‘I don’t know what I’m going to do’: College grads face career setbacks amid the pandemic

Alexis Aviles, 22, had it all planned out. The recent University of Richmond graduate was going to move to Chicago and pursue a job with a nonprofit.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Quarantined with her family in her native New Orleans, Aviles, a first-generation college student, is taking a gap year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps as she worries about her long-term job prospects.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Aviles said. “Now, I’m taking the LSAT to see if [law school] is a more viable path then entering the job market right away, because the economy might need more time to heal before I get a job.”

Alexis Aviles on the campus of the University of Richmond in Virginia.Courtesy of Alexis Aviles

Young Latino college grads like Aviles are confronting a brutally tough landscape as the country reels from coronavirus closings and job losses. But the sheer number of young Latinos in the U.S. means their employment and career setbacks can’t be seen in a vacuum.

Latinos are one of the youngest racial or ethnic groups in the country, with around 1 million turning 18 this year and every year for at least the next two decades. They were children when their parents’ generation lost 66 percent of their household wealth after the Great Recession. Now a pandemic has hit, and it threatens the earning potential and prospects of a significant component of the U.S. workforce.

“Their careers and how they do over the long term will have financial and economic implications for the country,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of global migration and demography research at the Pew Research Center.

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At the same time, Latinos have been among those hardest hit by the pandemic. A Pew Research survey conducted in mid-March — when the coronavirus was starting to affect some regions around the U.S. — found that almost half (49 percent) of U.S. Latinos said they or someone in their households had taken pay cuts, lost jobs or both, compared to around a third of all U.S. adults.

Among younger Latinos ages 18 to 29, the figure was higher, with over half (53 percent) being affected by job cuts or job losses in mid-March.

Since then, the situation has worsened; a more recent Latino Decisions poll found that 60 percent of Latinos had either lost jobs or had had their hours or pay cut.

‘I’m trying to remain hopeful’

Vanessa Quiles, 21, was prepared to land a job after graduating from the Otis College of Art and Design. She majored in architecture at the school in her hometown, Los Angeles, and her plan was to get a good job and save up money to pay back her college loans — until the pandemic hit.

Quiles was looking forward to her college’s annual exhibit, where graduating seniors can network and showcase their portfolios to potential employers; over the years, students have been hired on the spot. This year, it was changed to a virtual event.

“I was really bummed when they said it had to be canceled due to health regulations, but it’s understandable,” Quiles said. For her, the job-hunting process has become a difficult experience.

“Many places have stopped hiring, either taken down job applications that were posted or I’ve heard that a lot of people are getting laid off from smaller firms that may not have a lot of projects coming in,” she said. “I’m trying to remain hopeful.”

According to a Pew Research survey conducted in April, only about 30 percent of Latinos say they have rainy day or emergency funds that could pay the bills for three months if they lost their jobs.

“All of these things are really lining up to show Hispanics are more worried than the general public,” Lopez said. “All of this speaks to how challenging the situation has been for Latinos. But again, this was not just because of COVID. This was already something in place beforehand, which is something important to keep in mind.”

Although the overwhelming majority of young Latinos are U.S.-born — 94 percent of those under 18 — the pandemic has hit immigrant communities especially hard, including young Latinos who came to the U.S. at young ages.

Luis Garcia, a student in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, is graduating from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.Courtesy of Luis Garcia

Some, like Luis Garcia, 23, are in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, and have been able to pursue their educations. But the pandemic has upended plans and made things more uncertain. After graduating from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Garcia was planning to do a summer research project in chemistry after getting a grant that would pay for the opportunity. Then he would find a job and, ultimately, go to graduate school.

Now, his school’s research opportunity has been canceled, and he’s trying to find a job in New Jersey. “Both being Latino and undocumented, honestly, it hits hard,” Garcia said. “I don’t have insurance, so, at some point, I’m like, I don’t know what happens. I might get sick.”

Help with finances, internships

In high school, Garcia was part of the Princeton University Preparatory Program, or PUPP, which provides guidance and resources for mostly Latino high-achieving high school students from low-income households as they seek to enroll in prestigious colleges.

During the pandemic, PUPP created an emergency family support fund that is available to its current high school students, as well as “alumni” like Garcia.

Colleges known as Hispanic-Serving Institutions, where at least a quarter of students are Latino, have been looking at strategies to help students after they graduate.

In Texas, the Alamo Colleges District — which won the 2019 outstanding member institution award from the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities — has posted information on the emergency aid that is available to students, including those who graduated this semester, through the federal CARES Act. The district in San Antonio, which has a Latino student population of over 60 percent, offers a financial relief program that includes a $300 one-time payment to eligible students. It also created a student impact fund for those needing temporary assistance to make up for losses in wages or to pay other expenses, like groceries, rent and access to technology or health care.

A significant setback of the pandemic is the loss of crucial internships for graduates, which are often steppingstones to permanent jobs or careers.

“Four million just graduated this past weekend, and they’re entering one of the worst job markets in history,” said Carlos Mark Vera, co-founder of the nonprofit Pay Our Interns. Vera is a former unpaid intern at the White House and in Congress, and his group successfully worked to secure paid internships in Congress. Now, he worries about the impact on Latino graduates.

“I think our community really should be sounding the alarm to this, because this will disproportionately impact those in our communities, especially those that are first-gen,” Vera said. “We don’t have the same network as our white counterparts. We don’t have the same amount of wealth to subsidize our children.”

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Pay Our Interns has partnered with Symba, an internship management platform, to create the #SaveInternships campaign. Its goal is to provide stipends up to $1,500 for every qualifying applicant and to push companies to create remote internship opportunities, especially for graduating seniors.

Quiles said that as she looks for a job, she’s focusing on what she can.

“I think that my top priority is making sure I stay healthy,” Quiles said, “so I keep my family healthy.”

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