MILWAUKEE - There is a worry college students are missing out on valuable experiences because of the pandemic. Things like internships, face-to-face networking, and practical, hands-on skills. Some soon-to-be college graduates are making the most of their COVID experience in ways previous classes never imagined.
"Out of high school, I didn’t really know what I was going to get into in my future," Nico Petroccione, a junior at Beloit College told FOX6 News.
Petroccione is a Quantitative Economics and Mathematics major and French minor. He never envisioned a global pandemic as part of that future.
"All of the sudden it felt like the structure of my life and of classes – all of the sudden [were] just gone," Petroccione said.
When COVID-19 hit, leaders at Beloit College plotted a major pivot. By shaking up the traditional higher ed formula, they allowed students a chance to focus.
"Rather than having a 14 week semester with students taking 4 or 5 classes, we went to a modular system where students took two classes for 7 weeks and took another two classes for the next 7 weeks," said Jessica Fox-Wilson, Interim Director of Career and Community Engagement Center at Beloit College.
The start of the spring semester was also pushed back to avoid a potential post-holiday bump in coronavirus cases. It created an extended break administrators decided to fill with a direct response to the pandemic: a Career Accelerator program addressing the employment landscape for graduates.
"How to get a job, how to write a resume – but also connected students with alumni mentors, focus on our career channels program," said Fox-Wilson.
Nearly half of Beloit’s 1,100 students took part in the program, honing in on ways to better position themselves for the real world.
"Am I going to get a job? Am I going to be ok? Can I support myself?" are some of the questions students ask Fox-Wilson. "But it’s just exacerbated because of the state of the economy," she added.
Petroccione packed his break attending 22 workshops and spoke with a number of alumni in his field.
"I certainly feel more confident," Petroccione said. "I feel more like my professional network has expanded. I have a lot more opportunities and people to reach out to if I need help."
That’s being seen by some as a benefit of the pandemic.
"Opportunities that exist right now that didn’t exist before: in most of the virtual career fairs – students actually get more dedicated time with employers," said Lisa Hinkley, Associate Vice President and Executive Director for Career and Professional Development at Carthage College.
Carthage College in Kenosha offers The Aspire Program. Designed to start students down the path to employment as early as freshman year, it has taken on new importance in a virtual world.
"We’re finding alumni and employers are actually more available and willing to network," Hinkley said.
It’s a new skill set that’s emerging among this crop of students. Some argue will leave graduates better off: "I don’t think there’s a ‘back’ – I think there is a forward into a world that is informed by this experience now."
Professor of Education and Director of Graduate Education Programs at Alverno College Desiree Pointer Mace said students aren’t missing out on as much as you might think with virtual learning.
"When you have conceptualization, communication, diagnosis, coordination, and inclusive interaction – that stuff all shows up in online spaces. That stuff all shows up in COVID teaching and maybe more explicitly than it did before," Pointer Mace said.
Desiree Pointer Mace
Back in Beloit, Petroccione doesn’t feel delayed by his virtual experience -- he feels enhanced.
"I think by just going through all of this, it made me learn things and skills that other college students that went to class in person could not have experienced in their college career," Petroccione said.
Another benefit of being virtual? Experts say many graduates are able to interview and find jobs all over the world without the need to relocate. These experiences are just a click away.