For the class of 2020, it's time to don caps and gowns after a two year wait
Getty Images / Alexi Rosenfeld

Two years after Covid shuttered college campuses two years ago, many 2020 graduates are finally returning to their alma maters this month to claim what the pandemic initially denied them: a chance to walk across a stage, “Pomp and Circumstance” playing in the background, and formally mark the beginning of a new phase.

“Because our senior year was cut short by the pandemic and we were left teetering on the edge of that chapter, it never fully closed,” says Emmett Chen-Ran, a 2020 graduate from Yale who attended a makeup commencement in mid-May.

Despite that lack of closure, a lot has changed for these graduates in the years since they left school and started their first post-college jobs. They may have gained new skills, found new mentors, and gotten promoted. Some have already moved on to new companies, or even new career paths. And as they return to college campuses to finally don caps and gowns, they have some words of wisdom to the graduating seniors about to join them in the working world.

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Below, four 2020 graduates who attended makeup ceremonies in recent months share the lessons they want to pass on to those who are preparing to enter the workforce for the first time. Their responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Emmett Chen-Ran, Yale graduate, engineer at a large tech company: Each role is a useful data point.

I’ve been at a big company this whole time, where the work-life balance is great and the bureaucracy is immense at first. I struggled with not making that much of an impact at work because my role is so small in the grand scheme of the whole organization.

To new grads, I’d say that it might feel like you’re not doing the most optimal thing in your career, but don’t be frustrated or impatient. Try out everything that comes your way, and you’ll eventually either decide that you are doing the right thing or that you have to pivot.

Tyler Binion, Duke graduate, associate consultant at software company Veeva Systems: Find an early-career program that focuses on learning.

Being in a program that’s dedicated to new grads has set me up for tremendous success. Even though we don’t have a syllabus or anything like that, we have a clear understanding of the skills and competencies that we need to gain by the time we finish the program, versus initially going into a job and having to figure out everything that you need to know by trial and error.

It gives you a safe space to make mistakes and ask questions. You have a little caution sticker around you that says, ‘Okay, she’s a full-time employee, she’s in this role, but she’s also in a program. So let’s try to give her different things to see what she’s good at and to see what she might need practice with.’ The focus is on your development, so there’s more patience from everyone around you too.

Also, while working remotely, it was daunting at first to reach out to people and make conversation. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to make friends at work, but because the development program had those happy hours and workshop sessions, there were always opportunities to connect with peers.

Hannah Chosid, University of Michigan graduate, marketing and design associate at a nonprofit that works to reduce gender-based violence: You can always quit.

“I decided to leave my first job, which felt really scary to quit. It felt like I was letting people down, but it was the right thing for me. I am someone who always advocates for going after what you want. It’s hard for me to follow my own advice sometimes, but I’m proud of myself for doing that.

When you start your first job, it feels extremely important. You feel like you’re trapped into this career that you picked at age 22—that’s just not the case. One of my good friends gave me advice that I really appreciated, which was to give yourself grace with your first job because it’s not forever. It can be really hard in the moment, but you’ll learn so much along the way.”

Maria Peterson, Macalester College graduate, special education substitute teacher and historical interpreter: Look at how the job affects the rest of your life.

“Your working life can be different than what you wanted it to be in order to enrich the other parts of your life. I don’t want to say that your job is not a part of your identity, because it is, but it’s just one part..

My idea of what my career was going to look like completely changed because of Covid. I was enrolled in a grad-school program and ended up pulling out because of their response to Covid. I started working instead and didn’t end up going to grad school, and that changed the way I think about my life plan.

For one thing, I’m not thinking that far ahead anymore. I used to think that I would become a special-education teacher, do the same thing for my whole life, and I would be set. Now that I have launched into this unpredictable workforce, unpredictable economy, and unpredictable global-health situation, what I am looking for is adaptability and agency within whatever career I have. I’m allowing myself to think outside of the box that I had constructed earlier and imagine different careers through which I can achieve my goals and use the skills that I have.”

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