How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting students? And what will the effects ultimately be when they enter the workforce? University faculty, including psychologists are concerned.
Suzanne Chong is a staff psychologist at Ursinus College and founder of Clarity and Insight Counseling Services. Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, she utilizes her familiarity with immigration in her professional work with culturally informed practices that have an emphasis on health equity and on honoring individual identities.
In this interview, which has been edited for clarity and concision, she talks about what lies ahead for the workforce with a lens focused on today’s college and medical students.
Regarding the future of the workforce, what are your insights on today’s college students?
They’re going through a lot, let’s just put it that way. They are transitioning into living on their own for the first time. For a lot of them moving away from home, they are navigating a whole new social climate. Some of them are going to be in schools in which they don’t know a lot of people. You know, there are pros and cons, whether you’re on a big campus or a small campus. But either way, it is this experience of leaving home.
Are the financial requirements or stressors different now vs. in the past?
There is definitely this greater awareness of their responsibility and the financial burden to entering college. The cost of tuition and living expenses has skyrocketed and ballooned over the years. And it’s not matching up with the earnings and income of many families. In the past, you could work a summer job, and then afford tuition for the next two semesters. And you could go back to your summer job and hold a part-time job while navigating and juggling college. It’s not the same anymore. It’s just not possible. And it seems to be stressing the college students.
[RL: For medical students, the situation is daunting. 80% carry an average debt of more than $200,000 at medical school graduation. For many medical students, it takes more than a decade to pay off this debt.]
You shared that today’s college students are forming in-person relationships later. Why?
First of all, adolescence and early adulthood are the periods when people start forming identities. And we learn who we are greatly through our relationships with other people. In today’s world, the entry to relationships is through social media. There is a tendency to just meet people online, or through the screen or meet not in person but through texting. And we’re definitely seeing a shift where students are taking less risk in their social relationships.
The culture of actually being out there and doing things is slowly slipping away due to phones and technology. And I think, in some ways, this could really pick away the spontaneity of how social relationships are formed, such as just hanging out or being together in person.
I have telephoned students more than once who have told me that they thought the phone call meant they were in trouble. Given this reluctance to connect, how would you describe their workforce skills, especially when it comes to interviewing?
This is a big question. Because of the delay in forming social relationships due to social media, I do wonder whether it is now the role of schools to incorporate lessons, such as: How do we talk to people? What are some social etiquette guidelines? Sometimes we see emails and texts by younger generations and it strikes us as: Is there something lacking there in their use of language, grammar, appropriate level of formality, and professionalism?
I do think about how much we, as adults, are able to appreciate the shift happening, and intervene and work with our students in a manner in which they can hear us. I ask myself, will we be more flexible in the ways we approach our upcoming generation?
Last month, a student wanted to present a patient to me but didn’t know my name, so just said, ‘Hey. The patient in room 12 …’ Is this kind of casual manner typical of how students are speaking in the workplace?
Yes, I think so. This has emerged, for example, with new words and phrases and a language that is constantly evolving. I think it’s fascinating and I’m learning so much from them: The words that we use, and how it could be so seamless to talk with peers.
However if you are a future employer and you’re not part of that culture, it’s very possible that people might feel like new hires are not able to communicate. And what do we do with that? Do we just insist that the college students adapt to a way that we speak and or do we adapt to them and their language?
What are you seeing as immediate and long-term effects of the pandemic on this generation in the workplace?
I am hoping that what the college students have seen — in terms of the exposed inequities in our society — will ignite generations of grassroots activism. These would be students who are willing to come out and say: No, we do not accept this.
In the short term, there’s a sense of loss, a collective sense of loss and grief that we haven’t really addressed yet. You know, a lot of milestones that our students assume that they will be getting to have been taken away and this was beyond their control. My concern is also that we’re going to see an increasing prevalence of mental-health diagnoses such as PTSD and depressive disorders.
For students, the whole period feels terrifying, out of control, and as if we can do nothing about it. There are things that we can do. But a pandemic gives us a sense that life is very fleeting and fragile, and therefore hopeless. And that’s not what we want.
Medical students seem to me engaged and enthusiastic to be back in the classroom and in the hospital learning patient care. They feel a sense of purpose. But are you seeing more negative moods?
There’s definitely a sense of mistrust. I would say this is the root of it. Can we trust the information that we’re getting? Can we trust that society or the people in charge are looking out for us?
It also might be a little too early to tell because we’re welcoming a new class this fall. If I had to predict and hypothesize, I think there’s a sense of mistrust, mistrust in the adults in charge, that they can trust the information they’re getting. So there’s also that fear that they feel that they’re dispensable and disposable, and, again, that they are left to kind of bear the brunt of perhaps society’s mistakes.
How might employers approach this mistrustful generation coming out of a pandemic?
Students want to see employers who are more transparent, employers who can actually talk about how they’re caring for employees. The college-age students may wish to know whether there have been allegations of misconduct and how are these handled.
How do employers react when employees express dissatisfaction with the current work situation? Are these situations brushed under the rug? Or do they take it seriously? What is the company doing about global issues? What are their values? And do the behaviors and actions of the company and employees align with the values they say that they’re following?
In addition to clear and visible policies, any other specific action items for employers?
I want to tell employers that while you’re interviewing potential employees, have an interview that is collaborative. Be open about where your employee is coming from to get to know their background and context.
College students may be a little bit unfiltered. Be ready to take the position of: Where can I offer some feedback? Can I take into context what’s happening? For myself as an employee of a higher education institution, I would want to be able to work with students more to prepare them for the world, whatever that looks like, while getting to know them on a deeper level.
Resa E. Lewiss is a Thomas Jefferson University emergency medicine physician and professor of emergency medicine and radiology, and the host of the Visible Voices, a podcast dedicated to health-care equity and current trends.
The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.