Why college officials think COVID made the Class of 2023 uniquely prepared for the workforce

Dexter Maryland didn’t always find it easy to communicate with his Texas Southern University classmates and professors, even after the COVID-19 restrictions lifted.

He is chatty and naturally genial, but roughly a year of online instruction made virtual interaction feel like the default. If it weren’t for a couple summer internships, he might not be as prepared for the fellowship he’ll begin after graduation this month, when he leaves behind an undergraduate experience immersed in the pandemic and little else.

“You tend to get comfortable,” said Maryland, who served as TSU’s student body president. “I had to get out of it … I literally had to learn to just communicate the little things. I’m still growing with that.”

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The trials of COVID, as well as the hybrid format it forced on universities and their students, made the Class of 2023 a special group. They had one regular semester before coronavirus hit in spring 2020, closing campuses and sending students online. The next three years took place in a radically different environment, where students prepared for an uncertain, quickly evolving workforce.

Texas Southern University senior Dexter Maryland cleans out his apartment on Friday, May 12, 2023 in Houston as he prepares for graduation.Elizabeth Conley/Staff photographer

Ask any college administrator or employer whether the class is ready for the real world – the answers are as varied as the students’ experiences.

Some say that COVID laid bare or worsened problems recent college graduates have always had with “soft skills,” such as leadership, collaboration, professionalism, and time management. A few fear that learning gaps, especially in writing, could catch up to the students. Others feel that rapid changes in workplaces made it difficult for schools to keep pace instructionally.

But in spite of the caveats, college officials and business professionals told the Houston Chronicle that the Class of 2023 is better prepared than people might assume. In many cases, the students adapted topandemic restrictions and lifestyle changes better than full-fledged adults. They learned most of the same content they would have prior to 2020. They embraced new technology, and some excelled.

“Certainly it was challenging, but I believe that they learned a lot of skills beyond what they were learning in the classroom,” said Teri Longacre, interim vice provost and dean of undergraduate student success at University of Houston. “Being agile and flexible and having resilience, coping with uncertainty, coping with change. I think that skillset is going to help students going forward, once they get into the workplace.” 

What Maryland believes makes his class stand out from others: They endured the pandemic, racial unrest during the Black Lives Matter movement and the Texas freeze, all in their freshman and sophomore years.

It was isolating, but Maryland said he saw many classmates find ways to succeed. While people sometimes think of college as a place for pivotal social development, that wasn’t always possible. People instead leaned into their passions, became entrepreneurs or chased after virtual internships.

“TSU cultivated in us being unstoppable,” he said. “We’ve been here through all of that.”

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Students remember the onset of COVID partly for the chaos it wreaked at school, especially when they were told to go home for two weeks and shift to online instruction. Those two weeks extended to the end of the spring 2020 semester.

Some people returned to their campuses for sophomore year in fall 2020. University of Houston graduate Eric Stahmer described UH as a ghost town. At many universities, courses were mostly online that semester, shifting to more of a hybrid model the following spring.

COVID testing was frequent,masking was mandatory at some places and on-campus students were sent to isolation housing if they came down with the virus. Right when schools started to feel more normal their junior year, the Omicron variant threw college operations back into flux.

“There were a few days in the past couple years where I could go 24 or 48 hours without having an out-loud conversation with anyone,” Stahmer said.

The pressure was tough. Maryland said he had a couple mental breakdowns and eventually lost family members to the disease. Prairie View A&M University graduate Morgan Redd said she felt overwhelmed transitioning between her pre-nursing program and nursing school.

“I was stuck at home doing nursing schoolwork, lost, just feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders,” she said. 

Texas Southern University senior Dexter Maryland cleans out his apartment on Friday, May 12, 2023 in Houston as he prepares for graduation.Elizabeth Conley/Staff photographer

Texas A&M graduate Sylvester Washington said that many of his classmates began prioritizing their mental health. He found the first two years of COVID to be more confusing than anything else, like when police seemed to overtake campus during the Black Lives Matter movement or when computers started taking his orders at Chick-fil-A.

“That phase of our college experience was about solitude for me,” he said. “Living in a dorm, my roommate had left. Online. Camera off, mic off.”

The beginning of senior year marked the closest that the Class of 2023 came to pre-COVID times, even though online classes had become a permanent part of the college landscape, several students said. 

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They recognize the resilience they gained in the struggle, but they can’t help but feel they missed out on something special.

“My parents are great, but it’s weird being a 20, 21-year-old in your parents’ basement,” said Ling DeBellis, a Rice University graduate who spent more than 10 months in Minneapolis after the outbreak. “I feel like I’m in high school again. Mom will bring me breakfast in the morning and I’m like, ‘I don’t eat breakfast now! I told you I don’t eat breakfast now!’”

For some students, COVID’s social limitations had an adverse effect on schoolwork and developing interpersonal skills needed for the workplace, said James Lu Morrissey, president and co-founder of the Mentor Collective, which partners with universities and employers to improve social mobility through mentorship. While recent graduates’ skill gaps in areas such as teamwork and networking were already the concern of companies before the pandemic, the problems have become more apparent. 

“Several partners have mentioned that the lack of in-person interactions are probably negatively impacting the recent grads more than … those more advanced in their careers,” Morrissey said.

Some of the issue stems from students’ resistance to working with their peers in courses, according to several college administrators.

Amy Salazar, associate vice provost for student success at Sam Houston State University, said she learned through a focus group of 100 faculty members that students have been hesitant to engage or collaborate with classmates. The faculty also feel that their students’ life management skills, career direction and information fluency are falling behind.

Stahmer, who studied media production at UH, recognized where he was missing out on the social capital that helps people get jobs after graduation. Some of that occurred because in-person internship opportunities were scarce during parts of the pandemic, he said.

“I don’t think it was the fault of any of our instructors,” Stahmer said. “But for a major that is so reliant on making connections and building relationships within the industry, having these two-plus years where you are all online and the only interactions you have with your classmates are in the group chats that you yourself have to set up because your teachers don’t know how to use GroupMe… I feel like it’s been tougher.”

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Bridget Gorman, Rice’s dean of undergraduates, said transitioning to post-graduate life is hard in the best of situations, and colleges had to work harder to provide adequate career counseling for students.

Online etiquette became a major focus of training sessions, said Muriel Funches, director of advancement in TSU’s Jesse H. Jones School of Business. Recruiting and hiring also went online or hybrid, creating some flexibility, incorporating more businesses and reaching a greater number of people, said Nicole Van Den Heuvel, executive director of Rice’s Center for Career Development.

“Networking is a hard thing for students,” she said. “You can’t just apply online and hope you’re going to get the internship or the job. That hasn’t changed – networking is still super important – but I think our students are a little bit more stressed out in how to do that.”

College officials said they feel any social challenges are surmountable, especially given the Class of 2023’s flexibility and success in overcoming adversity during the pandemic.   

Natasha Stough, campus recruiting leader for Ernst & Young Americas, said that some of her interns have displayed some natural hesitancies learning the ropes but are clearly seeking stability in their jobs.

“I’m mindful that they did miss out on live engagement, and we just need to offer them a little bit more guidance and direction and provide them some support, particularly in their early days,” Stough said.

The decorated cap of a graduate during UH Clear Lake’s College of Human Sciences and Humanities and College of Science and Engineering graduation ceremony at NRG Arena on Saturday, May 13, 2023 in Houston.Karen Warren/Staff photographer

University administrators cited learning gaps as a lesser worry, but recent graduates pinpointed several areas where they felt behind in their online environment.

Some teachers were better at virtual instruction than others, even if they were all doing their best in a hectic situation, DeBellis said. Alejandra Zamora, an electrical power engineering technology graduate from the University of Houston, said several of her professors had pre-recorded their lessons, removing the ability for students to ask questions.

Getting office hours was difficult, and Zamora said she struggled in a key course.

At TSU, Maryland’s professors pivoted to project work to keep students engaged but lost a heavier emphasis on writing. Washington, at Texas A&M, said he missed out on research opportunities during the height of COVID restrictions. And DeBellis, at Rice, said she wishes she had been able to participate in more psychology surveys that would have benefited her in her Ph.D. program.

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Other hands-on experiences were difficult to do well, DeBellis said. In studio art, she received a large kit of materials in the mail and showed off her pieces during Zoom demonstration days. Lab work for her evolutionary biology program was much more difficult.

“You can’t be like, grow some E. Coli in your house. It’s a health hazard,” she said. “You can’t expect students to go buy petri dishes.”

Amy Salazar said faculty at Sam Houston State University reported that students overall developed the biggest gaps in writing ability during the pandemic, and other skill gaps varied college to college. Many faculty had to fight not to lower their standards while having to accommodate students’ circumstances.

College presidents have also relayed that they have never seen so much demand for academic remediation, said Harrison Keller, commissioner of higher education at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Industry partners do not seem as concerned about any instruction quality that suffered, however, Keller said. They’re having more difficulty communicating their own needs with universities.

“The skills that they need and the kinds of credentials they need – that’s changing faster than anyone ever anticipated,” he said.

Marian Thanhhang Lai, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences, gives the student speech during UH Clear Lake’s College of Human Sciences and Humanities and College of Science and Engineering graduation ceremony at NRG Arena on Saturday, May 13, 2023 in Houston.Karen Warren/Staff photographer

One positive of COVID was that it accelerated conversations in the workplace about what innovations might be needed to make young employees more successful, said Morrissey, of the Mentor Collective.

And while the class of 2023 faces some serious challenges heightened by the pandemic, Morrissey said they’re in good company. Recent college graduates are not the only people who find themselves trying to make up for lost skills in the workplace.  

“The idea of the learning journey ending with college is a false one,” he said. “On the job training, upskilling, those are all needed in this fast-moving, dynamic economy.” 

If COVID had any upside for Sylvester Washington, it’s that the lack of social gatherings at Texas A&M allowed him to start looking for jobs early. 

He found he had the freedom to discover who he wanted to be.

“For the majority of my college experience, I’ve really had to make magic out of nothing,” he said. ”I experienced everything within that short four year time span. We left, we came back, we beat Alabama. We got a little bit of everything.”

That gameness will serve this cohort of students well in the workplace, said Natasha Stough, at Ernst & Young Americas. 

“I find them to be very enthusiastic,” she said. “They can’t wait to start. I think sometimes we often hear this generation isn’t as motivated, or they might just want to stay at home, where I think they’re seeking some face-to-face interaction.”

Stough said she feels most outgoing seniors are looking for a hybrid workplace. And on a practical level, graduates who are entering hybrid or online-only offices will be ahead of the curve because they spent much of their four college years online, college officials said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found in a 2022 survey that 27.5 percent of private-sector establishments had employees teleworking some or all of the time, and it’s possible that new graduates will have the power to set the standard, said Arthur Ortiz, chief strategic partnerships & community engagement officer at the University of St. Thomas.

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While the job market is starting to tighten, it is still strong enough that most people in the Class of 2023 should be able to gain employment, several university administrators said. 

Morgan Redd, from Prairie View A&M, will take the experience she gained in COVID to become an oncology stem cell transplant nurse at M.D. Anderson.

Ling DeBellis will stay at Rice to earn her Ph.D. in health psychology.

UH’s Eric Stahmer is searching for a full-time videographer job after a summer gig. 

Sylvester Washington, from Texas A&M, will become a cloud consultant at Baker Tilly. 

Alejandra Zamora will stay in Houston at Kinder Morgan after graduating from UH.

Dexter Maryland will start a U.S. Department of State-funded fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. 

“Things happen,” Maryland said. “We’re still here today, graduating and moving that tassel from one side to the other.”

“I’m excited, I really am,” he said. “I’m going to miss TSU though.” 

Areeba Imran, graduating magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree claps during UH Clear Lake’s College of Human Sciences and Humanities and College of Science and Engineering graduation ceremony at NRG Arena on Saturday, May 13, 2023 in Houston.Karen Warren/Staff photographer


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