Before the pandemic started, Claira Janover ’20 said her post-graduation plans were essentially set in stone. The fall prior, she had accepted a job in management consulting, which she would start full-time after graduation. She planned to eventually attend graduate school.
Then, Covid-19 hit. Janover, alongside the rest of Harvard’s student body, was evicted from campus amid the escalating public health crisis. The Class of 2020 graduated from home, scattered across the world, instead of together in Tercentenary Theatre. A year later, the Class of 2021 would do the same.
In the chaos of the pandemic, Janover took a semester off, went viral on social media — which led her company to rescind her job offer — and worked for the Biden campaign. She traveled, discovered new hobbies, and is now employed at a startup.
“I know for a fact that had the pandemic not happened, I would have just immediately graduated, gone into the corporate world, continued that lifestyle,” Janover said. “A lot of my life changed for the worse during the pandemic, but there were so many silver linings.”
For most graduates, the transition into the real world, even without the pressures of a pandemic, can be daunting. The added factor of Covid-19 meant that some students began graduate school online, while others entered a remote workforce or had to cancel travel plans.
The Crimson interviewed 12 alumni from the Classes of 2020 and 2021 about their experiences graduating into an ongoing pandemic. As they encountered the precarity of life outside Harvard, graduates were also forced to rapidly adapt to the realities of a pandemic-ridden world.
The proportion of College graduates pursuing further academic studies dipped slightly from the pre-pandemic average of 17 percent to just 14 percent for the Classes of 2020 and 2021, per data from Harvard’s Office of Career Services.
Due to the pandemic, students among that 14 percent encountered a radically different experience than years past.
Daniel K. Ragheb ’20, who started at Vanderbilt Medical School in person, said the pandemic provided “a good learning opportunity.” He was given the option to care for patients with Covid-19, lending him a “unique perspective” on the health crisis.
“Their thinking, I believe, was along the lines of, ‘This is a medical pandemic and you’re coming to be medical professionals,’” Ragheb said. “‘Come learn, come help us in the hospitals, take the necessary precautions, but we’re not going to be changing our timing.’”
While Ragheb said he was able to have a typical clinical experience, he noted that the social dynamics of attending grad school during a pandemic posed challenges.
“You’ve done a full year of this very intensive, rigorous program for 96 students,” Ragheb said, “and at the end of the year, you haven’t seen some of the faces without masks.”
Matthew Thomas ’21 is finishing a masters degree in education through the Harvard Teacher Fellows program, which enables him to teach at a local elementary school while taking classes at the Harvard Graduate School of Education — an experience he said has been particularly meaningful during the pandemic.
“Covid, in that sense, was just another reminder of how important relationships are and face to face interaction is for everyone,” Thomas said. “Especially with younger kids who are still developing in so many important ways, both as learning minds, but also just as social human beings.”
Shivani R. Aggarwal ’21, who is studying the philosophy and sociology of medicine through a fellowship, said she was “very much looking forward” to postgraduate studies as a way to regain the years of in-person education stolen by Zoom school.
“I hoped to experience some of what I had lost,” she said. “I was definitely soaking up all I could in my classes here but also really appreciating that it was finally a normal campus experience.”
Some students graduated Harvard into a starkly different corporate world than the one they may have imagined when first applying to jobs.
Danica Y. Gutierrez ’20, who accepted a position as a software engineer during her senior year, said she had job security concerns due to the evolving nature of the pandemic.
“I was still considering other offers and some of them did have a hiring freeze. Some of the offers that I had, they were postponed,” Gutierrez said. “There was definitely that uncertainty.”
Diego A. Garcia ’20 wrote in an email that he found it “nerve wracking” when his job’s start date was pushed to August of 2020.
“I couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t suddenly rescind my offer because of economic downturn,” he wrote.
For Hayoung E. Ahn ’20, that fear came true when her job offer at a marketing firm was rescinded.
“It was such a crazy time, and I was devastated,” wrote Ahn, a former Crimson magazine editor.
After reentering the job search, Ahn was hired for a research position at the University of Chicago. She wrote that her redirection has helped her start a “life-enriching chapter.”
Noah S. DiAntonio ’21 said he had originally considered applying to international fellowships, but the ongoing pandemic led him to stay within the United States. He applied to “dozens” of nonprofits jobs in the Los Angeles area but ultimately received just one offer.
“So many organizations, especially nonprofit organizations, were hurting and were not in a space to be either hiring or taking on the risk of taking on someone with little experience straight out of college,” he said.
Emanuel “Manny” Contomanolis, who directs the OCS, wrote in an emailed statement that while the pandemic had “some impact” on the job search for Harvard graduates, results were largely “quite positive” and in line with previous years.
“The Class of 2020 was faced with a weaker overall job market, delayed job start times, and onboarding into predominantly virtual work settings,” Contomanolis wrote. “Many had to apply to more positions and wait longer to secure their desired work arrangements than would normally be the case.”
The Class of 2021 “fared well” amid a “rapidly heating job market,” while the Class of 2022 seems to also be experiencing a strong job market, Contomanolis added.
Flora J. DiCara ’20 said it was difficult getting acclimated to a new job while living thousands of miles from the office.
“It’s a bit more challenging to get a sense of what norms and expectations are when you’re not just always automatically learning through osmosis,” DiCara said of remote work. “I had never considered working from home, ever. And it certainly wasn’t my ideal scenario.”
During his first job, Garcia “never stepped foot in the office,” he wrote. He has since returned to in-person work at a new job, an arrangement he much prefers.
Still, some alums said the pandemic prompted discussions about the value of remote work. Gutierrez said the ability to work from home has been a “blessing.”
“It really challenged the way we think about work-life balance,” Gutierrez said. “A lot of people nowadays will think about that before taking a job: How flexible is this job? Am I able to work from home or from any other places? What kind of measures are in place in order to take care of employees?”
Some alumni, like Janover, have followed more unconventional routes post-graduation.
Janover said she discovered a passion for the outdoors during the pandemic. She applied for a travel fellowship to backpack around the world.
“My love for the environment and nature began in Covid actually, because nature was the only recluse or escape from the realities of a very shut-down world,” she said.
Meanwhile, Ahn said she picked up new hobbies during the pandemic, including rock climbing, graphic design, film photography, and cooking. She also began volunteering remotely for mental health organizations.
“I hoped that I could support others who were struggling during this time,” Ahn wrote. “I just wanted to contribute and make a difference in a time when everything felt far from normal.”
Justin Tseng ’21, who is pursuing a masters in classics at the University of Cambridge, said he has enjoyed traveling around Europe. Though Tseng said the constantly evolving health conditions are sometimes stressful, he has found some locales to be less crowded than usual.
“A lot of sites and places that you think are going to be super touristy, super crowded, haven't been — because of Covid,” Tseng said. “It’s kind of eerie.”
Kayla R. McConnaha ’20 said she worked as a Covid contact tracer in the year after graduation, a job which combined her undergraduate studies in global health with her interest in medicine.
In 2021, McConnaha married her longtime partner in a ceremony with Covid precautions, which she said “luckily” fell during a time of low case counts.
“Covid definitely brought with it a lot of challenges regarding the wedding, especially given what I was doing and the fact that I was a contact tracer,” McConnaha said. “I was seeing everyday the consequences that large-scale events could have on individuals and families.”
Now, one or two years after they left Harvard for a world marred by Covid, nearly 90 percent of the Classes of 2020 and 2021 are planning to formally say goodbye to campus during in-person Commencement exercises this month.
“We’re all graduated, and we’ve all kind of scattered all over the place,” Tseng said. “It’s kind of hard to get everyone back together and have a nice reunion, but I think that’s why Commencement this year is going to be quite nice.”
For many graduates, though the pandemic created challenges, it also offered unexpected benefits.
DiCara, a triplet, said she was able to move back home with her two sisters who had been attending different schools since childhood.
“We’d never spent that much time together since middle school. And so that was a really unique opportunity that I certainly wouldn’t have gotten without Covid,” she said.
Socially, Thomas said the pandemic made it easier to sustain long-distance friendships after graduation.
“It became really normal to maintain and keep close friendships across long distances and so has made the transition to postgrad feel not that different in some ways,” Thomas said. “That was one silver lining — getting a chance ahead of time to practice or just to nurture those friendships.”
Leaving campus early also helped some alums understand their identity outside the Harvard bubble.
Aggarwal said entering a world jolted by Covid reminded her she was “not just a Harvard student” but also a part of “larger communities.”
“It was just a really, really big reminder to engage with things outside of the Harvard community and realize our place in broader society and bigger causes beyond ourselves,” Thomas said.
—Staff writer Katherine M. Burstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kmburstein1.
—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.