By: Marisa Mecke ’21 (she/her), Staff Writer
Helen Sturm ‘20 has found herself far away from Davidson since graduating with her Bachelors of Art in History last May. Now living at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Sturm is completing her master’s degree in Museum and Gallery Studies. One of the many seniors from the class of 2020 who had to change plans due to COVID-19, Sturm explains that this was not her initial post-graduate plan and how the pandemic influenced her decisions.
“I planned on and I applied to jobs back in February, for museums, because I want to work in museums,” Sturm said. Moreover, she noted that she had networked and knew people within the industry.
“Every single institution that I applied to completely closed, so many employees were furloughed or laid off,” Sturm stated. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that unemployment reached as high as 13.3 percent in May 2020, second only to the 14.7 percent unemployment rate in April 2020. The unemployment rates specifically for the college graduate age range, however, were even higher.
Sturm previously had “wanted to come abroad to do a museum program, maybe a couple years after [she] was working,” but she knew she would not have many opportunities back home in Maine. “It was mainly just sort of like, why not? Because I have nothing else to do. So might as well get a degree,” she said.
“I decided to apply to schools here, just to see what would happen. I put St. Andrews, University of Birmingham, and University of Glasgow, because they all had museum programs, ” Sturm said. Before graduating, Sturm worked in the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson and also completed a Museum Studies program in the UK the summer before her senior year.
Sturm applied in May once classes were over, and she started hearing back in July. Once she received her acceptance from St. Andrews, her top choice, she began the process of figuring out how to arrive in Scotland and where she would live.
“It was really stressful trying to find a place to live since the program started the first week of September. It was a month of trying to plan how to get here. Luckily, everything worked out,” she said. The most difficult part, according to Sturm, was obtaining a visa. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sturm was “worried that they wouldn’t want Americans.” The process was tedious, lengthy, and “very, very expensive” to apply for on such short notice. Sturm says the paperwork and the experience of traveling alone abroad to move to a country she had never lived in before was stressful.
For the first two weeks, Sturm was in quarantine.
“I didn’t have any WiFi for those two weeks, so I couldn’t watch TV. I had my Nintendo Switch, so I could play on my switch, and I could text people, but I couldn’t really do anything else. And I didn’t have a phone plan yet, so I was working on international data. My heat wouldn’t work, and I couldn’t have anyone come fix it because I’m in quarantine. It was terrible. I’ve pretty much blocked those two weeks out of my memory, and unfortunately I’m probably going to have to do it again if I decide to come home for Christmas.”
Sturm is now well into her first semester of her masters program. As of three weeks ago, St. Andrews has returned to in-person classes in large rooms with a “little grid system” to keep students socially distanced. Sturm says that some students still complete courses remotely, such as students who may have underlying health issues. Nearing the end of her semester, Sturm notes that her program is only one year long: “a big bonus.” She said, “If I can come out of this pandemic with a masters, that will be huge.”
Sturm also noted, “I’m lucky in that I was able to move fast enough, and that I had the resources to come here. I’m very grateful that I’m able to do that.” She is unsure what she will do after the program’s conclusion.
Due to COVID-19, she has not had the opportunity to meet many people and said, “Brexit is just a mess — it is putting a lot of students in jeopardy who already study here.” Ultimately, she said, “I feel like I’d be more comfortable in the U.S. unless I met really great people here and feel like I have a reason to stay, but at the moment I really don’t.”
Sturm added that people she knows in the arts industry “are having the hardest time.” She described the challenges in her field, museum work, saying, “For any museum internship, you have to have a masters, which is stupid. And they are unpaid. But you have to go through a lot of steps where you will start to work in the field that you want to.”
However, Sturm noted that her “circle of friends has learned that, unfortunately, what you think you’re going to do is probably not what you’re going to do. In terms of where you’re going to live, [you are] probably not going to live where you really want to, unless you’re really lucky.” Ultimately, Sturm concluded, flexibility is key.
Dr. Dave Martin, a professor in Davidson’s Economics Department, echoed this sentiment. He said that there are jobs returning to the market — even entry level jobs — but they may not be the positions to which Davidson seniors usually flock (for example, manufacturing). The central question, said Dr. Martin, is “Yes, there are opportunities, but are these opportunities for people with your experience? That’s where I think things will get dicey.”
The business, finance, and consulting firms are shaping up to have consistent hiring of college graduates this year, despite COVID-19. Dr. Fred Smith of the Economics Department explained that these industries are “sticking [to] relatively normal hiring schedules and practices,” with the exception of some smaller firms in the financial industry.
While Dr. Smith knows about the hiring prospects for industries common for economics majors to enter anecdotally from his students, his claim draws support from Jaime Stamey, Executive Director of the Center for Career Development (CCD). There is a good reason we know more about hiring in industries like finance and consulting, according to Stamey: these are the biggest industries that recruit in the fall. Sturm also noted the trend of students securing postgraduate jobs in these industries early, stating that it is difficult for graduates in these circumstances to get the jobs they are looking for “unless you’re an econ major, and you got a job offer from Wells Fargo when you were 18 years old.”
Dr. Smith says that some finance, business, and consulting firms that historically secure hirings earlier in the year, are pushing back start dates. However, he did have an advisee “who took a job […] with the start date pushed back, but they got enough work in 2020 so they actually reached out and moved his start date back up.” These industries are starting their hiring later this year, Stamey says, but the number of offers to Davidson students and acceptances is remaining similar to previous years.
Stamey also observed one positive indicator across the board for job prospects: consistency. Reviewing the number of job postings the CCD has on Handshake, the CCD has increased the number of jobs with senior qualifications, meaning employers have marked that these positions are for seniors, from 7,000 to about 8,300 this year. While this does not represent the usual growth between years, Stamey said, it demonstrates consistency.
Moreover, seniors are engaging with the CCD at similar rates. Last year, the CCD had 546 appointments with seniors in the fall. This year, Stamey reported that the CCD has had 539 appointments. She does acknowledge, however, that socially distanced information sessions and other Zoom events make it more difficult to track how students are attending and engaging with these types of programs and presentations.
Despite consistency thus far, Stamey notes that the CCD does not yet have the full picture. The fall tends to favor the for-profit sector, and she expects to see declines in the non-profit sectors, where finances are tighter. Programs that Davidson students have entered, like City Year or Teach for America, may see some decline in numbers. Education as well, Stamey notes, may fare worse than the for-profit sector has this year. Not all industries will fare as well as finance or consulting have suggested so far. Yet, Dr. Smith says many of the hardest hit sectors, such as restaurants and hospitality, are not the usual targets for Davidson graduates.
With the first full semester during COVID-19 nearly complete, the CCD is compiling data to understand the pandemic’s ongoing impact on college graduates’ post-grad plans and tracking where Davidson’s Class of 2020 is now. Last spring, the CCD sent a survey to gauge where the Class of 2020 was headed, and they will finish data collection on November 30th. Collecting data in six month segments, the CCD is seeing shifts in the percentages of who is currently employed or enrolled in graduate school, versus those who are not seeking or those who are still seeking. According to Stamey, “There is definitely an increase in those still seeking; however, anecdotally, we’ve actually just started collecting survey feedback.”
This survey may have non-response bias. Sturm said the CCD was not helpful in finding jobs for which she would be a competitive candidate and that she did not receive the support she was looking for in applying to postgraduate opportunities like the Fulbright.
She commented, “I’ve publicly said on many social media platforms that I hate [the Center for Career Development] so much. Specifically for art majors in general.” Discussing the survey, she stated, “I hope to God that they never use me as a statistic. I don’t want them to take any of my information.” Sturm said she did not have much advising in making her decision to go to Scotland. The conversations that she did find helpful were mostly with her advisor in the History department, as well as other department professors, who were encouraging and helped her with applications. She also had a phone call with a recent Davidson graduate in a similar field.
According to Stamey, the CCD has not changed its advising suggestions or practices drastically due to COVID-19; however, the emphasis on networking is stronger. Phone calls with alumni are one of Stamey’s recommendations for seniors to network. Stamey says networking is critical and that student feedback suggests networking has been highly successful. She argued that students should not be intimidated to reach out to networking contacts and that these conversations are “a welcome diversion from their daily lives, to be able to talk to a senior or recent graduate who’s seeking your knowledge, seeking your expertise.”
Ultimately, Stamey’s advice for seniors is to plan ahead for the spring semester. Sturm articulated how little time she had to change her plans and go to Scotland, but Stamey highlighted that, despite changes to come, “It’s important to create a plan for the spring semester, and it is important that that plan includes self care and self awareness for where you’re at right now.”
The job market will continue to change, as Stamey notes that employers are “kind of like us at college” right now, taking it day by day. Dr. Martin echoed this sentiment, noting that Dr. Yancey Fouche, who runs the Sustainability Scholars summer program, recently announced the program going virtual for the summer of 2021, but that “they’re still trying to make adjustments in case people can come to campus.” Employers across all industries, according to Dr. Martin, are still figuring out what the composition of their employees will look like. “The name of the game for seniors,” he said, “is just going to be a lot of exploration and a lot of shopping around to try to see what opportunities businesses think that they might provide.”
During her studying amidst COVID-19, Sturm has experienced a shift in her own attitude toward future job prospects. While she initially wanted to be a curator, she said, “Now I’m more interested in museum marketing, which is odd because I never thought that I would like that.” Given how museums are changing due to COVID-19, though, people interested in social media and digital marketing are in higher demand.
Museum-goers can’t pack into stuffed rooms to look at pieces like the Mona Lisa anymore, Sturm stated, but the challenges of COVID-19 are requiring increased use of social media and digital platforms, which could be good in the long run because it is more accessible. Sturm concluded, “Museums are never going to look the same after this.”
She reflected, “Looking at the people who teach my program, one of them is one of the head curators of the Louvre, which is incredible. And I mean, she’s in her 50s. What she did when was 23 didn’t matter at all. Really, the fact that she was working and trying to get into the industry, that’s important. But I mean, it’s just going to take a lot of time to get to where you want to be.” Ultimately, Sturm said, “It is nerve wracking. But yes, you’ll be fine.”