Seniors use ingenuity, flexibility, positivity — and the help of SBU staff — to get pandemic-derailed career plans back on track.
By Liza N. Burby
Photography by John Griffin
If there was ever a more crucial time for university staff to both adopt and model turning lemons into lemonade, it was last spring when Stony Brook University’s seniors ran into the pandemic roadblock.
Nathi Magubane was planning to be a cognitive neuroscientific research assistant and was already in the application process when he learned that labs would not be hiring. As an international student, he had the added pressures of visa restrictions on finding employment in the United States.
Sylvia Johnson, a business management major, was pursuing a career in human resources and was armed with the College of Business Dean’s Choice Award as she confidently headed into the third round of interviewing for a human resources job she really wanted. Not only did that job get cancelled, but her field was suddenly saturated with competition as others lost their jobs.
Dylan Brennan had graduated in December with a degree in information systems and was in his third round of spring interviews for a desktop support position at Kickstarter (a funding platform for creative projects) when that job ended because of COVID.
Then there were athletes, such as Taylor Pechin and Spencer Payton, who were on the softball and men’s track teams, respectively, who had just recovered from injuries and had been ready for their final seasons when all sports were shut down.
The only way through this challenging time was for everyone to reset their expectations and be flexible about what could come next.
Most important was for staff to remind students that their futures were still bright and to encourage them to stay focused on what they could control, according to Marianna Savoca, assistant vice president for career development and experiential education and Career Center director. That sentiment was also critical as the Career Center pivoted to how it delivered its usual services.
Kimberly Joy Dixon, director of employer engagement and diversity recruitment for the Career Center, said, “It was a lot of work moving to the virtual platform, but being innovative is not new to our office. I personally think we thrived in our work environment because it’s a reason to yet again be innovative with how we deliver services and help students and alumni.”
New Doors Opened
Dixon said the priority was to help the seniors who were facing uncertainty in the job market. The Career Center held its first Virtual Fair for New Graduates and Experienced Alumni in June 2020.
“We had never held an event in June before, and being virtual was a benefit because it gave us more access to employers who would not normally recruit with us,” she said.
Sixty employers attended to recruit for full-time paid positions.
It was through this fair that Magubane ’20, a human evolutionary biology major, learned about the field of science writing. He said it felt familiar since he had just spent four years reviewing and summarizing research papers. “I decided to attack this new angle of science communications, something I wouldn’t have considered if not for the pandemic.”
Magubane met with Career Center advisors. “They really refined my skill set. They helped me flesh out a better picture of what I could do as an option. With their guidance, I revised my résumé many times, which was really critical in the end because my new employers said they had been impressed with how streamlined and easy to follow it was. I owe that to the Career Center.”
As of September 2020, he is a communications/outreach assistant at NASA’s Ames Research Center, focusing on airport designs and efficiency. While it’s not what he had set out to do, Magubane said he appreciates that the work is remote right now, especially as it gave him the opportunity to work for the California-based operation while staying in his Sound Beach, New York, home.
After Brennan ’19 lost out on the job for which he had interviewed, the only other desktop support jobs he saw were contract positions, which he thought was an unstable option. So he went back to the Career Center, where he had interned as a senior. He was advised to look for jobs that are in demand even during a recession.
“I started looking toward financial jobs, which was totally out of my realm of knowledge,” he said. “I have the technical background, but I have no financial background. I had a big fear of applying to jobs that I felt like I wasn’t fully qualified for, but then at some point I just started saying, `What’s the worst that can happen?’”
Brennan also had the chance to speak with Broadridge Financial Solutions, which had recruiters at the virtual fair and whom he had met at an in-person event the year before. He landed an interview with them and was hired as a virtual technical trading support specialist in June 2020.
“I think being more flexible about what my career options could be is what really opened more doors for me than I thought possible,” he said.
Johnson ’20, who during her senior year interned at the Career Center, said it was hard going into graduation. “There was a lot to celebrate, but I felt I was stuck in a place that I had worked so hard to get to and then couldn’t quite get there.”
What helped, she said, was that one of her Career Center mentors, Kaitlyn Seitz, is a career field expert in healthcare who encouraged her to apply for a contact tracer position with the New York State Department of Health. Johnson got the full-time job right after graduation.
“I am so grateful to her for that. She identified what these people were hiring for at the moment, encouraged me to do it and I’m still doing it now,” Johnson said. “It may not have been what I would have considered, but I feel very lucky to have found this role. My business degree did help me. There’s a lot of valuable experience just in talking to people, so I think that this will benefit many aspects of my life, even though it’s definitely not what I was thinking a year ago.”
Back in the Game
Meanwhile, the Department of Athletics had to support 53 seniors, including Payton and Pechin, whose spring sports were cancelled on March 12, 2020. Debbie DeJong, senior associate athletic director for compliance, said the seniors were devastated thinking that their last opportunity to compete was taken away. Then on March 30, the NCAA Division I Council voted to extend the season for spring athletes, giving seniors another year back to take the opportunity to be able to finish their careers and to pursue a graduate degree.
That’s when Athletics staff and academic advisors had to kick into high gear. “Then came the work of trying to figure out what were the correct decisions for our student-athletes. Some were ready for their next chapter; they had internships set up, they had full-time jobs set after graduation,” DeJong said. “And it was our coaching staff, academic advisors and administration that sat down with our student-athletes one at a time to figure out what was the best next step for them. But in Athletics, we always deal with changing challenges and obstacles and we pivot really quickly.”
Payton’ 20, a multidisciplinary studies major, took the extra eligibility year. He is getting his master’s in higher education administration — something he had not initially planned to do — while maintaining a practice schedule with the men’s track team. The sprinter said the experience has led to new leadership skills as Payton helps to lead his team, with the goal of one day working as an athletics director. Currently he’s on the advisory board of the Black Student Athlete Huddle, talking to athletes about opportunities such as studying abroad.
“The Athletics Department has helped me through this past year by spreading positivity, and also they are always there to help you at any moment,” Payton said. “They wrote recommendation letters so I could get into this program and they’re letting me shadow them to get experience.”
DeJong said, “Spencer is an example of a student-athlete with great leadership skills who has come back to positively impact our track team from a competition standpoint as well as on a personal level by mentoring other students. He’s a perfect example of everything good about our returning senior student-athletes.”
Pechin ’20, also a multidisciplinary studies major, said it was an automatic yes for her to return for a fifth year. She trained with her softball team this past fall and started a master’s in human resources. Then she was offered a full-time position for the Delaware Natural Resources Police, an agency she had been working for seasonally. She started in December.
“I had to make a hard decision whether to play or move on with what I want to do with my future,” she said. “I’ve been playing for 15 years and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to close that chapter, but this was a position that I didn’t want to turn down.”
But before she made these changes, she got support from Isidro Fortuna ’07, director of life skills in Athletics, for whom she had interned. He helped her with the application process and served as a reference for her background check.
“Stony Brook has helped me so much. Basically, when you walk in Athletics, it’s just like a family setting. Everyone has been welcoming and they want us to succeed,” Pechin said.
Other areas across campus, like the College of Business, also had to respond to their students’ revised needs. For example, recruiting season for students interested in accounting is September. Before the pandemic that meant in-person networking breakfasts with numerous accounting firms arranged through the Career Center and the College of Business in collaboration with the Accounting Society, a student organization. Together, they kept on track with a virtual event in September attended by various sized firms who met with students one on one and in groups. These areas also held panel events that consisted of conversations that included specific questions about COVID-19 and how it affected the industry, placement and the long-term effects.
Access to five other virtual events throughout 2020 connected 1,600 students with 130 employers in a one-to-one format. At the same time, the Career Center has continued its diversity programming, including the Diversity Professional Leadership Network and the Career Center Internship Program, according to Dixon. One of the participants in both was Carlos Soto ’20, who graduated in December with a degree in business management.
He said being involved in both programs netted him two internships with Mastercard, one of which was scheduled for last summer. When that internship was converted to a virtual program, Soto said, Career Center staff coached him through the process on how to have a meaningful experience. Mastercard offered him a full-time job and on February 1 of this year he started as an associate analyst doing consumer marketing.
“Networking became more challenging because of everything that was going on with the job market,” he said. “I’m just glad that I have this opportunity because I know that not everyone has their internship turn into a full-time job especially during a pandemic.”
Savoca is proud of how her staff and SBU students and graduates have responded to the challenges of the past year. “You can’t control the job market. You can only control how responsive you are about listening to the needs from multiple lenses,” she said. “We’ve done some really interesting and creative things. We’ve made lemonade out of our COVID lemons, so to speak, but we are not settling because we know that the job market is turning still and companies are still in flux. It’s necessary for an office like ours to be continuously educating ourselves on what’s happening out there because we are the ones who curate that for the students and alumni.”
Liza N. Burby is a freelance writer and features editor for Stony Brook University Magazine, as well as a journalism professor.