Tips for Jobseekers during a Recession: a Career Services Professional's Tale

Stasia Lopez's picture

Picture it: Pittsburgh; the year was 2008. I graduated with my Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a concentration in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Robert Morris University. I had a wonderful undergraduate experience, where I was hyper-conscious of making sure I made myself employable from this expensive degree, because I was the first to attend college in my family and I wanted to help my family and make them proud. I didn’t have a choice but to work while attending school, so I worked and built skills through a full-time position at a local hotel, plus worked three internships in different industries throughout each summer or throughout the year. I had a couple work-study jobs on-campus after I returned from studying abroad in Rome, Italy—the only way I was able to afford that experience was working multiple jobs and saving every nickel and dime ($10,000 in fact) to study and live abroad for five months—an experience that absolutely changed me in every way! I also was engaged on-campus as much as I could for someone who had to balance my studies and work. I managed to write for our school’s newspaper, The Sentry, as a feature writer, where I published articles mostly around culture and travel. I also took a leadership position as the Vice President of the Hospitality and Tourism Management Association and was inducted into the National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS) Honor Society. I was also nominated to be an Eisenhower Scholar, a Patriot Scholar at RMU, and became a Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges.

Undergraduate graduation. From Tips for Jobseekers during a Recession: a Career Services Professional's Tale
Undergraduate Graduation

The future was looking bright, and I networked and connected with many employers in the area from working at the hotel and being exposed to corporate professionals who’d come from near and far to Pittsburgh to stay a night or two for work. I worked at the front desk of the hotel, and really enjoyed talking with them and learning in our conversations about professional life. Even with all the schooling in the world, they don’t exactly teach you how to be successful in the workplace. Maybe many people think this is something we just “know,” but after teaching many classes in Workforce Development many years later at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) to people of all ages, backgrounds, cultures, and experiences—the diversity is not just “the younger generation” that needs to learn this—it’s all generations. 

I don’t think anyone knew back then that the economy was going to flop the way it did. For excited graduates, like me, at the time, my future was bright with multiple job prospects and I felt like I put a lot of time and effort into building a wide range of skills and experience to set me up for success. However, as we know, a recession happened. The job prospects I had went away as the companies I had talked with lost so much money that they couldn’t afford to hire anyone—in fact, they were letting people go. I was so worried about not finding a “good” job that my degree would provide for me that I overlooked so many jobs that couldn’t just put food on the table. 

My husband, Fernando, who was my fiancé’ at the time, encouraged that we “start fresh” in the state of Michigan, where he had some family. It was 2009 and Michigan got hit harder than Pennsylvania (in my opinion) because of the General Motors losses that impacted the state. We ended up moving to southwestern Michigan. I didn’t have an easy time finding a role, and I quickly fell into a depression, thinking that it was me who couldn’t find a “good” job. I was young, and it was easier to put blame on myself at the time, but one day, I swallowed my pride and went to a local restaurant in the area to interview for a position to make ends meet. For an entire year, I went to work in this restaurant; I didn’t enjoy the work, and questioned why I moved to a different state when I could’ve stayed with my parents, rent-free, and worked in Pittsburgh (anywhere) and saved. Student loan companies would call me asking for payments that I couldn’t afford. I was so distraught by having debt for the first time in my life that I was ready to hand over a check to pay a bill rather than eat. My wonderful partner quickly reminded me that our basic needs (like eating and paying rent) were much more important, and tried to always tell me not to worry. 

 My mind played so many games on me. I wrestled with my thoughts and depression. I missed my family, my friends, and the familiar settings of my environment—why was I in Michigan again? I would look into the hardworking and positive face of my loving partner and would remember—at least we’re together! We ended up moving into a spacious, one-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood that had lovely nearby walking trails and in the heart of a quiet town. One day, he told me the wisest thing that hoped would encourage me, and it did! He said, “whenever we hit the floor, there’s only one place left to go: Up!” That was so true. My resilience was being tested. I was made for more than this, and if I had to start at the bottom to learn my valuable lessons, then so be it! I’ll never forget this concept, and that was a good thing. Staying humble is always a good thing! 

Fernando took odd jobs with his construction company he was trying to get off the ground through word of mouth marketing, and bringing home what he could. I started seeing that restaurant job was providing peace of mind for us. It was guaranteed income that we could depend on–and in the economy that we were in, that was a good thing. Once I acknowledged that this less than desirable job that I didn’t want to have to do was actually bringing the peace to our home that we were looking for, I calmed down a bit, and learned a major lesson: no job, no matter what degree I had, was ever beneath me.

After working for a while at the restaurant, and the economy was still not strong, I started looking for graduate assistantships and searched for Master’s degree programs in the field of Higher Education and Student Affairs. While conducting the research, I also wanted to keep doing what made me happy–and yearned to help in international education, especially after a positive experience abroad and taking on an internship in the study abroad office at my undergraduate institution in my last semester of my program. I looked online, and found Abroad Scout, and commented on an article. I talked with the founder, and offered to help in any way I could through writing articles and helping to boost the social media channels with stories and other marketing strategies. I wrote five pieces that were published, and it was exciting to do something in my free time that reminded me about the beautiful cultures of the world, as well as celebrate the diversity and differences we shared. I later would take on an International Studies internship with Colleagues International, a Kalamazoo-based nonprofit organization that provided professional exchanges to international visitors from many different countries. From the time that I could remember, I’ve always lived in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic home, so working with people from different countries and cultures has always been exciting to me. I always felt an instant connection with the international population.

From Tips for Jobseekers during a Recession: a Career Services Professional's Tale

From my connections with Abroad Scout, my mentor had attended Western Michigan University (WMU) and encouraged that I meet the Chair of the HESA (Higher Education and Student Affairs) Department to learn more about the program. I did just that. I applied to the HESA program, and was then asked to participate in the “Interview Days,” which consisted of a tour of the college, meeting professionals in different offices, and then interviewing for different roles. These took place in February of 2011. The night before a major interview at WMU, Kalamazoo had an ice storm. Everyone in Portage, where we lived, lost power–so we traveled to my husband’s cousin’s house to stay, where they had electricity and heat. I was trying not to be a nervous wreck—how was I going to get through this fiasco situation? I couldn’t control the weather, but I could try my best to do well in those interviews the following day. 

After getting through the interviews, mailing my thank you notes, and praying that something would change for the better in my life, I left it up to God and just tried to be positive. Weeks before, I had practiced answering interview questions and had an interview in a Student Life office. Not getting that role, I asked the Director for any feedback. He said, “connect the dots for the employer. They don’t know your story like you do. Keep that in mind.” I knew what I had to do. I practiced and practiced–and when the day finally came to interview for the assistantship I REALLY wanted, I felt like I really enjoyed the interview and the team I would be potentially working with, and felt excited about the possibilities. 

From Tips for Jobseekers during a Recession: a Career Services Professional's Tale

Things were looking up! Fernando and I were planning to get married in the fall of 2011 in Pittsburgh, I got accepted at WMU with a full graduate assistantship in the Career and Student Employment Services office, I was writing for Go Overseas, and I found (soon after I started my program and was a newlywed) this wonderful Editorship with Wandering Educators! I was continuing to build skills and experiences and reaching out to people, like Jessie Voigts, who were willing to take me under their wing, take a chance on me, become a mentor and eventual friend, and help propel me in all the right ways. My curriculum at WMU had one major internship and one practicum required to graduate. Once again, I took on doing more than what was expected because I wanted my chances of employment (my own employability) to really shine. I took on internships in the TRIO Student Success Programs Office and the Study Abroad Office, both at WMU; I also became an International Programs Intern at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and became a Manager of Volunteers for an Asian Affairs Conference. In addition to that, I became more involved with professional associations and committees: I joined the Hospitality Committee for the MIACADA Conference, was the only graduate student invited to the table for the Intercultural Competence Committee at WMU, and presented for the first time ever at a MACAC Conference. I became a member of MCPA, NASPA, MIACADA, NACADA, MAIE, and NAFSA—becoming a five-time travel grant recipient to attend these, usually across the state of Michigan. 

Tips for Jobseekers during a Recession: a Career Services Professional's Tale
Tips for Jobseekers during a Recession: a Career Services Professional's Tale

 Tips for Jobseekers during a Recession: a Career Services Professional's Tale. Learn more:

Fernando’s business was booming, and he had made great connections, and so when it was time for me to graduate in June 2013 with my Master’s degree, I initially started job searching solely in the state of Michigan. I had plenty of interviews and was a top candidate for so many, and I had a great support system, which helped during that time. One evening, I asked Fernando if he would mind if I just tried to apply to some positions near Pittsburgh. I applied to a few positions at Kent State University in Ohio and the University of Pittsburgh, and received interviews from both! I remember traveling home to Pittsburgh one week in October when I had back-to-back interviews. I was so excited to be back home during my favorite time of the year that that energy really carried me through both interviews.

To my delight, I had job offers a few weeks later! I remember crying tears of excitement because I never actually expected to be moving back to the Pittsburgh area (I chose to work at the University of Pittsburgh and spent almost five years there). I grew exponentially at Pitt and was grateful they took a chance on me. I was thankful to learn so much from my experience there. I had the autonomy in my role to create a fusion of Career Services and International Education! I managed a Global Career Series, which I sincerely enjoyed putting on programs and events for, but also collaborated with many different offices throughout the college. I presented at NAFSA, PennACE, EACE, the Global Internship Conference, and was accepted to present at NCDA. I also was an On-Site Chair for the first-ever Lessons from Abroad Three Rivers Returnee Conference (now the Greater Pittsburgh Area Conference), and was later the Co-Chair for the Career and Professional Development. I was a part of multiple committees, spoke at different summits and conferences, was a Faculty Advisor for a Sorority, and even earned a $5,000 matching grant for the Year of Pitt Global for an International Career Conference idea! It was very hard to leave when an opportunity presented itself with UPMC in Workforce Development, and where I’m currently at with the Community College of Allegheny County as a Director of Career Services. 

Tips for Jobseekers during a Recession: a Career Services Professional's Tale
Tips for Jobseekers during a Recession: a Career Services Professional's Tale

My point to all those who recently graduated: it does get better! 

The economy may be floppy at present, but that doesn’t mean you can’t manage your own employability by creating options for yourself. 

No matter where I was living, I was asking how to get involved. 

What could I do to help others but also help myself? I bought a book called Getting from College to Career by Lindsay Pollak. It kept me on track with making sure I was doing the right things to be successful, most especially during a recession. Was I always getting paid for my extra work that I did? Unfortunately, no, but my experience and skills have grown in ways I never could’ve fathomed. It made me humble, it made me a better Advisor, Career Counselor, a better professional all around. We have chapters in our lives that we go through. I’m not even telling the full story. I ended up during all this moving to North Miami, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina, too, but that was before the move to Michigan and back to Pennsylvania. We also ended up adopting our sweet cat, Zorro, miscarrying a baby, and eventually delivering our beautiful and healthy daughter, Maya, in 2016. There’s so much detail to all of our stories. I am so thankful to be working at a Community College currently which is closer to my home (although we’re all working from home now due to COVID-19). 

Life throws a lot of curveballs. Maybe it’s because I’m entering my 9th year in Career Services that makes me think about the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) core competencies that form career readiness, and they are: 

• Critical thinking/Problem solving
• Oral/Written Communications
• Teamwork/Collaboration
• Digital Technology
• Leadership
• Professionalism/Work Ethic
• Career Management 
• Global/Intercultural Fluency

In addition to these, employers are looking for resilience and grit. Generational and cultural differences add another deep layer to the work ethic of today, but that’s another article for another time. 

My main message right now to graduates and recent alumni is: keep going. 

Look at LinkedIn Learning (many schools, like community colleges, offer this to help with skill building deficits!). 

If employers are not hiring right now, how can you do skill-based projects either in the classroom and/or through volunteering? Not familiar with ZOOM, Pinger Texting, or Skype (as a few examples)? 

Don’t be afraid to learn. Check out your local community college to see if there’s certificates and training programs, or even an Associate’s Degree you could earn during this challenging time in our economy. Check with your church, your local Chamber of Commerce, and especially online. Micro and virtual internships are now the current thing. 

Seek out mentors—that’s what helped me…but I had to do the seeking! 

Ask people to review your resumes and cover letters (don’t forget that Community College Career Centers are open to the community, not just students—we help everyone!). 

Employers are probably going to ask: what have you been doing during COVID-19? How did you continue to build skills and experience? Did you help plan and participate in a virtual fundraising walk? Did you volunteer to package food and supplies for those in need? Did you work on the creation of a portfolio? No employer wants to hear that you sat like a couch potato waiting for COVID to pass. Look for virtual job fairs to participate in (even if it’s just to get acquainted with that platform and ask questions). Employers love it when you ask them questions!! Employers are still hiring, too! Maybe your internships right now may not all be paid, but don’t discount the valuable experiences that you’ll gain from those. There’s a lot that you could be doing, if you haven’t already. 

Don’t wait around to sit back for something to come your way: be proactive. 

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) core competencies that form career readiness. From Tips for Jobseekers during a Recession: a Career Services Professional's Tale
The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) core competencies that form career readiness

Best wishes to all the graduates...and please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or want to brainstorm ideas at stasia.diamantis [at] 

Stasia Lopez is the Global Education Editor for Wandering Educators and is also a Director of Career Services at the Community College of Allegheny County. She graduated with her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Western Michigan University in 2013 and earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Robert Morris University. Stasia is passionate about international education, travel, college to career topics and loves working on a college campus. She’s lived in four different U.S. states (Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania) and also studied and lived abroad in Rome, Italy. Stasia lives in the Pittsburgh area with her husband, Fernando, precious daughter, Maya, and playful kitty-cat Zorro.