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IOWA CITY - New college graduates always face uncertainty.
Will they get a job? Where will they live? What will become of their career ambitions and dreams? And, practically speaking, how will they cover the bills after - in many cases - having relied on parents?
In 2020, COVID-19 confounded those concerns - leaving college graduates not only uncertain or uncomfortable, but unnerved and afraid.
Jia Ern Ong, 22, was one such University of Iowa alumna. After graduating in May with a neuroscience degree, she faced the daunting task of launching into a shifting and - in some fields - desolate workforce.
'Toward the end of the semester it was kind of hitting crunchtime, because … you look at the news and each and every single day, unemployment here, unemployment there,” Ong said. 'It wasn't like I had many options available for me.”
She applied for jobs near her hometown in Wisconsin but came up empty. After refocusing her search to Iowa City, Ong in July landed a UI Hospitals and Clinics research internship.
'I was very lucky to get that position,” she said. 'So many of my other classmates were looking for opportunities, and they just fell through. They had them all lined up, and all of a sudden, ‘I'm sorry, but we're furloughing the employees we already have and so we can't afford to take somebody new on.' It was just such a time of uncertainty.”
Amid the unknowns, Ong reached out to a favorite professor - a mentor she calls 'a true treasure.” Seeking inspiration, comfort and guidance as the pandemic raged, Ong connected with David Gould, a visiting associate professor in the UI Public Policy Center.
'There is great power and a bright light in a teacher that truly cares and invests their time in their students,” Ong said. 'I am incredibly blessed to have someone like him to walk beside and guide me in times of anguish and glory.”
And Ong wasn't alone.
'I always get nice little updates, the holiday notes and things like that. But these were different,” Gould told The Gazette. 'My students were writing me in different degrees of fear. I don't want to overplay it. But some were really in a panic situation where ‘I've lost my job and I don't know what to do.' Others were just feeling for the first time the floor was shaking.”
Those reaching out were new grads to alumni in the 25-, 35-, or even 40-year-old age range. And they were contacting Gould via text, email and social media.
'I stopped counting, but it was upward of 150 or 160 when I stopped counting,” he said, noting the connections shared a theme. 'They were looking at their options. They were looking at people that could help them brainstorm what they should do.”
That forced Gould to ask, similarly, what he could do.
'I certainly can't fix the economy,” he said. 'I can't manufacture hundreds and hundreds of jobs. But there was a real thinking of, ‘I may have to rewrite my story at this point. The novel of my life is taking a detour here. And … I may need to figure out a different way to thrive.'”
He collaborated with leaders and colleagues in the Public Policy Center about something to offer at the institutional level, and took a queue from the 'Hawkeye family” notion: 'What do families do when times get tough?” he asked.
Working with the UI Center for Advancement and the Tippie College of Business, Gould dreamed up a version of the UI 'Life Design” course he created a decade ago to 'help students discover what they are innately drawn to do.”
The course guides students - often in their early 20s - toward answers to questions like, 'Who am I? What do I want to do? What do I care about?”
'The 20s are a disruptive time when those are all coming to the surface and those are all magnified,” Gould said.
And so - acknowledging real tragedy and turmoil this year - he asked whether 2020 in a broader sense has served as a reminder that disruption never ends.
'As you go through life, the landscape continually changes,” he said. 'Even if things feel pretty good, you're just constantly checking your compass.”
Perhaps these times serve as a 'wonderful opportunity” for individuals regardless of age 'to really think about the life that we want to live.”
'We got a little bit of a pause here,” Gould said. 'Everything got quieter and everything got more restricted. So what really matters?”
Speakers include legendary Hawkeye wrestling coach Dan Gable, recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Kathy Eldon, author, filmmaker and co-founder of the Creative Visions Foundation; Andy Stoll, UI graduate and senior program officer of entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; and Dan Lerner, a New York University psychology professor and happiness guru.
The 4:30 to 6 p.m. Wednesday installments - starting this week with Stoll - will feature presentations from the highlighted speakers, an opportunity for small group discussion and 'some little magic wrinkles,” Gould said.
He means music, performances, storytelling and guest appearances.
'These little surprises that would be peppered in with the featured guests,” he said. 'And I'm actually going to have office hours.”
The 'class” involves a syllabus, website, assignments - for those who want them - and even academic advisers for any participants wanting to go deeper. The course has no weekly participation cap and attendees can participate in one, two, three or all four.
Although Gould has become known for his communal and innovative higher education instruction - launching a tight-knit Green Room course in 2016 and inviting the community to participate in a public version the following year - this pandemic-propelled project will be entirely online, for the same existential reason.
'There are pros and cons to everything,” he said. 'The con of being on Zoom is we're not going to be together. … But the good news is that you can be anywhere in the world.”
Gould has participants signed up in India.
Stoll told The Gazette he never says no to a Gould invitation and grasps the immense need for such a collaborative initiative now. With his extensive entrepreneurship experience, Stoll said he plans during his presentation next week to share insights from his world travels and views about how and why entrepreneurs thrive in 2020-type conditions.
'I spent most of my professional career working to help people who think of themselves as entrepreneurs and creatives,” Stoll said. 'And a lot of that work is dealing with uncertainty and risk and trying to find your path.”
Noting a massive uptick in entrepreneurship this year, Stoll said, individuals carving out a new and personalized career path 'have ideas and they want to turn them into something.”
'I think 2020 - if it's had any silver linings - it has given many of us the chance to pause a little bit and kind of think about where our lives are at, and what's important, and what we want to do with them.”
Advance registration for the course is required. For details, see facebook.com/UIAdvancement and click on 'events.”
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