On Graduating During a Pandemic
By: Jan Gabriel Iglesias Morales, Student, University of Central Florida
The sudden switch away from traditional in-person classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been one that we are still being affected by to this day. It has been a struggle for all involved to rapidly adjust to the virtual teaching and learning environment. Especially considering that the topics that we must now learn remotely are topics that were traditionally thought to only be teachable in a traditional classroom setting. Graduating during this period of uncertainty can be very stressful and worrying. I am one of those graduates. Spring of 2021 is the last semester of my undergrad and I have been in a fully remote environment since March of this year.
Many graduating seniors are often part of a student organization. During the COVID-19 pandemic, clubs and student organizations have had to completely change how they operate. I am the president of my school's IEEE-HKN chapter, Zeta Chi. My organization has struggled with maintaining our pre-COVID-19 event turnout. All of our activities have changed to virtual, and while some have benefited from the online format others have greatly suffered. My organization offers free 1:1 tutoring to students that need help with any ECE topic. In a regular semester, our university would provide us with a classroom to do tutoring 2-3 times a week. This greatly encouraged walk-ins and we would consistently have students come to us for help. During COVID-19, we have switched over to online appointment-only tutoring. The quality of the tutoring has gone up significantly, but the turnout has dramatically decreased. The same behavior has been noticed for social events. Typically, our social events would have a good turnout, but since moving to virtual events we are seeing around half of our typical turnout even while using the same advertising methods. Changing to remote instructions has changed how clubs have to advertise and conduct themselves to remain as active as they were before the switch.
As a graduating senior, I am required to complete my Capstone Design courses. At my school, the University of Central Florida, our Capstone Design course is called Senior Design and it is split up into two consecutive semesters. I took my first Senior Design course in Spring 2020 and my second Senior Design course in Fall 2020. Halfway through my first Senior Design course, we had to switch over to a completely remote environment. My team and I were able to quickly adjust to online-only in our first Senior Design course. The ease of adjustment came mostly because, at this point in our capstone project, we were writing our design document. Due to the variety of online collaboration tools, we were able to easily work together on our final document remotely and collaborate effectively.
However, once the design document was completed, we had to transition to prototyping and building the project which proved to be much more difficult to do remotely. Quickly, we realized that doing physical prototyping remotely was not as efficient as working together in-person and prototyping together. Something that could take several hours to implement remotely could be done in as little as one hour in an in-person meeting. As a team, we decided to have in-person meetings while following strict safety guidelines to ensure the safety of all team members. Masks were worn at all times during all meetings. Social distancing was practiced as much as possible during team meetings. Hand sanitizing, equipment sanitizing, and general cleaning were performed frequently. We strived to be as safe as possible and would meet remotely if one member believed there was an elevated risk. Ultimately, through hard work and dedication, we were able to complete our Senior Design project. We were honored to receive an award from the university for our project. Completing a capstone project in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was extremely challenging. It required an extreme amount of dedication and hard work. However, as a soon-to-be graduate during the COVID-19 crisis, the struggle with a remote environment does not end in school.
I had the opportunity to experience a technical internship during the summer. The internship was a full-time internship that would have taken me out of state. The company switched all internships from on-site to completely remote to protect the incoming interns as well as the regular staff. Initially, I was disappointed at hearing this. This was my first internship, and I was excited as well as eager to finally get some real experience in the field, but I understood why it was necessary, of course. The safety of everyone was far too important. Starting this internship remotely was scary. I had no idea what to expect. Not only, did I just have to learn to be a remote student, but now I had to learn how to be an engineer remotely. It was very frightening for someone who had never interned before. The company was extremely understanding, and they did everything in their power to make this transition and this learning process as seamless as possible. My manager and my team were always available to me at all times to help me learn and contribute. Many of the struggles that are being experienced in academia are also being experienced in the industry. Many jobs are still remote to this day. Jobs that were thought to be impossible to do remotely. There has been a huge learning curve for everyone in the industry as well as in academia. In industry, they are also doing Zoom calls like we are doing in class. In the industry, they are also doing everything remotely and by email just like we are doing in class.
At the end of this internship, I was able to secure an offer to return for a full-time position in the Spring of 2021. I still have the same worries that I had when I was about to start my internship. I am still worried about starting and working as an engineer remotely. However, I now know that everyone is going through this. Everyone is learning how to work remotely. Everyone is learning how to learn remotely. Due to this, everyone is very understanding, and everyone is eager to help. For a new grad, it can be a very scary time to graduate. Some students think that the job search became more difficult, but I believe that the job search has not become more difficult, but it instead has changed. Securing a position is now different than it would have been. Instead of performing in-person interviews, now companies are doing video interviews which feel very different from regular interviews. Virtual interviews are not necessarily harder than in-person interviews, but they are different. Someone who is accustomed to in-person interviews will experience a learning curve when switching to virtual interviews. Many positions are now open to remote work. This has increased the number of opportunities available. However, the competition has also increased due to more applicants being able to apply for a remote job. I believe that both of these factors cancel out and allow for a graduating engineer to find the right opportunity for them with the same general difficulty as before switching to a remote environment.
Graduating during a pandemic is something that no one could have predicted a year ago. However, many students are graduating during the COVID-19 pandemic right now, myself included. Graduating in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is scary because it is not what we expected. It is not necessarily worse or better than graduating during a regular semester, but it is certainly different. People are still becoming engineers and beginning their careers just like every other semester. Everyone is still trying their best to figure out the best way to move forward and because of this everyone can relate to the struggles we are all facing in this virtual-only period. We are all going through this together. Graduating is still a fantastic achievement that symbolizes the leap from student to professional and nothing can ever change that even if it looks a bit different right now.