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Job hunting during a pandemic? It’s not easy, but recent and soon-to-be grads share how they found success.

The pandemic has upended the job search process, leading many VCU students and recent graduates to think creatively about how to land the right job out of school.
a car with a v.c.u. bumper sticker with a license plate that reads 'just hired'

When today’s graduates first started taking classes, they probably didn’t picture their first job interviews after graduation taking place from their couches, perhaps with bunny slippers on their feet or a pet curled up next to them. But the COVID-19 pandemic upended the job search process, along with so many other things, and made finding a job even more daunting than usual.

That hasn’t stopped Virginia Commonwealth University students graduating during the pandemic from putting their best foot forward — bunny-slipper clad or not — and embarking on searches that ultimately landed them jobs in their chosen career fields. VCU News checked in with four recent grads, and one student set to graduate in May, to learn about their fruitful job hunts. [CHS is featuring three from the article below. Visit VCU News for the full feature to read about all five grads.]

eden zewdu
Eden Zewdu

Eden Zewdu

B.S. in biology

Job: research associate, OriGene Technologies

After graduating with a bachelor’s in biology in May, Zewdu wanted to do research but it took her a while to find the right opportunity. She was only recently hired at OriGene Technologies.

“You need to be really patient, because it is really easy to get discouraged,” she said.

Zewdu had not originally planned to work in the private sector. Before graduation, she was looking for a post-baccalaureate research opportunity, possibly with the National Institutes of Health. She wanted to focus purely on research in an academic setting. While at VCU, Zewdu did research in a lab and participated in a National Institutes of Health program designed to increase professional growth within the sciences. But Zewdu soon realized that her dream of a post-baccalaureate program was not going to happen.

“Due to a lot of cutback from the pandemic, that didn’t work out,” she said.

In August, Zewdu changed course. She worked with advisers at Career Services to create a resume that compiled all of her worthy experiences. She said the experience really helped her put together a professional-looking resume.

Zewdu applied at numerous places and got some responses, but said it was challenging at times to keep moving forward.

“I got just enough response to keep me going,” Zewdu said.

She started work in October and believes her training at VCU really prepared her to work at a biotechnology company.

“A lot of application and critical thinking is involved in my job, and I believe my research experience and classes at VCU helped me,” she said.

Though it’s not her dream job, Zewdu said she feels she is gaining valuable experience. She wants to apply to graduate school in two years.

“You should try to find something that you can grow with,” Zewdu said. “I didn’t get something that was exactly what I was looking for but it will get me a step closer to what I want.”

Matthew Toscano

B.A. in African American Studies and B.I.S.

Internship: Museum Leaders in Training, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

As he prepared to graduate from VCU in May, Toscano was planning to intern at art museums in Washington and gain experience in pursuit of his dream to one day work as a curator with a focus on African art. However, when the pandemic hit, those opportunities evaporated.

His plans upended, Toscano submitted an application to intern locally at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, even though it was past the typical time to apply.

“I emailed them and asked if they were still taking anybody, but it was pretty late in the game,” said Toscano, an Honors College graduate who received a B.A. in African American studies from the College of Humanities and Sciences and bachelor of interdisciplinary studies with a focus on intercontinental art and film history from University College. “They told me to go ahead and apply anyway.”

One of Toscano’s favorite professors at VCU was Trent Nicholas, who teaches film history in the School of the Arts and is coordinator of statewide media resources at the VMFA. Nicholas saw Toscano’s application and helped him get hired for an internship in the museum’s education department, specifically with a program called M.LiT: Museum Leaders in Training, in which teenagers explore museum careers and gain leadership and career skills.

Not only does Toscano feel lucky to have landed a great internship in his field, the experience has also made him realize that he has a love for teaching.

“I’m really just enjoying being at a museum in any way right now, but it’s been just a great experience too,” he said. “Prior to the internship, I thought I was, for sure, going to pursue a curatorial position in museums, but now I'm definitely also thinking about teaching.”

Looking beyond his VMFA internship, which wraps up in January, Toscano is applying to graduate school, with an eye toward Ph.D. programs in art history.

When asked if he has any advice for other VCU students graduating amid COVID-19, Toscano suggested applying for the job or internship even if you think they aren’t accepting applications.

“When I applied, it was way past when people would normally be applying for internships. I just emailed and said, Would it be OK? And they said, Sure, go ahead. So I would say go ahead and apply. Especially during COVID, everything’s up in the air and the old rules don’t necessarily apply.”

isaiah harvin
Isaiah Harvin

Isaiah Harvin

Master of Product Innovation

Job: business analyst, product management, HBO Max

Harvin was happy working as an assistant brand manager at Altria when he was contacted by a recruiter with HBO just as he was about to graduate with a master’s degree from the da Vinci Center in August 2020. He had already earned a bachelor’s degree at VCU in marketing in 2018.

“I was just sourced out of the blue because of my social presence on LinkedIn and the work I was doing outside of my job at Altria or the work outside of school,” said Harvin, who was a co-organizer of the Richmond-based industry meetup ProductTank and helped co-found a European-based computer software startup, APTIC, which uses computer vision technology to deliver navigation and autonomy to the visually impaired.

“It was really surreal. It felt like a dream come true to think that somebody saw something in me, and took a chance to see what I can bring to the table.”

His new position as a business analyst in product management at HBO Max helps shape the stories that are told. “On the multicultural marketing committee, I’m able to see stories and shows as they’re being put together and provide perspective on authenticity of characters and scripts to help shape what people see on the outside.”

He credits his da Vinci Center experience with giving him an understanding of how to build businesses and preparing him to take on a lot of responsibility right out of school, as well as helping him better understand his value and how to position himself in his career. He also was able to practice interviewing through mentorships while in school.

His research in grad school focused on the study of signs and symbols related to product design in dollar stores. Now research plays a part in his current position.

“I’ve reported a lot on the metrics of the business. I also helped to shape the ways that we learn about the products, measuring our success,” said Harvin.

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