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The Chronicle set out to tell the stories of those affected.
Covid-19 Reversed Decades of Job Growth
Source: Department of Labor
Note: Percentage-change calculations were derived from seasonally adjusted estimates of workers employed within select industries of higher education. The estimate for February 2021 is preliminary.
She checks guests in and out, makes sure the coffee bar and breakfast area are stocked up, helps the housekeepers with laundry, fields calls to the front desk. If a housekeeper or maintenance-crew member is unavailable, she might empty the trash or clean the public restroom.
She doesn’t tell her colleagues, or guests at the hotel, that she has a Ph.D. in educational linguistics and, until last year, was a senior specialist and instructor of English as a second language at nearby Saginaw Valley State University. Bonamie, 42, went on furlough, then was laid off, amid the pandemic.
“It’s just like, ‘Oh, yeah, I used to teach.’”
Bonamie doesn’t see a need to dwell on her past life — the seven years she spent working on her Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico, the next seven years she spent at Saginaw Valley State. After all, she’s happier now than she was in higher education.
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in her native Puerto Rico, Bonamie got a job teaching English to elementary-school students there. But with a doctoral degree, she was told, she’d make more money, have more benefits and flexibility, enjoy greater stability.
That wasn’t how it turned out. When she began at Saginaw Valley State, Bonamie taught two classes each semester, but that turned into three and then four. That was in addition to her administrative duties — working on curricula, helping place international students in courses, creating assessments, doing translation. She’d find herself working from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the office, then logging on at home until 11 p.m. every night. Because Bonamie was classified as an administrative professional and not a faculty member, she felt the amount of work she did outpaced her pay.
After a few years, Bonamie became uneasy about her long-term job prospects. The number of international students enrolling at Saginaw Valley State was consistently declining, and at the same time she was growing disillusioned with the constant churn of teaching. So in January 2020 she started applying for other jobs — more than 100 of them, she estimates, at institutions across the country. She landed five or six interviews, and one campus visit, but no job.
The pandemic only worsened Saginaw Valley State’s enrollment woes, and in June and July, Bonamie was on furlough. Finally, at the end of July, Bonamie was told she was being let go. It wasn’t performance-related, she says her bosses assured her: “It was just all because of the numbers and the budget and the fact that we didn’t have any students to teach or to serve.”
Having had no luck on the higher-ed job market, she turned to hospitality. Ever since high school, she’d found herself fascinated by hotels and the people who worked in them — something she was reminded of in her occasional travels for Saginaw Valley State.
In mid-August, Bonamie reported for her first shift at the Fairfield Inn. The difference from her prior position, she says, is enormous: She works 40-hour weeks now, instead of the 60 she often pulled at Saginaw Valley State, and doesn’t have to bring work home. She alternates between working the first and second shifts.
“Academia, they never gave me an opportunity,” Bonamie says. “You get tired out and burnt out after a while.” Bonamie feels more appreciated at the hotel, and she’ll have chances to advance more quickly there. She’s thinking about interviewing for a job as a front-desk supervisor soon, and in a year or two she might go for assistant general manager. She’s never going back to academe.
Yes, her current job pays less than she was making at Saginaw Valley State, but the adjustments she and her husband have made to compensate — eating out and traveling less, opting for a less-expensive rental property — feel like small sacrifices.
Bonamie sometimes regrets not having turned to hospitality sooner, perhaps breaking into the hotel business after her bachelor’s or master’s degree. Had she gone that route, she reasons, she’d be an assistant general manager by now. “But at the same time, the Ph.D. brought me to Michigan. I made very good friends, and I met my husband. So if I didn’t do one, I wouldn’t have the other,” she says. “That’s how it was meant to be.”
And she doesn’t mind how the nature of her work has shifted. Folding laundry and cleaning the occasional bathroom don’t faze her. Some people, she knows, “would think it is kind of embarrassing, but it’s not at all for me.”
For Bonamie, it’s a start to a second career. She used to teach.
So I started applying for jobs throughout the country, and Western Michigan University came calling. It was a risk because I had never even visited Kalamazoo before I interviewed there. But I decided to make the leap.
I signed a one-year contract to work for them and broke the news to my son, Owen, who was 8 years old at the time. Of course, he was pretty upset about it. We were both leaving behind almost everything that we knew and loved.
We relocated to Kalamazoo, and I started at Western Michigan in mid-December 2019. Then, of course, after the weekend of March 15, we were sent home, like everybody else was in the country. At the time everybody thought that it might be two or three weeks, that the situation would get under control. But once I started reading the news about how the state of Michigan was really losing a lot of funding, then I thought, “Oh, geez.” I knew my job was in jeopardy, especially since Western is a state-funded school.
I was pessimistic, let’s put it that way, about what was going to happen with my position. And I was right to be so. It was in May that I finally asked my bosses to talk to me about what was going on. So they finally sat down with me — virtually, of course — and said, “Yes, you’re going to lose your job.”
I laughed because it was just so absurd to me that I had gone through so much and risked so much, had gotten rid of so many of my beloved possessions to downsize, to relocate, said goodbye to my family and friends, moved further away — to have this happen six months later just floored me. I could see my bosses’ faces on the Teams meeting. They felt awful about it.
I got off the Teams call with them and made myself an ice-cream cone and just sat out on the deck and basically shut down. About an hour later, I started calling friends and family to begin the lamenting process.
I didn’t cry or break down or blame my bosses or anything. It was just one of those things, one of those situations that people couldn’t necessarily improve or do anything about. It was sad, but what do you say or do? You make an ice-cream cone.
All I could think of was “What the hell am I going to do now?” No idea. And of course, my son was there, so I couldn’t lose it. I couldn’t break down. He couldn’t see me do any of that.
I was counting on the job lasting a lot longer; I was definitely hoping to make Kalamazoo our home. But I’m fairly fiscally responsible, and I’ve saved for a rainy day. My rainy day turned into this giant hurricane, and I had a bit of a nest egg that helped me get through that, so I was very lucky, probably more lucky than a lot of people.
I had to make yet another huge decision: Do I stay in Kalamazoo and try to make a go of it? Or do I pack up and we go home to Findlay? I, obviously, was constantly looking for other jobs, and it appeared that the job situation in northwestern Ohio was actually better than in western Michigan. So I decided that we were going to pack up all of our stuff and move back to Findlay.
Here I was, 46 years old, with no job, a single mom, and I could hardly get anyone to rent an apartment to me because I had no income. I actually had to have a friend of mine cosign a lease on my apartment. It was just shameful and humiliating all around, even though this wasn’t my fault, it was a pandemic-related situation.
I was laid off effective July 16, 2020. In late August we were back in Findlay. I got several interviews at universities in northwest Ohio. I also interviewed for a grant administrative position at United Way in Findlay. I interviewed at Whirlpool Corporation for a communication position at their factory.
It was about mid-October that I started interviewing with Ohio Northern University, for a position as their associate director of media relations. I cried when my boss called and offered it to me. I started here at the beginning of December, so I was unemployed for about four and a half months.
The Ohio Northern job has literally been a godsend. I feel comfortable. I really enjoy the people that I work with. So it’s where I should be right now; it’s my home right now.
Ironically, despite the disappointment with Western Michigan University, I believe the fact that I took a risk and took that job was an asset to my job-seeking while I was unemployed. I think that impressed people, that I was willing to do that, even though it didn’t pan out because of the pandemic. They were impressed with my bravery and willingness to risk a lot of things. So not all was lost.
“I love my co-workers,” she says in English. “I feel like they are my family, and I feel very comfortable with them.” Besides, she adds through a translator, over the years she didn’t feel confident that she could find a comparable job.
Now she may have to find a new family. In March of last year, Espinosa was laid off, as the pandemic decimated travel and the hotels that house visitors. She has been mostly out of work since then, surviving on unemployment payments.
Espinosa, 48, left Colombia 20 years ago, fleeing violence in her home country and seeking opportunity in a new one. Here she married an American, became a citizen, gave birth to a daughter, and eventually got divorced. She worked for a few years at manufacturing plants, then landed a job at the hotel in the early aughts through a cousin who already worked there. At the time, Aramark ran housekeeping in the hotel, and Espinosa was paid about $9 an hour, with 10-cent-an-hour raises every year. Her health insurance cost $500 a month.
Espinosa was active in organizing the union, in 2013, a cause supported by students and faculty members at Northwestern.
“The union came, everything was different,” she says. Before she was laid off, she was paid $14.75 an hour by the Compass Group, which took over Northwestern’s services contracts in 2018, and her benefits fees went down to $85 a month.
As a union steward in the local Unite Here chapter, Espinosa helped co-workers who looked to her for answers when they lost their jobs: Could they get unemployment? How would that affect their health care? The stress was at times overwhelming, she says.
“The company, they don’t offer anything for us. Northwestern neither,” she says. “Thank God we had the union, and thank God we had the students, because they would support us, collect money for us.”
Students held rallies to press the university and its contractor to offer back pay and health benefits to the workers. “We need to have a voice, so the students were behind us to tell the university we need help,” she says.
That back pay was never granted. Nor were laid-off employees offered help in finding unemployment services or health care, or transitioning to some other job. “The workers were laid off and left to sort of figure things out on their own,” says Elliott Mallen, a researcher with the union.
In January the Compass Group announced that almost all the dining employees at the university would be recalled to work. Mallen says that represents about three-quarters of the workers who were laid off last year. Most employees of the conference center and hotel remain out of work.
Espinosa is one of them. She has kept afloat with support from the government and Medicaid, although she says that Medicaid has not covered the therapy she has needed to cope with the stress. Helping her co-workers navigate processes for unemployment claims and health coverage took a toll, she says.
She briefly worked in cleaning at a local hospital, but she felt that she wasn’t being offered enough equipment to protect her from Covid-19, so she left. She has been offered a job with her old employer on the night shift, but she says she can’t take it. Her 17-year-old daughter has a history of severe mental-health challenges, and Espinosa, a single mother, wants to be at home at night to watch over her.
Espinosa wants to move to Spain, where many of her family members live. “Mostly, I’m here in America for my daughter and her future,” she says through a translator.
Her daughter goes to high school in Evanston, and is interested in pursuing a career in journalism. She writes for the high-school newspaper about the challenges facing impoverished people in the pandemic, including stories about her mother’s struggles and those of her co-workers’.
“I feel that the most important thing in my life, apart from my daughter, is to be a leader,” Espinosa says. “I like very much to get involved in just causes. That’s very important, and I want to give my daughter an example to follow.”
Fox, whose pronouns are they, their, and them, had taught in the department of mathematics, statistics, and computer science as a lecturer for two years. They took pride in creating a warm classroom environment for students to learn math, which can sometimes feel, Fox knows, like a cold subject. After the pandemic struck, other instructors pretended that everything was normal, wrote one of Fox’s students in a spring-2020 evaluation. But Fox “helped alleviate our anxiety and stress with compassion and humor.”
Entering last fall’s semester, Fox, who was involved with the faculty union, knew that layoffs and non-reappointments were a possibility. But, they thought, It’ll happen to my colleagues. Not me.
So in July, when they were told, in the midst of teaching a summer course, that there was no job after all, they were devastated. Then, Fox says, they entered the first of the five stages of grief: denial. Surely, Fox thought, I’ll be rehired once enrollment numbers >become less murky. That happens all the time. And I’m a good teacher.
But no job emerged. In an act of desperation, Fox sent what was essentially a short cover letter to department leaders, pleading their case, but they got no response. Eventually, reality sank in. When that happened, they felt “something like acceptance” tinged with anger, Fox said. They were part of a 5-percent reduction in full-time non-tenure-track positions across the university, according to the UIC United Faculty, the faculty union. Some, like Fox, were at the start of what they thought could have been long academic careers.
Fox, 27, didn’t always want to teach math. Growing up in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., they loathed the subject, or at least the way it was taught. There was “tons and tons” of homework, which felt tedious and unnecessary, Fox recalls. One high-school trigonometry teacher, Fox remembers, docked points for small things like not putting arrowheads at the ends of axes. “I just found it immensely frustrating, and blamed math for it,” Fox says.
That changed when they attended college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In their first week of Calculus 2, the professor presented a proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, and “it just knocked my socks off,” says Fox, who went on to major in math.
After they graduated, Fox enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Illinois but struggled with anxiety and depression, and dropped out after earning a master’s degree. They started teaching for the department as a lecturer and soon realized that they loved putting together lessons in which logic builds on itself into a temple of comprehension. What they enjoyed most was the students, who responded to Fox’s bone-dry sense of humor and unorthodox icebreakers. They would sometimes instruct students to turn to the person next to them and say, “I love you.”
“It’s this bizarre, uncomfortable thing,” Fox says, “but also it gets you to laugh, and when you’re laughing and looking at the person next to you, you’re like, ‘OK, I can work with you.’”
When Fox got the notice that they wouldn’t be reappointed, they cried. Having to teach the next day felt especially demoralizing. But they wanted to keep teaching somewhere. They applied for other academic jobs but didn’t hear back. The job market, already brutal before 2020, was not improved by a global health crisis. Fox went on unemployment insurance and got some financial assistance from the faculty union’s mutual-aid fund.
More notable than the financial anxiety was the emotional toll. “Losing your job is one of these cultural touchstones where everybody knows it sucks,” Fox says, “but you don’t actually realize how humiliating and terrifying it is until it happens to you.”
After four months of searching, Fox landed another position. They’re now a staff organizer for the university’s graduate-employees union. The pay is better, and Fox likes the work. They hope they’ll be able to return to the classroom in the future, they say, though “I don’t know how that’s ever going to happen.”
If it does, Fox will bring with them a heightened understanding of what academe protects, and what it doesn’t. Faculty members, they say, often don’t consider themselves workers, employees who are expendable. But this past year has made it clear, at least to Fox, that they are. The university, as an enterprise, is a business, they say. “Cutting costs means cutting me.”
I worked for Kennesaw State University. My title was administrative specialist. Basically, I was a business manager, supporting the vice president for student affairs. Assisting with budgets, paying bills for several departments. Then I was moved to Student Life, where I registered student organizations and read through their contracts to make sure they were written the right way. I enjoyed it.
In 2019, when I knew my daughter was going to be attending KSU, I went a little crazy at the campus bookstore. Spent a couple hundred dollars on KSU T-shirts, hoodies, blankets, socks. I put everything in a big box under the Christmas tree. When you work for a university, you’re kinda proud to work there.
I don’t have a college education. When I graduated from high school, in 1980, college was a luxury item. I wanted to be a secretary because that’s what everyone was doing. Not having a degree has held me back from getting jobs, especially in the academic world. They’ll hire you, but they won’t give you the top pay.
I came to KSU from the corporate world, where I was making $45,000 a year. In 2010, I got RIF’d by my company. “Reduction in force,” that’s the terminology they use. I was unemployed for 18 months. A neighbor kept telling me, “Try academia — academia is recession-proof.” So I was like, OK, maybe I should.
At KSU, in 2011, I started at $24,000. I ended up making $49,500. The only reason for that big jump was I left to work for Amazon and then came back.
I knew when I retired from the university, I would reap the real benefit, because I would have my pension — $900 a month for the rest of my life. I had 6.5 percent taken out of each paycheck for that. But the university doesn’t match it until you’ve worked your full 10 years. I was two years from being vested.
Then Covid hit. When we went back to work in person, in July, my manager said I had to move to a new office because I was going to be supporting a different department. They told me to go to the surplus store and get furniture for myself because they couldn’t afford to buy it.
On August 10, I got an email saying I was going to get a Zoom request from HR in 10 minutes. And I was like “What’s going on?” The HR person said we’re having to lay people off because of Covid. My head was spinning. I had 15 minutes to clear out my office. Get your stuff. Leave. Goodbye.
My actual termination date was October 10. As the day drew near, I wondered how was I gonna come up with the money to keep my daughter in school. My husband is disabled; he’s getting Social Security. The financial stress exacerbated my chronic illness. Ulcerative colitis. Landed in the hospital for 10 days.
I was denied for private insurance because of my pre-existing condition. So I had to start paying for Cobra [temporary health care coverage]. I had to get a policy for my daughter. All that is about $980 a month.
My illness took me down for weeks. Could barely get out of bed. Then I was getting back on track, like, OK, I’m gonna look for a job. In mid-December my whole family got Covid.
Through a friend I found a contract job with a small business, managing their financials three days a week. It’s a double-edged sword because now I’m not entitled to unemployment. I’m making a good wage but don’t get benefits. Time is ticking away here, and I’m not putting money away for retirement. I’ll be able to live on the money in my pension for a year. That’s it.
I could sell my house, but I’ll be damned if I lose my house over this. I enjoy sitting on my deck with a cup of coffee and hearing the birds sing. Where am I gonna find a job with a pension or 401(k), disability, life insurance, the whole package? If I were 10 years younger, I wouldn’t feel as stressed.
I’m angry at KSU. They just threw me out in the cold. Did nothing to help me, or try to place me in a new job. How does the state just turn its back on you and say, “You get nothing”? You know?
My dad was a milkman. In the wee hours he would come home and go to sleep, then get up in the afternoon and drive a bus. On weekends he worked as a cab driver. He made sure he made enough money to keep things going, and that always stuck with me. Most of my life I worked two jobs, like selling Tupperware to make an extra couple hundred a month. If I have to go get two jobs, that’s what I’ll do.
I’ve got a 19-year-old to put through college. If I’m defeated, what kind of example do I set for her? I want her to see that you can get knocked down and keep going. God has given me breath for the next day, and I’ll take that breath and move forward.
A longtime adjunct lecturer at LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of New York, Pacholczyk was told in April 2020, as Covid-19 cases soared in New York City, that she wouldn’t be reappointed in the fall. She’d lose the job that she’d held for more than 20 years. Catastrophe.
Then she was told that some adjuncts had received that notice in error. She hoped maybe she’d been one of them. In late May she received her standard reappointment letter, buoying those hopes. But in the summer quarter she wasn’t assigned any classes. None again in the fall quarter. And none that winter. By that point, it was not a surprise to Pacholczyk, but it stung anyway. Her contract at Baruch College, another CUNY campus, where she’d taught since 2007, was also not renewed.
As an adjunct, Pacholczyk never had rock-solid employment, and neither did her colleagues. Eight adjuncts at LaGuardia’s English Language Center, where she worked, weren’t offered classes that summer, fall, or winter due to a pandemic-induced 70-percent enrollment drop, according to the college. Pacholczyk doesn’t know if she’s lost her job for good or just for now. It feels like living in a “void,” in “limbo,” she says. Those words, she notes, are typically ones you use after a bad breakup.
Her relationship with academe started in 1986. Pacholczyk, who was born in Poland, arrived at the University of Warsaw to study applied linguistics, hoping to become an interpreter. A year and a half into her studies, she made her way to the United States via a babysitting gig. The idea was to stay a year or two, learn English, and return.
Then her world, and the world, shifted. A romance blossomed. Communism fell. So Pacholczyk stayed put. She got a job waiting tables and then managing a restaurant called Taste of the Apple, and paid her way through CUNY’s Hunter College, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
After teaching at other institutions in the CUNY system, Pacholczyk started at the English Language Center in 2000. The center, which serves learners from dozens of countries, felt like a home away from home, she says. She could intimately relate to what her students were going through. In 2016 she won an Outstanding Instructor Award from her division at Baruch.
She says she’s now lost the crux of her identity. Her one-bedroom apartment in Astoria, Queens — decorated with a Casa Blanca poster and crammed with books and duplicates of printed handouts — looks like a teacher’s home. Over decades, she’s tuned her life to the frenetic rhythm of perpetually prepping for classes. “I always needed to have a plan in life,” Pacholczyk says. Now she finds herself without one. And “I am not exactly 20 years old, [like] when I first came to this country.”
At 53, Pacholczyk is no longer able to build retirement savings. She also lost her health insurance. In September, Pacholczyk’s skin erupted in what looked like pimples, some of which festered into scabs. She scheduled a doctor’s appointment but then canceled it. She couldn’t stomach the price.
Eventually she felt she had no choice. After a biopsy and weeks of worry, she learned she had pityriasis lichenoides chronica, a disease for which she’s receiving phototherapy three times a week. Medicaid should be covering the expenses.
The treatment, she says, often leaves her feeling dead-tired at the end of the day. So when the Language Center asked if she was available to teach in the evening for the spring of 2021, a time slot she hadn’t requested, she considered it but ultimately said no. Her doctor told her it wasn’t a good idea.
Pacholczyk is now making do on unemployment insurance, and spinning her wheels. During the day, she reads and she walks Ruby, her 14-year-old pitbull. She’s found community with the other English Language Center adjunct instructors who have not been reappointed. They’re sort of like “partners in misery,” Pacholczyk says, because it’s hard for other people to understand what they’ve gone through. They’ve reassured one another that losing their jobs was not their fault.
At times, Pacholczyk feels “futureless,” she says. She hopes she’ll be assigned courses for the fall of 2021, if higher education settles into something resembling a typical semester, but there’s no guarantee. She wonders if she should start applying for jobs in other fields. But what would those even be? Would the switch be worth it? She doesn’t know. “And that I don’t know,” she says, “is really driving me crazy.”
None of that protected Sue Ramlo. On July 15, the day Akron’s Board of Trustees voted to fire 96 professors, she received a meeting invitation from her new acting dean. She knew what awaited her.
It was nothing specific to her performance, she was told. It was about money. Even before the pandemic, which decimated college budgets across the country, the University of Akron had been bleeding red. Various presidents and a revolving door of chief financial officers had tried different remedies, without success.
“The sky was always falling,” says Ramlo. “Always.”
Two months before the layoffs, the administration eliminated the College of Applied Science and Technology and the College of Education, scattering those faculty members across the campus. One of them was Ramlo, who taught technical physics, software applications, and programming for technology.
Ramlo came late to academe. Having worked in a failing industry — radiation detection — she understood that nothing in life is guaranteed. But teaching seemed satisfying in a way she had not experienced before. In northeastern Ohio, a part of the Rust Belt, Akron plays a pivotal role in helping students get to the next rung of the economic ladder. “That you can help people give their families and children a better life?” she says. “You don’t get that in industry.”
And tenure, which she earned after receiving her doctorate at Akron, offered a measure of security. It also came with an obligation, she felt, to speak up for her colleagues, particularly those in more tenuous positions. As vice president of the faculty union, she often found herself at odds with the administration.
When she was let go, in a meeting that she says lasted about five minutes, Ramlo didn’t yet know how many more indignities lay in wait. She soon discovered she no longer had university email or library privileges, making it harder to look for work and continue her research. She lost her health insurance when the university declared “force majeure,” nullifying a provision in her employment contract that would have covered her for another year. The tuition discount her son was supposed to keep receiving at Akron also evaporated.
Former faculty members and the faculty union are still battling the administration over the conditions and terms of the layoffs. Ramlo, for one, is fighting to get her job back.
The bills started piling up. For the first time since she began working, at age 15, Ramlo applied for unemployment benefits. “It’s hard to have pride during a pandemic,” she says.
Struggling with a loss of identity, a hostile job market, and the overwhelming sadness of being disconnected from her students and colleagues, Ramlo created an email network to provide support and advice to the dozens of professors who had been fired.
“All these months later, we are dealing with so many emotions,” Ramlo says. “It’s this idea that we were discarded. We’re all trash. That we’re not worth anything to the university. No matter how much blood, sweat, and tears we put in.”
With four years to go before she can receive a full pension from the state teachers’ union, Ramlo has made it a priority to find work in Ohio. She has applied to public colleges, private colleges, and online programs. Some of her former colleagues have been able to find jobs, but they’re “mostly younger faculty in their 30s and 40s,” she says. “The people who have been really struggling to find other work are people like me. I’m 58.”
Then Akron circled back to her, asking if she would teach some of the courses this spring that she used to teach, but at an adjunct’s wage. What choice did she have? She said yes.
She estimates she will make about 25 percent of what she used to, carrying 75 percent of her former teaching load. She wonders what her former colleagues, still employed, are thinking.
“They avoid us. Maybe it’s survivor’s guilt,” she says. So many are dealing with their own issues, too, like heavier teaching loads to make up for the reduction in their ranks, and the stress of Covid-19.
Her support is the email group. About 20 are regularly active. But many tell her privately that although they are quiet, they read everything on the chain, and it helps them get through the really bad days.
“I feel like a mother hen,” she says. “But sometimes it’s overwhelming to me. Sometimes we’re just on the phone and we’re crying. Because it’s so much. It’s just so much to absorb and deal with. I say the serenity prayer every day. Every damn day. Because I don’t know what else to do.”
Yen, who is 29, was on that path until last November, when he was laid off from his job as coordinator of rec sports at Rider University, a position he had held for only a year.
“I was really excited for my career path, and pandemic hits,” Yen says. “I took that pretty hard.”
The job at Rider, in New Jersey, wasn’t his first in recreation. As a freshman at Mount St. Mary’s University, in Maryland, he sought out work on campus and landed in intramural and club sports, eventually becoming a supervisor and running the training for other student workers. He’s not a jock, but he’d gone to “The Mount” to cheer on the men’s basketball team.
“I love the way that sports can tell a story,” he says.
The job taught him about responsibility and grit, and offered a sense of direction. Yen had been a wayward student who changed his major from biology to history in a last-minute scramble. “If I banged out almost two semesters’ worth of only history classes, I could graduate on time,” he says. “I didn’t tell my parents until graduation day.”
After a stint as a teaching assistant at an elementary school, Yen was hired as assistant director of intramural sports at Mount St. Mary’s, where he found himself offering guidance to students who were like him.
“I had a tough time in college,” Yen says. “I’m not particularly bright, but I have a lot of wisdom, if that makes sense. I’m able to say, ‘Learn from my mistakes.’” Students who have left college still reach out to him for advice. That was the most rewarding part of his nascent career.
But the job at his alma mater, Yen says, was much like others in higher ed these days: His department lost resources, personnel weren’t replaced, and Yen was continually asked to do more with what was left. After four years, Yen was burned out. He did not have a master’s degree, often a requirement for the job. So he cast about for coordinator positions in intramural and club sports at Notre Dame, Syracuse, Xavier, and other universities. Rider offered him a spot.
The position had recently been revived after being eliminated following the 2008 recession, Yen says. When the pandemic hit, there was noticeably less to do, and he knew his days were numbered. After Yen was laid off, administrators at Rider let him stay in his tiny campus apartment until he found a new place to live. His girlfriend is in a counseling graduate program at Rider, so he is committed to staying in the area to support her.
Administrators at Rider tipped off Yen to a temporary position at the nearby College of New Jersey as a quarantine and isolation coordinator. He works with the college’s health-services office and contact-tracing program to identify students who have tested positive for Covid-19 or been in close contact with someone who has. Then he handles all the logistics for isolating them: finding housing, moving stuff, arranging the delivery of meals. The job will end before June.
His parents hadn’t been happy when they found out about his struggles in college, but they were understanding about this setback. “My dad was laid off during the financial crisis, so he was able to provide me insight,” Yen says. His father has since been laid off again, and his brother, sister, and aunt have all lost jobs over the past year. “I was able to be self-sufficient completely, even in a time of crisis, and that’s where he felt a little bit proud.”
Now Yen plans to get a master’s degree. In spite of the difficulties he’s faced in two college jobs, he has his sights set on getting back into higher education.
“My passion is in student development, working directly with the students,” Yen says, providing not just programming, but also mentorship. “I feel a strong connection to paying it forward to that next generation,” he says. “It’s something I am not only good at, but I have an emotional connection there as well. It’s my sense of purpose.”