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Rescinded Offers, Dashed Dreams for Wisconsin College Students

In this May 7, 2020 photo University of Wisconsin-Madison 2020 graduate Sara Krueger poses for photographs with her mother, Teri, on the steps of Bascom Hall in Madison, Wis.

The Class of 2020 may as well be dubbed the Class of COVID-19.

Graduating seniors said an abrupt and socially distanced goodbye to their campuses in March when classes moved online in a matter of days. The pandemic stripped much of the pomp and all of the in-person options from commencement ceremonies. And the graduates now enter a job market in which unemployment is the highest since the Great Depression.

Here is how the coronavirus altered seven students' futures, according to the Wisconsin State Journal:

Emily Gray, 23

Hometown: Mount Horeb

Major: Paralegal studies

Emily Gray needed 140 hours of internship experience to graduate from Madison Area Technical College's paralegal program. She had accumulated just 40 of those hours when the spread of COVID-19 led to the Community Immigration Law Center's closure.

Panic immediately set in that she would not receive her diploma this May. But instructors were "wildly accommodating" with makeup work, Gray said.

The job search began in the winter. Gray doesn't remember how many applications she submitted, but it was enough to feel good about her chances of landing a job shortly after graduation. She fielded several calls from firms and was in the early stage of setting up interviews when the coronavirus arrived. Companies' interest ground to a halt.

Gray wants to work in immigration law, but she may temporarily set that interest aside and consider other areas of the law that may see a surge in work as the economy recovers, such as workers' compensation.

She's also broadening the geography of her search. Gray graduated from the University of Minnesota last spring and would love to return to the Twin Cities, but is now considering jobs in Madison and elsewhere in the Midwest.

Gray has put her job search on hold — she can only hear "Sorry, we're just not hiring right now" so many times — and plans to start applying again when positions pop back up.

When the immigration center where she interned opens again, she said leaders would welcome her back as a volunteer to gain the experience she lost out on this semester.

"Everything's sort of in limbo," she said.

In this May 5, 2020 photo, University of Wisconsin Bookstore worker Stephanie Blaser packages GPA honor stoles purchased by UW-Madison graduates at the store's State Street location in Madison, Wis.
In this May 5, 2020 photo, University of Wisconsin Bookstore worker Stephanie Blaser packages GPA honor stoles purchased by UW-Madison graduates at the store's State Street location in Madison, Wis.

Bailey Whiting, 22

Hometown: Cambridge

Major: Kinesiology

Bailey Whiting received her UW-Madison diploma, but she's already worried about the next one.

She plans to apply in the fall to graduate physical therapy programs, which require at least 40 observational hours, though most successful applicants record upwards of 150 hours.

Whiting had an internship lined up at American Family Children's Hospital this summer, but the facility suspended interns from the hospital because of COVID-19. Volunteers are also temporarily banned, scuttling another avenue for her to accumulate observational hours.

Depending on how the pandemic plays out, Whiting said she may not tally enough hours and end up pushing her application to the following year.

"I'm just really stuck right now," she said.

Whiting found a different job, providing behavioral therapy for children with autism, but the job won't count toward her observational hours. And COVID-19 restricts her from working inside homes, so she will provide care via video calls, at least initially.

Her final semester was filled with coronavirus cancellations: No spring Varsity Band concert, no traveling to Boston with the band to perform at the women's hockey Final Four tournament. She toyed with the idea of watching the online graduation ceremony but thought she might just wait for the real one instead.

Payton Wade, 22

Hometown: Milwaukee

Major: Journalism and strategic communications

Payton Wade's excitement for UW-Madison's commencement ceremony was so high that she sent save-the-date notes to family and friends.

Wade, the first in her family to graduate from a four-year university, instead celebrated by watching the online ceremony in her parents' living room. Rather than receiving real-life flowers and applause, she collected comments and likes on her social media posts.

"I'm not really getting the closure of completing my four years here," she said.

In a few weeks, Wade plans to move to Dallas, where she accepted a position as an agent manager at Liberty National. The insurance industry hadn't really been on her radar, but after several weeks of hearing little back from other companies to which she had applied, the late April employment offer was met with relief.

Wade's relationship with UW-Madison is complicated.

She called out the university last fall for a video featuring a nearly all-white student body, an episode that drew national attention. There were moments throughout her four years where she felt unwelcome and wished she were far from the campus where 70% of undergraduates are white.

But she is also proud to be a Badger and perceives an improvement in UW-Madison's racial climate since she started as a student in 2016. Wade hopes her new work schedule will allow her to return to campus for the in-person commencement ceremony.

Alex King, 22

Hometown: Sun Prairie

Major: Political science and legal studies

Alex King capped off his college career in a large venue — just not the one he imagined.

Instead of celebrating at Camp Randall, King, a member of the Wisconsin Air National Guard, is serving at State Fair Park, a COVID-19 isolation facility in Milwaukee.

As the university shifted to online instruction, King found himself with more free time, so he answered the Guard's call for volunteers in April. He is among a group of Guard members on standby there, ready to serve if there's a surge of patients to care for in Wisconsin.

"This was an opportunity to dive in and be part of the state's response to this," he said. "This is why I joined the Guard: to help people out. It's an honor to be a part of the effort."

Over the past several weeks, King received personal care assistant training to help the nurses on the front lines of the pandemic.

In the future, King plans to serve full time with the Guard as a pilot in the 115th Fighter Wing. His flight training, however, will likely be delayed because of the virus.

He is assigned to COVID-19 detail for as long as the Guard needs him. It's unclear how long that will last, given the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus.

"It's very day-by-day," he said, referring to his new schedule.

In this May 7, 2020 photo, a statue of Abraham Lincoln, a traditional gathering spot for photos of graduates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wis., remains fenced-off to visitors.
In this May 7, 2020 photo, a statue of Abraham Lincoln, a traditional gathering spot for photos of graduates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wis., remains fenced-off to visitors.

Alyssa Allemand, 21

Hometown: Gibson City, Illinois

Major: English

Alyssa Allemand applied earlier this semester for a job at Isthmus. A few weeks later, the alt-weekly newspaper announced it would "go dark" during the pandemic.

Allemand submitted applications to two other news outlets in late February and early March, both of whom informed her they were no longer hiring. The Edgewood College student knew even before the pandemic that jumping into the journalism field would be a challenge, but COVID-19 has only exacerbated her job prospects. Most media outlets have furloughed or laid off employees instead of hiring more.

She considered applying for journalism jobs across the country, but she's a homebody and the thought of moving cross-country in the middle of a pandemic terrifies her.

Serving as editor of the student newspaper helped Allemand recognize how much she wants to be a journalist. While she doesn't have a job lined up yet, she has hope that something will come through.

But just in case, she's applying for jobs in other fields, too.

Nikki Johnson, 24

Hometown: Warrens

Major: Recreation management

Madison Area Technical College student Nikki Johnson landed her dream job working for Destination Madison in December. Travelers arriving at Dane County Regional Airport turned to Johnson, who staffed an informational booth in one of the terminals, for restaurant recommendations and hotel directions.

She loved the part-time job so much she hoped it would turn into a full-time gig, but the pandemic twisted Johnson's hope of a job offer into a layoff. She said Destination Madison told her when the economy rebounds, she will be one of the first hired back.

Johnson suspected she would be out of the job even before the call came in late March and had already started looking for work in a sector of the economy seeing growth: groceries. She jumped at a job listing for Walmart, where she spent several weeks stocking shelves.

Johnson still has a full-time job lined up with Dane County Parks. But it's seasonal and only goes through October.

"It'd be nice to have a permanent job so when winter comes around I'm not stuck," she said.

Winter also marks when she plans to complete her other degree in hospitality. She is crossing her fingers that the world looks a little different then and she can cross a real stage.

Laura Downer, 21

Hometown: Victoria, Minnesota

Major: International studies, German and political science

Laura Downer labored over her internship application for the U.S. State Department for months.

The "intense" process began in September, and the UW-Madison student set her sights on a position at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. She had spent a year studying abroad in Germany her sophomore year and fell in love with the language and culture.

Downer received the internship offer in the winter. The cancellation notification came mid-April.

"I saw it coming but it's also really disappointing," she said. "It would have been a dream internship — the absolute No. 1 thing I wanted to do."

Downer is unsure how she will spend her summer. She applied for half a dozen positions even before the internship was called off, but hasn't received so much as a confirmation email. She found some part-time project work in the La Follette School of Public Affairs, where she will finish her master's degree next year. And her position as student body president was extended through August because elections were postponed this spring.

As for the end of her undergraduate career, Downer watched the online commencement ceremony with her parents in Minnesota. A cousin who is also graduating this year may join her on a socially distanced celebration picnic.

"We'll try to find a way to make it special," she said. "Still, I'm grateful I get a re-do of graduation next year."