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What's next for the class of 2020? Great Recession graduates offer insight

Commencement has been years in the making. But your dream of donning a cap and gown and bounding across a stage to receive a well-earned diploma won’t materialize — at least not in 2020 amid a global pandemic.

Graduating during the coronavirus outbreak that has sent unemployment from historic lows to record post-war highs may seem like an event that will define your career. But much like you, graduates a decade ago contended with similar circumstances.

Granted there was no pandemic, but in the years surrounding the global financial crisis, graduates entered the world with your matched level of optimism and were met with high unemployment, a cratering stock market, and companies that were forced to lay off employees and institute hiring freezes.

Graduate Andriel Waters waves after receiving her diploma as the New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School class of 2020 holds a drive-in graduation ceremony as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, outside Delgado Community College in New Orleans, May 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Graduate Andriel Waters waves after receiving her diploma as the New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School class of 2020 holds a drive-in graduation ceremony as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, outside Delgado Community College in New Orleans, May 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Consider them kindred spirits who were also curtly greeted by a world that unwillingly made them reset expectations and get creative. Millennials offer their experiences to Gen Z on how to follow your path to self-discovery in uncertain times and to answer the question: What’s next?

‘No one else’s reality will make you happy’

“There are infinitely more options with how to spend your time than the actual time you have to spend. You have to figure out what’s most important to you and focus your time on that,” said Jessica R., 32, and class of 2009. “Some people are happy working 100 hour weeks, some people want to work 40 hour weeks and focus more time on hobbies and family. No one else’s reality will make you happy. Trust what your gut is telling you and spend your time according to that.”

Where was she then? Jessica volunteered as an AmeriCorps member and tutored third graders in reading comprehension and math at an inner-city school while living off a monthly $800 stipend.

Where is she now? She has taken her reading and math skills to the big leagues and is a marketing manager for a multi-million dollar laundry business in Manhattan.

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“It’s ok if you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up,” said Katie, 35, and class of 2006.

Where was she then? Katie graduated without a job or clue of what to do next. She moved to Nantucket, Massachusetts, on a whim and waited tables at a restaurant while living in a summer rental. Despite the chaos and cramped quarters that come with living with eight roommates, her serving job led her to her passion for hospitality and she never looked back.

Where is she now? Katie is an administrator at a three Michelin starred restaurant and found the job on Craigslist, of all places.

‘Don’t let others’ definition of success throw you off the path to yours’

“There are different paths to success. There are different definitions of success,” said Claudette Fox, 30 and class of 2011. “Don’t let others’ definition of success throw you off the path to yours. Your fellow graduates may land that ‘dream job’ right out of college and you may wonder why you didn't get that same opportunity.”

Where was she then? Claudette shared a four-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with her sister and three friends and slept in the living room. She worked as a “glorified barista” at a small Wyndham Hotel in Manhattan.

Where is she now? She is now a senior sales manager at Hilton West Palm Beach in Florida. She recently purchased her first home and celebrated her and her husband’s first wedding anniversary.

In New Orleans on May 27, 2020, graduates of New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School got out of their cars to receive diplomas one by one and then held a parade of cars through city streets. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
In New Orleans on May 27, 2020, graduates of New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School got out of their cars to receive diplomas one by one and then held a parade of cars through city streets. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

“Lean into challenges and discomfort,” said Garret F., 34 and class of 2008. “Often taking the job that no one else wants is a way to shine.”

Where was he then? Garret started immediately after graduation in an entry-level GE leadership program for IT.

Where is he now? He’s the chief operating officer of a $1 billion technology company selling electronics and software solutions to the global rail industry.

‘It may take a while to figure things out’

“Don’t worry about it if you have no idea what to do next. That’s ok. It may take a while to figure things out. With the benefit of hindsight, most people don’t know what the hell they want right out of college. Take some time to figure out what you like to do and what you’re passionate about,” said Andrew W., 35 and class of 2007. “I worked a horrible job for three years right out of college and hated it. That experience, though, taught me what I prioritized in life. It also taught me what I didn’t want to do and what I wanted out of a career.”

Where was he then? Andrew moved in with his parents after graduation and was unemployed for the first few months until he took the first job he was offered in sales.

Where is he now? He runs his own survey research and data consulting firm advising political candidates, political action committees, non-profits, issue groups, and corporate clients.

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‘When you feel lost, sit, find a place of quiet, and sink within yourself to find your direction.’

“You are entering a world of uncertainty. When you feel lost, sit, find a place of quiet, and sink within yourself to find your direction,” said Kristen Arra, 33 and class of 2009. “This way, you'll be sure to build a life that looks like your own, and not one that is built on the opinions of what others want your world to look like, or a life that fits into the box society tries to build us all into.”

Where was she then? Kristen juggled two part-time jobs as a retail associate at Banana Republic and as a program coordinator at the Ohio State University.

Where is she now? She lives with her husband and son and works as the associate director of relationship management at Diamond Hill Capital Management in Columbus, Ohio.

Teacher Frank Antonioli, of Brophy College Preparatory, gets a photo of a graduating senior with his family during one of several Diploma Days due to the coronavirus on May 28, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Teacher Frank Antonioli, of Brophy College Preparatory, gets a photo of a graduating senior with his family during one of several Diploma Days due to the coronavirus on May 28, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“I had a teacher make us all write our future selves letters to open five years after graduation. The teacher sent us the letter, but you could easily tuck it away somewhere. Reading the letter from my past self and the advice I gave myself was actually incredibly moving and humbling,” said Lauren P., 35 and class of 2008. “I would definitely recommend— don’t just take advice from others— take advice from yourself!”

Where was she then? Lauren worked days as an unpaid congressional intern and nights as a beer barista to pay the rent on a dingy room that she shared with a cockroach or two.

Where is she now? She is a vice president in finance, where her knowledge of beer still occasionally comes in handy. She still pays rent, but on a two-bedroom apartment that she shares with her husband in New York City.

‘Ask questions, keep learning, and be open to the unexpected’

“Chasing my passion only took me so far. Things really started to get interesting when I followed my curiosity instead. Ask questions, keep learning, and be open to the unexpected,” said Corinne B., 35 and class of 2008. “Opportunity rarely shows-up the way we think it will. Chances are, your future will deliver adventures you never imagined.”

Where was she then? She lived with five Craigslist roommates and juggled four part-time jobs to make ends meet and to keep the dream alive.

Where is she now? Corinne has grown into marketing leadership roles across big brands, Fortune 500, and tech. She only has to share a bathroom if she wants to.

Paul Santiago Kelley, a graduating senior at Brophy College Preparatory, smiles as he takes a selfie as he celebrates Diploma Days with photos of all his fellow classmates after getting his diploma, due to the coronavirus on May 28, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Paul Santiago Kelley, a graduating senior at Brophy College Preparatory, smiles as he takes a selfie as he celebrates Diploma Days with photos of all his fellow classmates after getting his diploma, due to the coronavirus on May 28, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“Stay curious, always. You're 22 years old. You don't know anything about anything,” said Winnie T., 35 and class of 2007. “Actually, it doesn't matter how old you are, you will always learn something new. Take the time to discover new knowledge.”

Where was she then? Winnie took the practical route as a private equity data analyst and shared a two-bedroom apartment in the suburbs of Boston with her best friend.

Where is she now? She’s still practical with a bit more creativity as a product marketing manager with a large global tech company. Lives in a cozy apartment in Manhattan with her boyfriend.

‘Research earning potential before signing up for all that education’

“Go for the best bang for your buck in terms of college. Make sure this degree will actually mean you have more earning potential,” said Rebecca Cangiano, 34 and class of 2008. “A lot of times a degree does not equal more money. Definitely research earning potential before signing up for all that education.”

Where was she then? Rebecca worked full-time and a weekend job to cover her monthly student loan payments and the cost of renting a 900-square-foot apartment in a city.

Where is she now? Living frugally in those first few years allowed her to save and pay off her student loans. She now balances her career and two children with the help and support of her husband.

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“Find what makes you happy. Do that,” said Liz Duffy, 31 and class of 2010. “When you think something else will make you happy, don’t be scared to change and do that instead!”

Where was she then? Liz was a nervous girl in male-dominated engineering classes. Worried that she was too short to go into space.

Where is she now? She is a Mars Rover mechanical engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While she hasn’t grown much in height, she now tells all the boys what to do.

Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Money and Cashay, a new personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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