Student unemployment graphic

When Avery Everett began her internship with the Office of Physical Plant at Penn State, she imagined herself receiving a full time position with the company after graduation. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, this future has become uncertain.

Everett (senior-energy engineering), has been unemployed since mid-March, when universities across the country began closing in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

During Penn State’s spring break, Everett didn’t go home, opting instead to stay on campus and continue working. However, she began to have concerns for her job security after the university announced students would not return.

Everett said her supervisor assured her she would be able to continue working if classes went online. After spring break ended, though, Everett woke up to several emails explaining that student interns would not be allowed to return to their positions.

Everett described the news as “devastating,” adding that she spent the first week of unemployment crying. Her internship had been her primary source of income for two years.

“I was able to cover my bills and then suddenly I wasn’t,” Everett said.

The payments began to stack up for Everett, who doesn’t receive financial support from her family and pays for most of her expenses independently. Car payments, insurance, food, electricity, rent, health insurance and student loans are just a few of the bills Everett is responsible for.

With so much on her plate, Everett said she had to find a new place to live rather than renew her lease for the upcoming academic year.

Finishing the spring semester proved difficult as Everett struggled to budget all of her monthly expenses. While she said the university’s alternative grading system was helpful, she still failed two final exams.

“I was so preoccupied thinking about everything [else],” Everett said. To her, classes couldn't be a priority.

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Penn State announced student employees would continue to receive checks through April 30 after the university halted all work. However, Everett said this interfered with her ability to apply for unemployment benefits.

Additionally, the university’s subsidies simply weren’t enough for Everett. She said each employee’s weekly income was based on that received the week before spring break, which Everett said wasn’t a “typical” work week for her as she worked less hours than usual.

Everett has spent May “playing the waiting game” after checks stopped coming from Penn State and after filing for unemployment. She has been waiting two weeks for a response from the unemployment office.

While at school, Everett was also an Uber driver to help with monthly expenses, but this position was put on hold as well.

World Campus student Sarah Bonde worked for Uber full time as a green light expert — someone who assists Uber drivers — before she was laid off at the beginning of May. Bonde (freshman-security and risk analysis) was one of roughly 3,700 employees laid off from the company via online meetings.

“I was just trying to process everything. It was kind of nuts,” Bonde said, explaining that the firings were “more of a mess than [Uber] had originally planned.”

Bonde lives in Texas with her boyfriend, who has been able to keep his job during the pandemic. Initially, Bonde was able to work from home, though she is looking to find a new job where she may have to put herself at risk of contracting the virus.

Uber offered Bonde severance through the end of June, but she worries about how she will get by after that.

“I don’t want to be in a position two months from now where we’re struggling financially because I can’t find a job,” Bonde said. “Bills are not going to go away.”

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Bonde is working on finding resources to assist her financially, citing a program she discovered through the state of Texas. However, she described the program as “temporary” and is planning on finding a new job in public service.

In the meantime, though, Bonde said her household is doing okay financially.

For another World Campus student, each day of unemployment seems to only cause more problems.

Stacy White worked for the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, leading medical billing staff. Throughout the past few months, White (sophomore-psychology) continued working, but recently learned that eight hours of her work week would be cut.

White said it was “pretty devastating” when she discovered her income would be cut. Her husband had been without a job for weeks due to the coronavirus.

“I don’t know how we’re going to make it [from] one day to another,” White said.

White has four children — aged 10, 13, 16 and 19 — to support who are happy to have their parents home as they wrap up their own school years. However, they’re unaware of the financial constraints their household is currently under. White prefers her children remain unconcerned.

For several months, White held a remote position with Penn State as a peer leader for One Lion Squad, a pilot program to help students stay engaged in the university community. While it was successful, the program has been put on hold for the summer due to a lack of interest, which many leaders believe is due to the coronavirus.

It was income that White described as “pocket change,” though it would have made a big difference amid mass layoffs. Ultimately, her household is left without many ways to continue paying for food and the mortgage.

“Those things don’t stop even though your hours get cut,” White said.

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Like Everett and Bonde, White and her husband have turned to various opportunities for financial assistance.

White said her husband applied for unemployment after he was laid off, and she applied recently as well. However, the couple has yet to hear any response back from the government.

Although she is a World Campus student, White said her and her family are excluded from the CARES Act as the federal government has excluded students strictly enrolled in online courses from emergency financial aid grants. She has been looking for alternative funds through scholarships.

She applied for an emergency fund through the university as well, though she is still awaiting a response.

Without the same opportunities for financial assistance, White said World Campus students are often “left in the dark in times like this” even though many are in a similar position — working a full time job while trying to support a family.

“We have all the same stressors [as on-campus students] at least. It should be given more thought to include world campus students [in financial opportunities],” White said.

As bills and summer tuition payments begin to add up, White said her and her husband are seeking new jobs to keep their household afloat.

“If I have to pick up another job, then that’s what I’ll do,” White said.

Despite the struggles of unemployment, students have discovered ways to keep their minds off of their anxieties. Bonde said she has found more time to play video games with her boyfriend, and White traded work for stress-relieving activities such as yoga and meditation.

As they continue tackling unemployment, students have learned one lesson: don’t give up.

“It’s okay to reach out for help,” Bonde said. “It’s not easy, and it’s not going to be easy.”

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