I received the WhatsApp notification in the middle of the afternoon. I was drinking out of a fresh coconut and intermittently taking dips into the three-tone turquoise shade water on a small island off the coast of Malaysia. It was the third day of school holiday for Malaysian students.
“Dear Fulbright English Teaching Assistants,” the message began. “American Airlines announced today they will begin suspending most long haul flights starting March 16. More airlines are likely to take similar action. We strongly encourage you to depart now considering the serious situation. We anticipate options for flights will become increasingly limited.”
I took my sunglasses off and reread the message. I looked out at the water, where my fellow island-hopping friends splashed and body surfed, blissfully unaware of the message sent out. I rolled off of my towel, found shade under a palm tree, and quickly dialed my supervisor to clarify the situation.
“This is technically a call for voluntary departure,” she said. “But if I were you, I’d accept voluntary before the Fulbright Program makes it mandatory. There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to help get you out if borders begin to close.”
I’d been living in Malaysia for only two and a half months on a year-long grant, teaching English to secondary school students, and just like that, it was over.
By the time I returned to my towel, my companions had read the news on their phones and were discussing the nuances of voluntary and mandatory departure.
“I’m going home,” I announced to them. “You don’t have to come with me if you feel comfortable staying, but I’m getting on the 4 o’clock boat.”
And so, emergency evacuation began. In less than 72 hours I returned to my house in Malaysia, packed my belongings, haphazardly said goodbye to my community and roommates, and made the journey to the capital. My flight to Kuala Lumpur was the last one to leave the small airport near my house before the Prime Minister of Malaysia restricted all mass movements.
When I arrived at the international terminal in the early morning of March 18, the flight information display system was lit up almost entirely red. Nearly every flight was canceled except for mine, heading to Tokyo, the first stop on my journey back to the United States.
I’ve spent the last three and a half months applying for jobs since returning home, writing resume after resume after resume. I’m now an unemployed 2019 graduate struggling to find meaningful employment. On top of that, I have anxiety and Type-A tendencies, and that concoction has not lent itself well in this situation. COVID-19 hijacked my plans this year, as it did for so many others.
So, I’ve curated a list of some things I’ve learned from this experience both for myself and all the young, anxious individuals out there in my same boat.
Your self-worth is not tied to your employment status. Your purpose is to exist. That is enough.
When I returned home and updated my LinkedIn, my profile changed to state that I was no longer an all-star, but rather I was considered intermediate because I am currently unemployed. My heart sunk. It’s hammered into our brains that if we’re not currently working, we are not worthy, and even my social media agrees.
But that’s not true. Existing in enough. Waking up every morning and surviving is enough. If you’re like me and enjoy being a part of fulfilling work, it can be really jarring to be unemployed. I’ve been reading articles that tell me that I should be learning a new language or developing a tech skill during this time. Know that it’s OK to just exist and make it through each day. Whether it be hour by hour or minute by minute, you being here and being a family member, friend or peer is more than enough.
I’ve asked myself multiple times during this process if I’m crazy for wanting to find a creatively and personally fulfilling opportunity amidst a global pandemic when the job market has capsized. The short answer is no. Yes, it’s important to cast a wide net and understand that your absolute dream job may not be an option right now. But it’s reasonable to know what you want and to keep dreaming and fighting for it. If you’re like me, you plugged into Google Maps exactly where you wanted to go in 2020. COVID-19 perhaps also has you rerouting, but you still know where you want to end up. And you will get there eventually.
I’ve submitted over 120 job applications since I returned back to the United States. It has been challenging not to consider the rejections a reflection of my skills and abilities. Less than half of those companies and organizations have sent me an email informing me that they wouldn’t be moving forward with my candidacy. If you actually receive rejection emails, consider yourself lucky. While the emails can sometimes make my heart drop into my stomach, I’ve found that it helps me to mourn the opportunity and move forward.
Some organizations have emailed me back and said they received over 400 resumes for the position I was interested in. Can you even imagine reading 400 resumes? We are in a recession right now, and a lot of great candidates are looking at the jobs you’re interested in. You will fail. You will not get interviews or offers for the jobs you drool over. Some opportunities will take up so much of your brain space that you want to scream, and they still may not come through. Fail forward. Keep applying. Don’t let the rejections keep you from continuing to try. Stephen King said that he plastered every rejection letter he got to his wall. Even if you received enough rejections to entirely cover multiple wall spaces, keep moving forward.
It’s OK to take a break.
If I added up the number of hours I’ve spent on Indeed.com and LinkedIn jobs, I’d probably burst into tears looking at the total. I’ve spent full workdays looking for jobs and editing my resume and cover letter. It’s taxing and can feel like I am sending applications into the void. That’s why it’s important to take care of yourself. Bake yourself a treat. Take a shower. Volunteer your time if you can. Go for a walk. I go on at least one walk every day now, and I didn’t know I could find so much joy in spotting suburban wildlife. These walks have taught me that it is OK to unglue your eyeballs from a job board. You likely will not miss anything if you step away and can always check back later to see if something new has been posted.
It’s 2020. We know kindness is cool and it’s especially cool when you can be kind to yourself. It’s very reasonable for you to spend some time reading a book, watching a movie, or doing any other task or hobby that brings you some amount of joy.
Folks are still in your court, even if you’re not making the shot.
If people in your network aren’t responding to your emails or messages, do not take it personally. I’m lucky enough to have a few mentors/confidantes/gurus in my life. A friend of mine recently referred to them as my board of directors. They’re the people who guide me, provide me feedback, and work with me when I have tough decisions to make. You likely have a board of directors too, that may include parents/guardians, teachers, professors, coaches, or peers you respect and admire.
I reached out to many of those folks in my network, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, and didn’t hear back from most of them until recently. At first, I felt like I was suffering from a loss. The ones who eventually responded to my messages told me they’ve been stressed, swamped, and suffering from balancing work from home. We are in a collective period of grief right now, and the experience has been tough on everyone in different ways. If people aren’t responding to you, it is not a reflection of who you are as a person.
People in your life are stressed, like you, and if they don’t respond to your outreach, it does not mean they are no longer in your court. Remind yourself to be empathic.
Imposter syndrome is real, but try not to let it bog you down.
I spent most of my college career feeling inferior. I never felt smart enough or talented enough next to some exceptional peers. This feeling has seeped into my job search. I’ll find an opportunity that excites me, I will read the requirements, realize I do not fit them to a T and close the window.
I recently found one job I was particularly thrilled about, but I didn’t meet the requirements. I submitted an application and emailed the supervisor anyway. I got an interview the next day. She told me my resume would likely have been flagged in the system, even if I hadn’t reached out to her directly. It got me thinking about other opportunities I shunned because I didn’t match the qualifications. I learned that if an opportunity interests you enough, don’t be shy in applying, even if on paper you may not look like the perfect fit.
Comparison and imposter syndrome are normal, but that doesn’t make them any less difficult to deal with. Try not to let the imposter syndrome keep you from applying for opportunities that excite you.
So to the class of 2020 and 2019, all the young folks out there job searching, and especially those riddled with anxiety like myself, I’m rooting for you.