As director of career development at a women’s college, I have the privilege of working with students as they plan their way to post-graduate life. It’s pure joy watching them puzzle through a seemingly endless sea of options to find a pathway that gives them a sense of purpose in the world. My colleagues and I were on this same annual pilgrimage with members of the Class of 2020, and then the whole world seemed to bottom out.
I have seen this kind of confusion and fear before. More than a decade ago, after the economic crisis of 2008, I heard similar frail voices expressing doubt about the future.
In the weeks after our campus closed this March, I reached out to those former students I had worked with and asked them for help. The class of 2008—The Great ’08s—rallied. In just one day, I had a panel of alumnae eager to give hope to the 2020s who are following in their footsteps.
In 2008, many students graduated only to find job offers rescinded after the market crashed. The family couch became a popular post-graduation destination. Faced with this landscape, they could have just sat there wallowing in self-pity and despair. But they didn’t. They got creative. Scrappy and tenacious, they found little sparks of possibility that opened up new opportunities.
Here are four lessons all of us—most especially the class of 2020—can learn from them:
1. There’s no shame in a patchwork quilt of experience
Many of the ’08s operated their own gig economy long before the idea went mainstream. Some took paid internships or short-term projects. Others pursued jobs in industries they knew were hiring, and some volunteered at nonprofits or took a year for service so they could give to their communities. These choices didn’t leave The Great ’08 professionally stuck. Once the economy opened up and more opportunities became available, it was not hard for them to transition to a field that was more of a true calling.
Little gigs strung together are absolutely fine. They are a pattern of little successes that serve to keep you going—and forward movement is always better than standing still. One alumna from ‘08 sidelined her passion for international affairs to work two jobs: one overseeing advertising inserts at a newspaper company and the other working as a paralegal for a large city union. Now a consultant, one of her first projects was on labor unions, due to her experience in that area.
A patchwork quilt of experiences also provides an important narrative. Being able to tell the story of how you persisted and cobbled jobs together makes a very compelling story to tell future employers, to yourself, and maybe to another generation of students that follows you.
2. Now, about graduate school….
A lot of ’08s sidelined their professional pursuits for graduate school. For some, this was a good option. Graduate degrees are great for people who know why they are pursuing them. However, jumping into graduate school simply because one doesn’t know what else to do with their time can be a bad idea. Some pursue advanced degrees only to find themselves in greater debt and ultimately not wanting to do the thing their degree set them up to do. Taking time to work and hone your professional focus is a critical step in the process of knowing when to attend graduate school.
3. Yes, there’s the networking thing
Building a professional circle around you is important. Members of the class of 2020 should not hesitate to reach out to alums from their school working in fields that are of interest to them. But they should do so gingerly. Many of us are navigating illness, furloughs, layoffs, or other challenges brought on by the pandemic. This should not stop you from reaching out, but you should lead from a place of empathy. “I hope this finds you healthy. The world is so hard right now. I’d love to talk with you about your own experience having navigated this when you graduated if you have a little time” is a gentle way to see if someone is willing to talk with you.
4. Be resourceful and build a strong community around you
The ’08s taught me a lot about this. Good friends are essential to lean on when the world is harsh. We are not alone; others are feeling the same fears, frustrations, and self-doubt during this crisis. Leaning on one another to commiserate, to find relief in one another’s stories, to just be, to celebrate the small victories, and to share ideas for how to get through this is critically important.
There is no doubt that the class of 2020 is resilient. You have already proven that to us. Now it’s time to take the lessons from The Great ’08 and forge ahead. Be open to pathways you didn’t expect. Be creative. Take little steps. Small victories are really important right now. Take it from The Great ’08: It won’t be easy. It will take some hustle and patience, and it likely won’t unfold in a neat, obvious way. But you are not alone. The Great ‘08s, and indeed the whole world, are cheering for you.
Stacie Hagenbaugh is the director of the Lazarus Center for Career Development at Smith College.