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You got the diploma … now what?

Western alumni share what entering the workforce after graduation can look like

Illustration of a graduating student looking into a mirror reflecting their future self. // Illustration by Lili Cruz

The monumental task of switching the tassel from right to left is over. The rental cap and gown have been returned and the official diploma is due in the mail any day now… so, what comes next?

Navigating the workforce after graduation can be a daunting and confusing task, one that has only been amplified amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Mindy Pelton, a Career Services Center interim director, said the fluctuation in graduate employment rates has been significant due to the pandemic.

“Not surprisingly, the percentage of graduates still seeking employment six months after graduation was at an all-time high for 2019-20 graduates but has dropped significantly for 2020-21 graduates,” Pelton said. 

As of March 2022, the Pew Research Center found that the number of unemployed graduates had lowered to near pre-pandemic levels.   

In February 2020 the Pew Research Center found that the unemployment rate for college graduates 25 years or older was at 1.9%. That number grew to 6.8% by June 2020, but as of March 2022, the Pew Research Center saw that number decrease back down to 2%.

Even as unemployment rates begin to recover from the pandemic, graduate employment can look drastically different from one student to another. Tatyana Stahler and Kaitlyn Kiteley are both Western Washington University alumnae, but what came after graduation were two completely different employment journeys.

Kiteley graduated from Western with a Bachelors of Accounting and a Masters of Professional Accounting. After graduation, Kiteley jumped right into studying for her Certified Public Accountant Exam.

Kiteley found she really enjoyed working on the technical aspects of accounting and it only made sense for her to work in a CPA firm. The first step was taking the CPA exam and then transitioning to working full-time for Ernst and Young after doing two internships with them.

“I feel like the transition was a big change, but the internships and connections I

previously had made the transition pretty smooth,” Kiteley said. 

For Stahler, entering the workforce looked a little bit different. At the time of graduation, Stahler said that her future career was still a big question mark in her life.

“I liked school. I liked learning. So figuring out a major was really easy. And then figuring out, okay, how do I make those interests into a job was a little bit more challenging,” Stahler said.

Stahler's journey took her through various jobs over the years. At first, Stahler worked as a dance and pilates instructor, a career that was aided by her Bachelor of Arts in Dance and her Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology. While working as a staff member at Western, Stahler decided to pursue a Masters in Education. 

Now Stahler works as an Academic Program Coordinator in the Computer Science Department at Western. She attributes her progress to working hard and making connections along the way.

Knowing the right people can be vital when first starting in a field, but Western offers a variety of resources to help ease the transition. One of the main aids on campus is the Career Services Center. The CSC helps students get connected with jobs and internships. The CSC also has a career closet that provides students with free professional attire.

“We support our students in creating their future, whether that be employment, continuing their education, or service opportunities,” Pelton said. 

In a recovering job market, it can be difficult for newly graduated students to settle into their desired careers. Whether it is diving right in or following a more winding path, Stahler said it is more than okay to take your time deciding.

“There is nothing wrong with having a really clear plan,” Stahler said. “But if you're not there, right on the day of graduation, that is okay. It can all figure itself out eventually.”


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