Recession Alums Offer Advice to Pandemic Grads

The Great Recession took hold in December 2007 and continued for 18 months. Economies worldwide were devastated. Hiring was down, unemployment was up.

In January 2020, the world’s first death caused by COVID-19 was announced. More than 100,000 Americans, and an additional 270,000 around the world, have died since. The pandemic is not over, and economies are suffering. Tens of millions are unemployed.

In both cases, recent college graduates faced a daunting launch into the working world. But four University of Pittsburgh students who earned their degrees during the Great Recession have a message for their Class of 2020 counterparts: Hold out hope, be persistent, network and be confident that, with patience, your Pitt degree will take you where you want to go.

Jon AllenLate last month, the Pitt Alumni Association (PAA) hosted an online event called “Great Recession to Great Pandemic: A Panel Discussion for the Class of 2020, by Pitt Alumni Class of 2008 and 2009.” The hope, says Alexandra Waltemeyer, director of campus constituent relations at Pitt and one of the event’s organizers, was, well, to provide hope.

“Dr. Kathy Humphrey (senior vice chancellor for engagement and secretary of the Board of Trustees) has been leading a task force focused on the experience, success and placement of our 2020 graduates,” Waltemeyer said. “A lot of the conversation focused around remaining calm and wanting current graduates to be assured that things would be okay.”

“I requested to speak to the recent graduates because my experience mirrored theirs with regard to timing of graduating into uncertainty,” said panelist Jon Allen (CBA ’09), who worked for a hedge fund in New York City, earned an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and recently returned to Pittsburgh to work for Boston Consulting Group.

“I was able to continue on the path that I had worked hard to get to, but it took patience. I wanted to say a few words of encouragement but also remind them to take a deep breath and that with a Pitt degree and the right mindset, they'll all be just fine.”

Renee StepnickThe first question addressed to the panel during the online discussion was a poignant one for today’s graduates: How did the Great Recession upset your plans to begin your career?

Renee Stepnick (CBA ’09), a certified public accountant who works at Deloitte’s Pittsburgh office where she provides audit and accounting advisory services, fielded it first.

In the summer of 2008 she had an internship at Deloitte. As her senior year began, Deloitte offered her a job.

“So, I'm feeling pretty confident and then as the fall came around and the recession hit, there was a ton of uncertainty with whether or not I would still have that offer,” she says. “And in March of ’09, Deloitte had announced layoffs and headcount reductions. I'd say the second semester of my senior year was pretty stressful wondering whether I still had a job.”

As Deloitte retrenched, she found that she did. But her start date was pushed back two months. So, she used that time to study for her certified public accountant examination. 

“I would just try to remain calm and try to remain patient for sure,” she told the participants.

André BurtonAndré Burton (A&S ’08, MED ’14) was already in the workforce while he was finishing his coursework, having landed a temporary position in the donor services department of Carnegie Mellon University.

“Just getting some solid work experience helped me to really figure out what I want to do next,” said Burton, who is now associate director for development at George Washington University’s law school. “I (then) decided to go ahead and pursue a master's degree and I hit the School of Education. So, if you don't have all the answers at this juncture, I think it’s okay. Reach out to mentors as early as you can and start trying to build a support network to help you as you map out your next phase here.”

Panelist Chad Eric Smith (UPG’08) is an assistant guild coordinator for Mural Arts Philadelphia and has his own film company, MasterDuke Productions. He, too, experienced some fraught moments after commencement. But he was prepared.

“I was certainly stressed out and anxious, like when they said regarding just the uncertainty of it all. It didn't give me much encouragement that looking for a job after graduation was going to be easy,” he says.

But Smith had laid the groundwork while at Pitt that allowed him some peace of mind.

“Thankfully I was actually at the University of Pittsburgh campus and I was very involved in the admissions office as a Pitt Pal tour guide at Pitt-Greensburg,” he told the Class of 2020. “And thankfully, because of the relationship I built on the campus and within that department, I was actually offered a temporary position within the admissions office as an admissions counselor in charge of Allegheny County high schools and Washington D.C. It ended up turning into three years total, but at least for that one year I had something to be confident of.”

Chad Eric SmithUltimately, times are hard. But the four panelists agreed that any delay between graduation and a career can be beneficial if you use the time to network, prepare and to persist.

“I was happy to participate. The University has done so much to get me where I am today. The stress of the economic recession my senior year was something that still has an impact on me,” Stepnick said. “And I hope that by spending an hour with these recent grads, they can take away valuable insights to ease their stress and be proactive in the situation.”

And what did the University’s most recent grads take from the discussion?

“It seemed like the only people who could understand this situation are the 2008/2009 graduates,” says psychology alumna Samantha Ryan (A&S ’20) .”I've been very anxious and stressed, applying for research assistant jobs mostly through Indeed or LinkedIn, but no luck so far. So I really just wanted to be reassured and told that I would be okay, which is definitely what I got out of it.”

Where to begin?

A new website, seniors.pitt.edu, has resources for alumni, and it’s updated daily. In addition, new graduates should consider these upcoming opportunities:

Register for the June 12 Virtual Job Fair

  • Open to 2020 grads on all campuses
  • Over 65 companies will be represented
  • Schedule one-on-one meetings with recruiters

Find other exclusive events for Pitt 2020 grads on the Student Affairs website.

Did you know that 50%-70% of jobs are secured through personal connections? Lean on the Pitt community—alums like Stepnik, Burton, Smith and Allen—to build your network on Pitt Commons.