How 3 women are navigating life without a safety net

  • Carolina Lopez, 23, majored in psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

    Carolina Lopez, 23, majored in psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. Photo for The Washington Post by Salihah Saadiq.

 
 
Posted10/18/2020 6:15 AM

To be a college graduate in 2019 meant that you were better off than any other class since the Great Recession. The economy was strong and unemployment numbers were at an all-time low. Being a female college graduate -- 54% of students -- seemed hopeful, too. In just the previous four years, they had seen the Women's March, the #MeToo movement; Congress had just sworn in a record number of women, its most diverse class in history.

To be a college graduate in 2020 means that you are inextricably linked to the biggest pandemic in a century. It means a looming recession and all-time high unemployment rates. It means watching as systemic inequalities, including racism and sexism, are laid bare.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The data already show that recent college graduates are struggling. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March, half of the oldest Gen Zers (ages 18 to 23) reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a cut in pay because of coronavirus. Postings for entry-level jobs, often the most popular among recent grads, had fallen 73% by May on the jobs site ZipRecruiter. The largest share ever of 18- to 29-year-olds are back home living with their parents.

But the prospects look worse for women. Job losses have disproportionately affected women, particularly Black women and Latinas, who are overrepresented in industries such as leisure, hospitality and education. That doesn't bode well for their long-term financial prospects, given that women already make less on average than men and have less savings. As many recent graduates live on their own for the first time, women are also at greater risk of being evicted -- and Black women much more so, at a rate two times higher than that of White renters in some states.

Even though graduating in any year can feel like standing at a precipice, the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are unevenly felt. We asked three women to let us into the uncertain, uncomfortable, quietly beautiful moments of their lives right now. Here's what that precipice looks like for them.

-- -- --

Carolina Lopez, 23, majored in psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

A few weeks ago, Lopez, along with the rest of the San Francisco Bay area, woke to orange smoke filling the sky. It felt a lot like the past year -- when, as she puts it, her "objective reality wasn't matching up with certain assumptions I believed to be true."

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At times, it was easy to lose track of all that had really happened in that time. In December, Lopez graduated a semester early from Berkeley, one of the top colleges in the country. By March, when California issued its stay-at-home order, she started hearing back from the nine psychology doctoral programs she'd applied to for fall 2020 -- and was rejected from each one. She applied to research positions, hoping that could be a steppingstone, and made it to the final round of interviews for a competitive one at Stanford -- then was rejected from that, too.

Her "assumptions" had mostly centered on the idea that the hard work she'd done in undergrad would pay off somehow. Instead, she just kept "getting knocked down."

"A lot of those things make you question your worth, your value, the work that you've done and whether or not you deserve it," Lopez says.

When she graduated, Lopez lost her school health insurance, which meant quitting her medications for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and depression. As she waited for her unemployment benefits to come through, she watched her savings dwindle, realizing she hadn't struggled financially like this since before college. Lopez had to decide what in her life was worth maintaining. Contacts were expensive, so she stopped buying them. She'd walk outside, the whole world blurry before her.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

There was some clarity in that too, she says: "As an undocumented, first-gen, low-income Latina who studied psychology in particular -- including different realms in which people of color are disadvantaged -- going through all of that has made me think, to what extent is this my fault and to what extent is this systemic forces at play?"

Lopez's family immigrated to the United States when she was 4. She doesn't remember coming across the border -- her family traveled to Southern California from Culiacán, Mexico, on visitor visas. ("And then we just stayed," she says.) Lopez does remember her classmates in Whittier, Calif., not far outside Los Angeles, telling her there was no way she'd attend college, let alone be able to pay for it.

But she was "very, very hopeful, almost blindly optimistic," she says. When she was 17, she applied and was accepted to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which would allow her to qualify for scholarships to college and secure work authorization after she graduated. In her senior year of high school, she was admitted to Cal with what was "essentially a full-ride scholarship," plus a supplemental four-year Cal Alumni Association scholarship that helped cover living expenses.

"Before, if I was really struggling, I could turn to the undocumented students fund at Cal or emergency grants for undocumented students," she says. "It's been really hard to adjust and realize I'm back in this position, that I worked so hard and went to college specifically so that I wouldn't be in this position anymore."

These days, Lopez is still living in the apartment where she spent her last three years of college. She describes the building as a '70s-style motel, tan and rectangular with a pool in the courtyard. It's rent-controlled; while homes go for millions nearby, she pays $525 a month and shares the two-bedroom place with three other young Latinas.

Lopez is also trying to get back on a normal schedule, waking up at 7 a.m. and eating healthy lunches (usually a turkey sandwich with avocado and hummus). She is doing a two-week ab challenge with her younger sister and recently recorded her first TikTok, because her friends keep begging her to record makeup tutorials -- they want to know how she gets her cat eye and red lipstick so perfect.

She's also religiously watching the animated show "Naruto." Lopez just finished the entire series on Netflix and its sequel on Hulu, which amount to hundreds of episodes. It has been helpful for getting through these past six months, she says, because "getting back up when you're knocked down" is a theme that shows up over and over again.

That's how it felt with every rejection letter, even as she rationally understood that universities are stretched for resources during the pandemic. Even so, Lopez "heavily underestimated" how much her mental health would be affected by the uncertainty of it all -- not only because she's unable to access her antidepressants, but also because she thought that something, at least one program, would've panned out.

In those dark moments, the ones that make her question all that has led her here, she tries to "give myself a hug," she says. "I'm saying, it's going to be OK. If this didn't work out how you wanted, it's okay. Let yourself breathe and be in the moment."

A few weeks ago, she cold-emailed two professors in Cal's psychology department. One of the professors got back to her, saying he had funding leftover from a grant for a part-time research position. He also said he'd hire her to create a website for him, so she's been watching YouTube videos on HTML, CSS and JavaScript as she waits to hear more about the research project.

These gigs are bringing her some peace of mind. She's excited, finally, to start getting to work.

-- -- --

Eva Nautiyal, 22, believes sunsets in the Midwest to be more beautiful than ones in Indore, India, where she grew up. Back home, the sky went from yellow to red; here, it's like a canvas stretching across the sky, blush pink melting into deep violet until the sun finally dies beyond the horizon.

When she'd come to the United States for the first time at 18, all alone, Nautiyal knew nothing about Bloomington, Ill., the town where she'd be attending college. Her top choice U.S. college had been Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts school in Connecticut. When Google suggested Illinois Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts school in Illinois, she applied on a whim.

Four years later, Nautiyal is an IWU graduate -- and she's still living in Bloomington, which she never expected. Armed with a computer science degree, she never expected to be job hunting into September, either.

In the past three months, she's applied to close to 200 jobs, scrolling through LinkedIn, reaching out to recruiters, trying to network with people at various tech companies. At the beginning of the summer, she started keeping a spreadsheet, color-coding every job she applied to. If the prospect still seemed hopeful, she'd mark it in yellow. If not, red.

"And literally everything was turning red," she says. "It was so stressful that I stopped keeping track."

Nautiyal knew finding a job in the pandemic would be difficult -- as an Indian citizen, it was never going to be easy. Most international college students have 90 days to secure a job after graduation to stay in the country, and a federal program called Optional Practical Training (OPT) can grant them work authorization for up to 12 months after that.

Because Nautiyal's major fell into the STEM categories, she has a two-year extension on OPT, meaning in an ideal world, she'll be authorized to work here for three years. But she says that even so, many companies won't hire someone they know will need sponsorship in the future. That's a worry for many immigrant rights activists right now, who say the Trump administration has made securing employment more difficult for international graduates in the pandemic. In June, President Donald Trump also froze H-1B visas for skilled workers -- which Nautiyal could eventually qualify for -- and Indians account for 75 percent of those visa applications.

Back in the spring, Nautiyal was trying to figure out how she might stay in the United States while she looked for a job. Her mom, in Indore, pleaded with her -- "Why won't you just come back?" she'd ask on their near-daily phone calls, scared of being separated by a full day of travel in a pandemic. It had been hard to convince her mom she should come to the United States for college in the first place. But Nautiyal knows that if she leaves the country without a job offer, she'll lose her three years of work authorization under OPT. Somehow, four years of college "wouldn't really feel as worth it" if she couldn't apply all that she'd learned to a job in the United States, where she believes she'll have more opportunities to be creative than she would in India.

"I know it's hard to find jobs, but I can do it," Nautiyal says.

After graduation in May, Nautiyal was able to buy herself some time, securing a part-time volunteer position working for another IWU alum, which solved the 90-day unemployment restriction. Over the summer, Illinois Wesleyan allowed international students to stay in on-campus dorms through July. When that time was up, a mentor negotiated with a friend to rent Nautiyal a studio apartment about half a mile from campus for a reduced rate.

Now, Nautiyal sits at a street-level desk that looks out onto passersby, her bed an island between her workstation and the kitchenette. During the day, she forwards her résumé and calls human resources departments to find out if they sponsor foreigners. She's open to moving anywhere, she'll tell them; she just wants to get a job in UI design -- she likes the gratification of seeing her work appear visually, tangibly, on the screen.

Life isn't necessarily lonely, but it is quieter than life in Indore, a city of 2 million. Bloomington is a town of some 78,000. Her days were even quieter when she was working on coding projects at night and sleeping during the day -- she liked to work at night, when all she could hear were crickets, not the usual busy foot traffic. Besides, she didn't want to be out too much with other people. She doesn't have health insurance, and her closest family member, an uncle, lives in Colorado. She doesn't know what she'd do if she got covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

That pervasive worry aside, she's settling into studio life. She's proud "of just being here by myself," she says. "It feels so good to be able to do things on your own."

For now, Nautiyal's still holding onto her dream plan, which is to get a job in UI design for the next three years; that'll help her grow her portfolio. Then, grad school. Maybe by the time she graduates, she'll feel like she got a good enough start here to go back and work in India, equipped with the skills to really influence a business there. But it all starts with a job. For Nautiyal, there's a sense that "one job would fix everything."

That's why it's hard not to worry, constantly, about the possibility of not getting one because of the pandemic. "The fear is that things are going to keep on like this, that the pandemic won't end anytime soon in the U.S. and India," she says. The United States is No. 1 in the world for cumulative coronavirus cases; India is No. 2.

Recently, Nautiyal looked back at some poetry she wrote in college. As she takes longer walks now that it's cooler out, watching the sky go from pink to purple, she finds comfort in the words, even if they feel like they were written a lifetime ago:

The fact is, fear is an innate part of who

we are. It shows up every day, in all the

steps we take, in each memory we hold,

in every epiphany, and all the truths and lies.

The fact is even the wind can tap into

my fear instinct on a frosty morning,

so how about I just let it be?

-- -- --

Bria Burris, 30, is an early riser; her body has yet to unlearn waking up before the sun.

It was only a year ago that she'd be up at 3 a.m. to get her two daughters, then 9 and 11, ready for the drive from Morris, Ill., to Milwaukee, where all three of them were attending school. It was a three-hour haul, one-way, Monday through Friday; her daughters dozed in the back seat as the sun rose above the highway. In the evenings, Burris, then 29, would drive them all the way back to Illinois.

At the time, Burris and her daughters were living with a friend because it was the most stable home she could find. When Burris started attending Milwaukee Area Technical College in January 2018, her savings "ran out quickly," she says; she was paying for tuition out of pocket. She wasn't able to do her usual carpentry work because she was attending classes during the day, and she could no longer pay rent, so she and her daughters bounced around family members' homes in Milwaukee until landing in Illinois. Throughout it at all, the goal of graduating from college felt like something larger than herself.

"My mom has 11 children and I'd be the first to graduate college," she says. "That's a big thing. I wanted to break that cycle in my family and show my children that they, too, could do that."

In July, Burris did break the cycle. She graduated from Milwaukee Area Technical College, a two-year institution, with a degree in human services. Even as job losses soared, she secured a position right away as an intake worker at the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program, which helps provide relief to renters facing eviction during the pandemic. In August, she was promoted to a supervisory position.

These days, her drive to work is no more than 20 minutes. With her new job, she's able to afford rent at her own place in Milwaukee. Still, she's one of the first ones into the office, well before 8 a.m. when she's supposed to start. She's a self-described "workaholic"; she likes being in the office.

What's more, her work feels gratifying, urgent: She's helping families who are in the same place she was. Black women like her stand to be most impacted by the coming eviction crisis brought on by the pandemic. When she talks to them on the phone, helping to allocate the program's emergency funds, they'll sometimes cry and tell her how grateful they are.

Burris knows how life-changing these types of programs can be. She grew up in foster care and was reunited with her mom at 13, only to be kicked out two years later. She got pregnant at 17 and dropped out of high school. At 19, the same age she gave birth to her second daughter, she pleaded guilty to a felony charge of marijuana possession. That record shaped her life in every way: preventing her from getting jobs, from qualifying for public housing and from receiving financial aid to go to school.

Throughout it all, her grandmother was her "lifeline," and her death in 2017 was ultimately what drove Burris to enroll at Milwaukee Area Technical College, even though she'd have to pay full tuition. The risk paid off like she never could have imagined. Once she was enrolled, she learned about the FAST Fund, an emergency fund for MATC students. With financial help from the program, a lawyer was able to get her felony expunged from her record.

Despite the six-hour commute and the toll it was taking on her family, that was "enough to propel me" to finish her degree, she says.

Shortly after her grandmother's death, she also started dating her current partner. Her girlfriend, Jennifer Alonzo, turned out to be a "phenomenal" support throughout school and the pandemic, helping to take care of Burris's daughters, now 11 and 13, alongside her own two daughters, 6 and 11. Last year, Alonzo would help type Burris's papers right before midnight deadlines -- Burris "typed like a bird" herself and could never get all she wanted to say down quickly enough. These days, Alonzo, who's a teacher, is home-schooling the girls while Burris is at work.

The summer has been heavy -- full of conversations about the killings of Black men and women by police, and the protests sprung from them. The news makes Burris angry, sad, hopeless. When she was 11, she says, a police officer slammed her in the elevator. When she was 15, she says another pulled a gun on her because she "told him he was abusing his power."

Experiences like that make her fear for her girls. That's also why Burris is "trying to turn literally everything" into a learning experience for them. They're lessons Burris never could have learned in school, lessons she learned from her own grandmother, who had only a third-grade education.

"It's things I teach my children today to survive," Burris says. "I am a Black woman, I have Black children, and I know the expectations of them when they walk out the door every day."

Sometimes it feels like Burris is "making up for lost time." Although her degree prepared her for her current job, her eventual goal is to attend a four-year college. She could see herself in politics one day. A lot of the time, she conceives of that world as being "a bunch of people sitting around a table making decisions for individuals, families and communities where they've never been in the situations those people have faced." At night, after she gets home from her day job, she hops on the phone for more work; she volunteers with Souls to the Polls, a local nonpartisan group trying to get young people registered to vote.

After a full day working two jobs, she'll do something for herself -- maybe a bubble bath with a glass of wine and "nonsense" TV. Something "so I can just feel like a normal person," she says.

Burris's plans to apply to a four-year college have stalled during the pandemic. As long as she's bringing enough steady income, she's happy to be housing secure, happy to be providing for her family, happy where she is.

As Burris puts it: "I don't need to be rich, I don't want to be rich. But I need to be able to be stable. I need to make sure that my lights flip on, and there's a roof over our heads and there's food."

"I have to give my kids a different advantage," she says.

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