Fordham Senior Studies How COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts College Students’ Career Plans and Mental Health

By: Bea Mendoza

When Tereze Nika, a senior psychology major primarily interested in industrial and organizational psychology, applied for one of Fordham’s summer research grants, she intended to look at students’ transition from college to the workplace and what services could help seniors feel more prepared for the future. Shortly after receiving the grant, the pandemic disrupted the 2019-2020 school year and made Nika rethink her research question. Under the mentorship of Dr. Lindsay T. Hoyt of the Youth Development, Diversity, and Disparities (3D) Lab and Dr. Kristen Shockley, Nika is now exploring how the pandemic has affected the career aspirations and efforts of college students. 

Through her research, Nika seeks to answer three research questions: How are changes in career plans due to COVID-19 affecting college students’ mental health (such as their anxiety levels, perceived stress, and hopefulness)? How do career plans and/or aspirations relate to individual characteristics such as socio-economic status, gender, or if one is a first-generation student? What efforts have colleges and universities made to support students in career development, internships, and counseling before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how well are these services utilized?

So far, Nika’s analyses have found a significant difference in reports of career change plans between seniors and non-seniors. Seniors in the study reported significantly more changes in career plans than non-seniors. Nika explained that freshmen and sophomores reported more perceived stress than upperclassmen. Most importantly, she continued, she and her colleagues found that those with a career change reported higher anxiety and perceived stress, which seemed to be exacerbated for seniors in the study. 

Nika’s research, administered in July 2020, was a follow up to her mentor, Dr. Hoyt’s, April 2020 study on COVID-19’s effects on college students. The students with career changes reported significantly higher anxiety levels than those without, controlling for demographic characteristics and the baseline anxiety levels found in the April study. Those students with career changes also reported higher perceived stress and significantly lower hopefulness. Moreover, students who came from low-income families reported the impact of their career changes to have a significantly more negative effect on their mental health than students from medium or high-income families. These analyses show overall that students with changes in career plans have higher stress, anxiety, and lower hopefulness than those without. 

Nika hopes that her research will find “protective factors” for mental health. Her research may identify the services that best help reduce college students’ anxiety and stress and increase their hopefulness while preparing for life after graduation. “In these unprecedented times,” Nika explained, “It is important to be more knowledgeable and understanding of what college students are going through.” 

What excites Nika about her research is how untouched the topic is, because the potential for job market disturbance that COVID-19 has “hasn’t really happened in this magnitude,” she said. “Students who were graduating into [The Great Recession] is the most recent thing we have in comparison to this.” She believes that the results of her research will help others be more compassionate towards and understanding of how college students are feeling during the pandemic, and particularly how seniors feel about attempting to enter the workforce at this time. 

When asked about conducting research in general, Nika remarked that it’s important for undergraduate students to get involved in research, as it can have a larger impact on wider society and researchers already in one’s field of interest. As for advice to other undergraduate students who may be interested in conducting research, she mentioned the importance of pushing one’s limits, even when it may seem daunting. “It’s all worth it in the end. It’s not just for you, but for the grander things.”

Although Nika is not yet done running her analyses, she hopes to finish by early November 2020 and publish her findings thereafter.

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