Editor’s Note: This is the next installment in the “Generation Resilient” series. Catie O’Reilly is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University. She lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
As the eldest of four children from a middle-class family in New Orleans, there was one thing I knew for sure: if I wanted to avoid six-figure debt after college graduation, I would have to excel academically and try to earn every scholarship available to me.
Fortunately, I was mostly able to do so. I attended Vanderbilt University, which gave me a full scholarship to cover my tuition costs, but not my room and board. To cover my cost of living, I had to take out $15,000 in student loans. While that figure might not seem overwhelming in the best of times, during the pandemic it has become a frightening financial burden – set against the myriad of additional challenges the virus has created for my family and me.
As a Medicine, Health and Society major, I had been following the coronavirus news since December. I knew its potential to wreak havoc on a global scale, and yet I didn’t fully grasp the devastation it would cause until it spread to the United States. On March 13, Vanderbilt decided to close down the campus. I had to move home to New Orleans while still paying my inordinate rent for my off-campus apartment, which I was bound to do since my lease did not end until May 31.
When I returned home, I saw a city in disarray. The cases of coronavirus were rising at an alarming rate, with some attributing the spike to Mardi Gras, a sacred local celebration. My own sister, a freshman at Louisiana State University, had attended and was exhibiting several coronavirus symptoms, including loss of taste and smell, coughing and a fever. At that point, testing was not widely available, so we weren’t able to confirm if she was actually infected.
Virtual learning made the reality I was facing that much more difficult. With all three of my siblings home, four of us were trying to continue our educations without crashing the internet. Though our Wi-Fi largely came through for us, we faced an additional economic hurdle – both of our parents lost significant portions of their income.
My mother works in a doctor’s office and could only go in during non-business hours to catch up on paperwork, and my father runs his own small business, which severely slowed down at the height of a pandemic. As a result, providing the basics – like food on the table – became a high-stress task.
Still, I was hopeful. I had lined up a terrific health care consultancy job in San Francisco for after graduation, and I was relieved to know I soon wouldn’t be a financial strain on my parents. At the start of the pandemic, the consulting firm told me that at the worst they would only have to push my start date back by a month. I began to look for apartments in San Francisco, found a roommate and started to chart out a student loan payment plan.
A few weeks passed, the number of confirmed cases grew exponentially across the country – and the firm changed its tune. They said they could no longer afford to go through with the new hires, and my start date would be shifted to sometime in 2021 (with seemingly no real guarantee that it would happen at all).
Though I understood why they had made this decision, my ability to maintain my composure – and to hold onto hope – temporarily receded into the background. Now I was grieving – the loss of my shot at financial stability, the loss of innocent lives to the deadly virus, the loss of senior moments I’ll never get a chance to experience.
For a time, grief overshadowed my ability to take any concrete steps to improve my future or that of my family. Grief may well seem too strong a word to use for the loss of a job or the loss of a graduation. But when I sat with it and allowed myself to feel it, I felt more open to taking my next steps.
I cannot pretend to know what the future will hold for me or those graduating alongside me, but I know that in the short term I can do everything possible to move forward when this pandemic finally reaches its end.
In recent weeks, I returned to old job applications and have refused to be deterred by the sorry state of the economy. I also began temporarily working in retail, a job I held in high school and seasonally during college, but, hey, I’ve still got bills to pay.
And, a few weeks ago, I landed a job with a significantly lower salary than my consultancy offer, but which still keeps me with a foot in the health care world. I will be starting as a scribe for an orthopedic doctor clinic at the end of the summer.
It may not have been what I was predicting for this coming year, but I am grateful to have my family, to be healthy, and, at the end of the day, to have a degree from an institution I grew to love over these last four years. My life, like the lives of many others in my age group, has taken a detour, but I’m striving every day to take in the new view.