“...to meditate on the value of their college experience…”
Marissa Carrere: As Lecturer for Junior Year Writing in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Legal Studies Program, I teach a unit on professionalization. We practice writing personal statements, resumes, and cover letters, and we talk about how to strategically prepare for success when applying to advanced degree programs or breaking into the career field. We also look unflinchingly at the challenges of being a college student in the 21st century. We explore the myths of meritocracy and the pressure to maximize one’s "human capital." We talk about the economic realities of student debt loads, stalled upward mobility, and credential inflation, and we weigh in on the policy debates around whether universities should be accountable for student outcomes.
By their junior and senior year, Legal Studies students are excellent at applying the tools of their social sciences degree to the systems they are personally navigating as young adults, and they are vocal about the inequities and precarcities they face as a generation. At the same time, I am always impressed by how fiercely defensive students are of their college educations. They possess a strong sense of the intrinsic value of higher learning and the experience of being a college student, unscathed by their economic and political critiques of higher ed as an institution. Watching them discover the balance of these competing ideas is always one of my favorite parts of the semester.
However, when Fall of 2020 came around, in remote learning and with the pandemic surging, I felt totally at a loss as to how to teach this unit. Would they care about critiques of unpaid internships, when internships had suddenly disappeared . . . and truly existential threats loomed? What would happen if I asked them to meditate on the value of their college experience . . . while vanquished to Zoom in their childhood bedrooms? How could I ask students to write resumes and prepare for their futures, when it was so unclear what the future could hold, or even when the future could begin?
As we enter a third semester in remote learning, I gathered several Legal Studies students to reflect on how the past year has affected the way they are thinking about their degrees and preparation for post-graduation plans. They generously share their perspectives below.
“...when we have been living the same day on repeat for a year…”
We’ll open with Alessandro Maviglia, who candidly describes how the pandemic shook his sense of time and purpose.
Alessandro Maviglia (‘21): Probably the most notable effect of the pandemic is how it has construed my sense of time. March feels like two months ago, and summer felt like a warm long weekend. The days seem to melt together in tie-dye-like fashion, obscuring the once-understandable art piece that is my memory into an unintelligible multi-colored sludge. The parts of life we as college students typically look forward to, whether that be handing your professor your essay that you labored tirelessly on, going to that fun party on a Friday evening, or simply meeting up with a friend at a dining hall. All segments in time that help to ground us in our reality. All opportunities for us to decompress and enjoy ourselves, vanished under an invisible threat that could be lurking within a potential friend or loved one. I’m reminded of their once age-old existence every morning waking up to the same day. The same activities. The same insecurity about the future. How are students supposed to look to the future with hope when we have been living the same day on repeat for a year?
As a legal studies major with more time at home, I have spent considerably more time glued to the television searching for something, anything indicating an end to this fever dream. As a legal studies major, what the TV had to show me was only depressing. The might of American law was not harnessed by the country to address the pandemic in terms of a national plan to combat the threat. Senators were caught scrambling to sell stocks while insisting that the future was bright. Racism and discrimination has ravaged the country. Our capitol was besieged, and federal officers took photos with domestic terrorists. In the last year my faith in the rule of law has been shaken to its core.
“...keeping my head up...”
Nicholas DeFranco and Liam Harney also describe a disruption to their sense of time, emphasizing the monotony and sense of indefinite “pause.” However--instructively--they each indicate how keeping their eyes trained on the long-term future has helped them overcome the challenge of the daily tempo of life.
Nicholas DeFranco (‘22): The only gripe I have about learning in the age of the coronavirus is the unprecedented boredom. While the work as a legal studies major has been consistent in quality with years prior, it is difficult to get past the procrastination and outright boredom felt throughout the semester to complete work on time and follow through with assignments. I cannot place my finger on a precise reason, but learning and completing assignments from home seems to have negatively affected students’ ambition and motivation.
However, I have managed to assuage the negative feelings of dread and boredom I felt earlier by keeping my head up and my eyes forward. The future I have planned is still shining bright, even though the world has endured one of the darkest years in recent memory. However blurry my goals may seem in the fog of dread and confusion, my plans and vision have not changed. If anything, this pandemic has strengthened my conviction to work as hard as I can and become the person I envision. My plans to join the Coast Guard after college and work simultaneously on my law degree have not changed. Of course, my future could change in the future, but for the time being, I still have a confident long-term plan, and this pandemic has not sowed doubt.
Liam Harney (‘22): When this all started, I was very unhappy that so much of my life had to be put on hold because of things out of my control; my academic experience, my legal internships, living away from home. An internship at my university’s student legal service center would have been a great way for me to see how I enjoy legal work in a professional environment. I may still be able to do it in the future, but the pandemic has delayed my ability to get an early look at the career I’m working toward. However, I have also found opportunities that I would not have, had the year progressed as planned. I was always going to work between the semesters, but if we hadn’t been doing online classes, I would never have accepted the job that I’m currently at. I live and work with a college friend, providing care for three people with autism. I’m not learning a lot about law, but I am learning how to chop wood, manage a paycheck, and cook for five people at once. The skills I am obtaining thanks to this job may not be exactly what I had expected, but it's not for nothing. I have gotten back my independence, which is extremely valuable to me. And I can confidently say that I have made the most of a horrible year, which makes me proud. Not every step I take in life has to be perfectly efficient. As long as I’m pointed in the right direction, I know things will work out.
“...I scrambled to keep myself busy…”
Going to battle against the structurelessness of the here-and-now, time emerges as a dominant theme also for Sara Abdelouahed. And, remarkably, she has managed to develop a full schedule of university and professionalizing activities, all through her laptop.
Sara Abdelouahed (‘22): In the spring of 2020, I was interning in Boston and living at UMass’ Mount Ida campus in Newton, Massachusetts. After the pandemic sent me back home to my parent’s house, managing my free time became difficult, but for a surprising reason: there were not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that I wanted to do. I was shocked. Where did this sudden motivation to be productive 24/7 come from?
It dawned on me that I really didn’t like “free time” in the way that I used to, pre-pandemic. Remote learning did not have an end time - the assignments were always weighing on me long past my final Zoom call. Whenever I tried to unwind, I was reminded of the fact that I was 20 years old, spending my junior year of college in my shared high school bedroom. The lack of privacy and independence took its toll on me, and I scrambled to keep myself busy. I needed to stay productive in order to feel like I was still moving in the right direction with my collegiate career.
Now, at the start of 2021, I find myself registered as a full-time student with three remote internships and three executive board positions for university clubs. Is it a bad idea? It’s too soon to tell. But with my newfound time management skills and motivation to succeed when the odds are stacked against me, I am approaching the challenge confidently.
“...anyone is bound to feel more apprehensive…”
Helly Patel and Clare Lonsdale both graduated into the pandemic economy, and report on how they are navigating uncertainties.
Helly Patel (‘20): As the world went remote, applying to law school became even more competitive and intimidating. On a digital law school forum in the fall of 2020, the Dean of Admissions at BC Law informed us that at his particular law school, similar to others, applications have increased 80% in comparison to the previous year. With such knowledge, anyone is bound to feel more apprehensive about the whole process. After graduating in May of 2020, I applied to many internships and jobs alike in the legal field, until I received an offer from a domestic violence agency I previously interned at. I was lucky, as we are all aware of the insinuation that law schools condemn any form of discontinuity on your resume.
As a double major in Political Science and Legal Studies, I was able to use the skills I acquired to create a competitive law school application to the best of my ability, but the truth remains the pandemic has created a lot more unpredictability. This sentiment is shared by a lot of my peers as we are working on applications physically separated from the resources usually available, taking the LSAT from us inside our homes, and communicating with professors and mentors via technology. Today, as I wait for my decision letters, I am left with additional questions and concerns about the long-term consequences of the pandemic along with the existing uncertainty of constructing a lucrative legal career.
Clare Lonsdale (‘21): My experience has been one of rethinking and rerouting. This time last year, I was trying to apply to internships that would hopefully lead to a job in Human Resources. I had chosen HR not really as a career path per se but as a way to gain employment after graduation and avoid working in the service industry as I did in high school. My first interview was actually over Zoom at the beginning of Spring Break 2020, right as the pandemic hit. I didn’t get an HR internship, but shortly afterwards I was offered at a job at the local Alzheimer’s nonprofit where I had worked previously. I’ll be working there after graduation, during my gap year. I’ve never really known what I wanted to do after college, which I think is a pretty universal feeling for college students. But the pandemic made me realize I needed to seriously pursue an interest that I have had since I started college-- healthcare reform-- as it is needed in this country.
“...to get out of college quickly...to stay in higher education forever.”
For Becca Gullotto, the pandemic prompted her to rethink the path to graduation, for herself and for others.
Becca Gullotto (‘21): In 2018, my friend whispered to me that she was going to try to graduate early. It was the second week of our first semester of college, and we were sitting in an introductory lecture with 300 people. The thought of graduation seemed so far away. I told her she was crazy for trying to get it all done in 3 years. I was excited for college; I did not want to rush it in the slightest. Why would she want to miss out on the college experience? And no I don't mean that college experience, like partying and the dining hall with your friends (not completely at least); I mean the learning part. I wanted ample time to complete internships, create relationships with professors and mentors, to network, and to really understand why I was in college and what I wanted to do.
Then the pandemic happened and I started to look into how I could shave off any costs. I'm paying for college completely through student loans and I started to worry that four years of college might mean a lifetime of debt. Graduating into a recession might lessen my job opportunities. My parents have always told me that everyone will have student loans and that I should just focus on getting my education, but the pandemic has forced these worries to the forefront of my mind. It’s ironic that I’m now trying to get out of college quickly, because my career plan is actually to stay in higher education forever. I want to use my undergraduate Legal Studies degree to pursue a Masters in Higher Ed, to make a difference in college access and equity, because everyone deserves a shot at education--without having to worry about crippling debt.
Three years ago I tried to talk my friend out of cramming her college degree into just three years. Now we'll be at the same Zoom graduation ceremony this Spring.
“...as faculty we will have to respond to reverberating effects…”
Marissa Carrere: With vaccination on the horizon, my hope is that by the time I figure out how to confidently teach professionalizing in a pandemic, it will no longer be relevant. However, as faculty we will have to keep developing ways to understand and respond to reverberating effects, as we welcome a coming generation of students who will have spent a significant portion of their developmental years in remote learning and under the collective trauma of Covid-19, with social, emotional, and academic consequences that we do not yet know how to measure.
The optimistic version of myself wants to believe that--in all these challenges--there is an opportunity to address some of the problems that my students could so incisively identify in the pre-pandemic experience of being a college student and aspiring young professional. Having lived through such wide disruptions to what once seemed an unstoppable pace of resume-building and self-optimization, perhaps we can rethink the ways students are pressured to be on the right timeline and hit ever-receding goalposts. Having seen social inequities so starkly lit by how the pandemic has affected different communities, perhaps we can even more powerfully deconstruct the myths around merit and personal achievement. And having mourned the loss of our time together on campus, perhaps we can reaffirm the value of higher education as a full humanist experience, that is not only about success and attainment, but is also about development of the whole person, in community with others.