college graduates
Jessie Fullinwider tosses a coin into the Trevi Fountain during a past trip to Rome, Italy. The Kansas City-native had planned to spend the fall in Italy again after graduating this May from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in advertising. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, her plans are up in the air. (Provided)

The itinerary for Jessie Fullinwider’s immediate life after college, carefully constructed by the University of Oklahoma advertising senior, had the makings of something truly memorable. 

It included a summer internship at a Kansas City advertising agency she had worked hard to get. That would be followed in September by at least six months in Milan, Italy, teaching English to children. Then, she would embark on a career in the field she has spent her college years studying.

But it’s not going to happen that way. Like all impending college graduates, the final spring months of Fullinwider’s undergraduate career blew up with the arrival of the novel coronavirus and the shift to distance learning. As a result, there won’t be the traditional final moments with friends, graduation parties or the shared experience of boundless possibility, completion and nostalgia that permeates the atmosphere of college campuses this time of year.

OU closed its campus in March, and the university won’t re-open for classes until fall. But in many ways, for the Class of 2020, the loss of a moment in time is the least of their problems. The college graduates of 2020 will enter a world with up to 20 percent unemployment rates and career prospects that don’t feel so great. 

Fullinwider’s life is like a train that suddenly stopped on a dime. 

“When we left for spring break, I thought we’d be back in two weeks,” she said. “But there really haven’t been any closing chapters of the book of college. It’s been very abrupt. It’s, ‘OK, you’re done, have a good life.'”

Fullinwider has stayed at her parent’s home in the Kansas City area since the world stopped and quarantine began. Some days feel better than others as she wraps up her coursework digitally. 

“For me, it feels like everything has kind of slipped away,” she said. “Sometimes there doesn’t feel like any optimistic way to look at it. If I take it as everything has been ripped away from me, it spirals into a college-kid depression. But finally, I’ve been able to look at it a little better. There are good days and bad days. I’ve finally learned Italian, so that’s a positive thing. It just comes in waves — good and bad.”

college graduates
Jessie Fullinwider holds a plate of ravioli during a previous trip to Italy. The advertising senior hopes to travel there later in 2020 to teach English. (Provided)

Fullinwider’s internship in Kansas City has been canceled. She’s holding out hope she will still be able to go to Italy for six months in September. The family she planned to live with and teach English to still wants her to come, if possible. 

During her undergraduate degree program, Fullinwider spent time in and fell in love with Italy, a country particularly ravaged by COVID-19 in early 2020.

“It depends on the state of travel,” Fullinwider said. “I’m still talking to the family. They’re also in a crisis. They have been quarantined with three kids, so that is a lot to deal with. But I think they would still like me to come if it is possible, so I’m holding out hope I’ll get to do that.”

Many of Fullinwider’s college friends share her angst about the future. But while she’s worried about what might become of her in the coming months and years, there is an air of resignation to just get on with it and see where things lead.

“I hope for the best but expect the worst,” she said. “It doesn’t shock me anymore. I’m sort of like, ‘Bring it on. Let’s just keep pushing through.’ This shit is scary right now, but eventually, maybe things will get better for everyone.”

‘An experience in life that makes me stronger’

Mason Minnix is a Jenks native who will graduate from Arkansas Tech University in May 2020. (Provided)

Mason Minnix already ticked off one big goal in life when he got to college. He parlayed a stellar athletic and academic career at Jenks High School into a scholarship at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.

The 21-year-old graduated this month with a degree in mechanical engineering. He still has his summer internship, but what comes after that is to be determined. He’s spent the quarantine period in Jenks. 

“It’s really weird,” he said. “You think you’ve got this last semester of college and all of the fun and excitement that comes with that, and then it gets snatched away. It’s weird knowing there won’t be a (traditional) graduation, there won’t be a capstone presentation. It’s an adjustment and kind of sad.” 

College work has become a series of Zoom meetings. 

“I’ve done a lot of those,” Minnix said. “And that’s challenging in itself because engineers like collaborating in person. It’s a lot easier to draw on a white board. I think that’s one of the things this has made me appreciate most, just being with other people learning and collaborating in person.” 

Not only has the novel coronavirus wrecked the job market for new college graduates, it also has hit middle America at a time when the price of oil is at its lowest since the 1980s. Some energy companies face precarious situations, and that puts a crunch on the job market for new hires. While Minnix hopes to work in the energy sector, his degree comes with flexibility. 

“It’s versatile,” he said. “I grew up wanting to be a chemical engineer, which has its own niche. But I’ve also dabbled in electrical engineering, so I’m kind of jack of all trades. I can move laterally between the sectors.”

Still, he understands there will be challenges for new college graduates. 

“I’m kind of seeing what I’m made of,” he said. “It’s not a convenient time to join the workforce. A lot of companies have frozen their hiring process. There’s a lot of uncertainty. But that’s part of having faith. If I can grasp this uncertainty mentally, it will be an experience in life that makes me stronger.”

‘I wish it had ended ended on my terms’

Bailey Strecker swings at a pitch during a softball game during her 2020 season. The senior at Oklahoma Christian University majored in microbiology. (Steven Christy/Oklahoma Christian)

Years after the novel coronavirus abates, Bailey Strecker will probably always wonder what could have been. 

Strecker is a senior at Oklahoma Christian University where she played softball and majored in microbiology. She intends to enroll at the University of Oklahoma for a graduate program in her major, but softball? That’s just a memory. 

With a 21-5 mark roughly midway through the 2020 season, Oklahoma Christian University’s softball team found itself dreaming of postseason glory. But that promising season ended abruptly, leaving Strecker and her teammates in one of the most painful situations an athlete can be — wondering what could have been. 

“The end of softball was kind of gut wrenching for me,” she said. “I knew it was going to end at some point. I was OK with that, and I didn’t have all my eggs in that basket. But it’s still a shock to the system. I wish it had ended on my terms. On our terms. And I think the rest of the team feels that way, too.”

The last day of classes before spring break began, Strecker’s softball team held what would be its last practice. Just after they finished warm ups, they found out the tournament they had been scheduled to play in during the break had been canceled. It confirmed what many had feared: Softball season was all but over. That last practice took an unusual form.

“It turned into a good team bonding moment,” Strecker said. “We played kickball for an hour. It was bittersweet. I think some of us knew it would be the last time we’d be around each other for a while.”

Strecker has stayed in Oklahoma City since spring break. She is gearing up to start graduate school and finishing up what’s left of her undergrad work. There will be no graduation ceremony. In a sense, her time at Oklahoma Christian is already at an end.

“The last couple of months have been a roller coaster,” she said. “You always have ups and downs in life, and right now, it’s the same thing. I think what’s been important is to make the most out of it. As a player, if you get a hit 30 percent of the time it means you’re failing 70 percent of the time. I think that’s what athletics has taught me most of all — how to deal with adversity.”