looking toward the future and reimagining the possibilities is empowering, Rutz said. In the meantime, she’s starting a customer service position at the Cash App mobile payment service in October.

The day after graduation, Farnsworth applied to the University of Oklahoma’s School of Law and was accepted soon after. Now, while still working full time, she is working toward her master’s degree in Legal Studies of Indigenous Peoples. 

“The pandemic is hopefully a temporary situation … your life can’t stop,” Farnsworth said. “You have to evolve, you have to find ways to live your life and just thrive.”

Stella Harvey graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in journalism and women, gender and sexuality studies. She grew up in Seattle, and aspires to be a local government reporter and investigative journalist.