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What to do as a final-year student in these pandemic times
Author: Leslie van Rooi
Published: 22/10/2020

​​Although the COVID-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty amongst final-year students as to what they can expect in the coming year, there are a few opportunities available to them, writes Dr Leslie van Rooi, Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation, in an opinion piece for University World News.

  • ​Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Leslie van Rooi*

In all probability 2020 will be remembered as a year filled with challenges, agony, new possibilities and a sense of globality – we were after all 'stuck in this together'. At times, this year has left us uncertain and perhaps even dumbfounded. And, due to the harsh health and economic related impact of Covid-19, it is clear that things will remain uncertain for a while.

Many (if not all) sectors of society have been affected. The long-term impact cannot currently be fully understood and measured. But it is clear that there will definitely be some societal shifts. The possibility of fundamental change exists.  

It is perhaps the uncertainty, albeit relative uncertainty, that causes angst amongst many.

The uncertainty exists in a unique way amongst final-year students at our universities. For them the year, in a particular way, plays out differently. What would have been a year of rounding off and getting ready to enter a new and exciting phase now has as effect that future graduates must continuously adjust whilst at the same time holding a sense of uncertainty regarding what lies ahead. At the same time the possible long-term, negative impact on the job market, which they hope to enter in a couple of months, remains scary – more so than in previous years.

In what follows, I would like to highlight some of the challenges and possible opportunities that the graduates of 2020/2021 face.

Emergency Remote (Online) Learning

Like all other year groups, final-year students had to adjust to an online learning experience. For some it was an easy adjustment, whilst for others the challenges of studying at home, the effect of our deep-rooted societal problems, as well as the unpractical nature of doing research virtually loomed large.

Luckily some final-year students have in the meantime returned to our campuses to do, amongst others, lab and clinical work. Luckily lockdown regulations have allowed those, who would not be able to graduate whilst attempting to study remotely, to also return to our campuses.

At the golden end of the spectrum it is clear that most of our residential, public universities have been more than ready to attempt classes online. And perhaps even more important, the quality of degrees remains high – also by international standards. Time will tell how this will play out in future.

The job market(s)

Up to now the number of South African graduates who struggled to find a job within the first year of graduating has been relatively low – also compared to graduates in other parts of the world. But this picture might look very different in the next year or so. Whether the trends in job losses will continue locally and globally and to what extent they will affect graduates remains to be seen.  

In South Africa, we have been sliding deeper into the higher end of job loss figures over the last couple of years and it is projected that this trend will continue into the foreseeable future.

With most industries currently scaling down on labour force and as our formal unemployment rate increases, the job market will indeed remain under pressure.

But as the voices in Bruce Whitfield's 'The Upside of Down' (2020) point out, opportunity keeps knocking on the door amidst challenging times. And this will indeed be true for those who know how to reinvent themselves, who can take risks/afford to take risks and who seize opportunity at the right place and time. It will ask of all of our graduates to perhaps do more than what was expected of their predecessors.

Experience abroad

For many graduates globally, experiences abroad rate as one of the top post-degree 'bucket list' possibilities. In this regard, they go abroad to enter the temporary job market for work experience (3-6 months), or to grab a more full-time job opportunity e.g. completing articles. At the very least, graduates in the professional fields tend to join firms that will allow some international exposure. 

But things might look very different come December 2020 and January 2021. Borders might not be as tightly closed as is currently the case but it is almost certain that job opportunities – also for temporary job possibilities – will be fewer. This will probably limit graduates' opportunities to work abroad.

Changing political contexts and a growing sense of 'closing ranks' in some countries might cause this to be a longer-term phenomenon. Something that might hit South African graduates harder than their counterparts in other parts of the world.

At this same time, this might open more opportunities on our continent for graduates to enter into Africa's growing job market. This will, however, ask for a shift in focus.  

Further studies

Perhaps the safest bet for our soon-to-be-graduates is to continue their studies in a deliberate and focused way. There are many debates around what it means to be 'overqualified'. However, it is difficult to argue against upskilling. How you use these skills is of course something else.

Graduates must of course follow the golden rule: to choose a degree/research theme that you will enjoy. If this is not the case, in particular given the fact that postgraduate studies ask for constant self-motivation, you will struggle to successfully complete your degree.

If the opportunity of postgraduate studies presents itself during trying times, take it. The added benefit can be that graduates can partially or fully complete their studies internationally.

Financial woes

When discussing the possibility of studying further, one should also consider the financial impact of the pandemic on a personal, household and government level. As such our graduates might need to search harder and deeper to be able to afford their studies. But there might be more opportunities available than what we think.

It is, however, important to make sound financial decisions in trying times. This should not exclude taking calculated risks.   

Work experience

Getting work experience is always a good idea. It stimulates, you continue to learn and it might project you into a different (better) future career path. Opportunities might be tight with limited levels of remuneration but the benefits, specifically under the current circumstances are endless.

Sound mentorship is perhaps now more important than ever. Taking up that conversation, asking those questions and allowing yourself to be challenged, guided and informed, will remain invaluable.

In conclusion, after all is said and done, we must remember that our contexts and realities differ. And this will of course have a tangible impact on our outlook and opportunities. But what we will all have to learn is to create our own opportunities in the best way possible. This will also ask of us to seek support and to understand that failing is indeed not the end of the story.

Judging from the number of times I used the words 'might', 'perhaps', 'should', etc. it is clear that indeed we are in the midst of uncertain times. But dealing with uncertainty is better than allowing a false sense of certainty to guide our every move.

If the rules of the game change, we cannot but adjust. And this is where we are now.

  • Photo: Students at Stellenbosch University. Photographer: Stefan Els

*Dr Leslie van Rooi is Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation at Stellenbosch University.