Graduating Into a Global Crisis
Ruby Wlaschin gives a Tedx Talk at University of Edinburgh in 2018.

Graduating Into a Global Crisis

50 job applications; zero offers. How the pandemic job market is prompting one college grad to reexamine her five year plan.

I’m staring down my blinking spacebar on yet another blank Microsoft Word document, trying to draw up an image of who I am going to be in this particular cover letter. I am wearing a sweatshirt and my soft grey sweatpants with skulls and crossbones on them—my ‘très chic’ quarantine uniform. On my lunch break I watch a YouTube video on how to hand tuft a rug, preparing myself to pick up one more side hustle in case yet another job application falls through. When I return, I attach the completed cover letter to the application and hit “next.” A prompt pops up: “describe yourself in 3 words” it says. As a recent graduate of the University of Edinburgh, a political organizer, and an artist, there are many directions I could take to answer this. I stare at the job title, “Administrative Coordinator,” and squirm trying to think of something true yet applicable. I thought I had the strongest sense of self over anyone that I know, why am I finding this question so hard? Where did my direction go?

In 2019, I liked the way that “2020” sounded epic—my graduation year, the start of my enrollment in the MSc Environmental Policy program at the London School of Economics, the time for new adventures. Then came the pandemic, and I had to sit back and watch as the things that I had spent so long planning for changed rapidly, dramatically. I finished a 45-page dissertation in isolation, had my graduation cancelled, moved across the world back home to my parents’ house in St. Paul and put grad school, and my plans to move to London, on hold. So, when I began searching for jobs here in July, I couldn’t help but feel like I was stepping off my path. Five year plan, who?

I haven’t lived in the Twin Cities for more than a summer for four years. I haven’t even lived in the United States in that time. Four years of reputation building, networking and community organizing no longer means as much as it did in Scotland. Here, no one knows or remembers who I am, in a time where having a lush network is a prime competitive advantage. If I have learned anything in these past few months it’s that without the proverbial “connections,” all of those resumes, cover letters, portfolios and writing samples are shot into the void. It isn’t as if I’ve gone from riches to rags, but I would certainly say I have been royally humbled.

Currently, I have submitted over 50 applications, from part-time barista positions to full time project manager openings. In the two and a half months I have been in the job market, I have had one offer of interview and only four other responses—all rejections.

Currently, I have submitted over 50 applications, from part-time barista positions to full time project manager openings. In the two and a half months I have been in the job market, I have had one offer of interview and only four other response—all rejections. Keep in mind that most of these positions required cover letters, so when you add it all up it’s as if I’ve written yet another dissertation—this time exclusively about myself and the various recipients of my letters. In submitting all of these forms and emails and resumes and writing samples and cover letters, I knew that statistically, I should expect plenty of rejection. That was fine for me, I have never feared rejection, at least in a professional sense. What I failed to anticipate is the onset of a new fear—the fear of hearing nothing back. Deep down I know why my response rate is so low. From my 9 to 5 patrolling of LinkedIn I’ve noticed that mere hours after a job is posted, there is sometimes already over 100 applicants. Even if my Premium membership tells me that I’m in the top 25 percent of applicants, that’s still often 30 other people that I’m up against. In these conditions, those 30 are likely people that were laid off during the pandemic—people from senior-level positions, people with experience. I know this all stems from a frankly barren job market that has buckled under the weight of the pandemic, and which experts have projected has only just begun to slow, estimating that the economy is on the verge of entering an even weaker phase. However, despite understanding this, I can’t help but take it personally. Even with my plethora of legal, political and creative internships, social activism, teaching experience and a TEDx talk, I’m still just a 23-year-old new graduate who is too far removed from the service industry to get a job as a barista and too new of a graduate to effectively compete against everyone else going for the same jobs.

I will not lie to you, I am exhausted, heartbroken, and terrified. I am months into this process, and I feel as though I am being consumed by emptiness. I have done everything by the book and more than that, I even started customizing my resumes for different positions. I can’t tell you that I am not hurt or that I don’t sometimes pity myself, because I am, and I do. I am learning how to actively balance those feelings against gratitude—gratitude that things are not worse for me, that I am able to hold tightly onto the idea that it will eventually be okay. I am grateful that I can still laugh. I am grateful to be surrounded by people who love me and continue to cheer me on as I navigate what may be in the realm of worst-case scenarios for recent graduates.

On a lighter note, when you’re submitting such a high volume of applications every day, you are bound to make mistakes. Whether its wishing someone a happy Thursday on a Monday morning or forgetting to type in a subject line—both of which I have done—I try to allow myself to laugh. Most recently I sent an email where I said in the text that I had attached my resume in case they had an opening for me. This is the email I received an hour later:

Hi Ruby,

Thanks for reaching out and all your kind words. Unfortunately, we have no open positions at this time. I will keep your resume on file if anything changes.

That’s when I realized I forgot to attach my resume.

It is moments like these where I have to take a second to breathe, laugh, or sometimes even scream, releasing the tension from my chest with full force. Before I pack it up and get over it though, I remind myself that I am human, and if I can, I apologize, correct my mistake, and cross my fingers. More than anything, this pandemic has become an opportunity for raw honesty.

I have begun to lose touch with my grasp on my otherwise unwavering authenticity. Instead of asking myself, “Who do you want to be?” the question has become, “Who do employers need you to be today?”

Then again, navigating how to present myself authentically has been a critical challenge of my pandemic job hunt. Job applications tend to be relatively inauthentic; you put together a well-packaged version of yourself and sell it to potential employers. What has cemented this conflict further is the barren job market, where you might find yourself trying to fit into a box that is too round or too square, too small or too big. I have learned how to become a chameleon, blending and shaping my scattered and diverse professional experiences into a single mold for each position I apply to. In doing so however, I have begun to lose touch with my grasp on my otherwise unwavering authenticity. Instead of asking myself, “Who do you want to be?” the question has become “Who do employers need you to be today?”

The struggle is that as I try to present myself as the perfect little package with all the perky yet professional attributes of young, ambitious graduates, our current reality demands that we become more comfortable with true authenticity. The remotely working world blurs the line between my personal and professional selves—we have all become increasingly intimate in our mutual condition, shared fears, and conflicts. When I think about it, I shouldn’t have any business being inauthentic when you can practically see the kind of sheets I sleep on through your Zoom screen.

In a global crisis like this, I guess you can expect for the personal to come spilling out from the seams in turbulent, deeply painful, and stressful ways. However, what I hadn’t anticipated is that this pandemic, and subsequently throwing myself into the chaos of the current job market, presented me with a new opportunity for self-discovery. I don’t mean learning a new language, becoming a guitarist or a baker or any of the self-improvement projects we all had our go of early into the pandemic. What I mean is that I can physically feel that I am sitting at what my high school English teacher would call my “critical juncture.” Losing my five year plan, redesigning my working life, and searching for jobs has left me at a crossroads. I could go anywhere from here. Our current predicament has forced me to look more closely and critically at those plans that I once had, and ask myself the question, “What is it that you really want? Who are you?”

For the time being, my answer to those questions is simply: I don’t know. With my diverse experiences and creative disposition, I am open to almost anything. I have begun to relinquish this obsession with controlling every facet of my life and instead have decided to see where life takes me. I am redefining who I am in this context, in this directionless, confusing, and uncertain world. If you were to ask me to describe myself in three words again, they would be:

Changing, learning, me.