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The Citizen

Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

They conquered gloom and Zoom: 2024 college grads on what comes next

Caps at the Laney College commencement ceremony on May 24. (Photo: Marcus Creel/PCCD)
This article was published to CalMatters on June 28, 2024.

Graduation season has come to a close. Thousands of new graduates, with diplomas in hand, are entering the workforce this summer. For the class of 2024, their college experience has been a crash course in perseverance.

Many of these students were the first to graduate high school during the COVID-19 pandemic. They took their first steps onto campus virtually, by logging into Zoom. Now, they’re stepping into an ever-changing labor market. Despite the uncertainty there is reason to be optimistic.

College graduates in today’s market earn higher salaries, experience lower rates of unemployment, and are more likely to work full time and year-round than those with only a high school diploma, according to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California.

“Even for those who get into debt to go to college in the long term, that’s an investment that pays off,” said Marisol Mejia, a research fellow at the institute.

For low-and moderate-income students, it takes an average of two years to recoup the net cost of a college credential, a recent CalMatters analysis found. For graduates from some campuses, the time to recoup college investment is less than three months.

Jobs that require degrees are also growing faster than those that don’t. Occupations that typically require a bachelor’s degree are predicted to grow by 6.7% from 2022 to 2032, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, the number of jobs that typically require a high school diploma is expected to increase by less than 1%.

“The big picture story is that occupations that require higher education are growing faster, and are expected to account for a larger share of jobs in the future,” said Michael Wolf, an economist for the bureau.

The nation’s aging population is one factor influencing the market, leading to more health care openings both in and out of hospitals. Nearly half of all new jobs by 2032 are expected to be in the health care and social services sectors. One in 6 will be for home health and personal care aides, who typically don’t need bachelor’s degrees.

Computer- and math-related jobs, such as software engineers and data scientists, are also predicted to have high rates of growth. A “relatively small number” of occupations are set to decline, for myriad reasons, Wolf said. Rising e-commerce means fewer jobs in physical retail. Automation will likely replace some clerks, farmworkers, and factory workers, according to Wolf.

The CalMatters College Journalism Network chatted with California college students about the unique college experience that shaped them as they enter the workforce. Meet five students in the graduating class of 2024, profiled by our fellows.


‘I want to do everything.’

Vy Le — Laney College | Credential: Machine Technology


Learning a new language totally online was a challenge for Vy Le. She came to Oakland from Vietnam during the pandemic, in search of a better life for her kids. Although she had a degree from her home country in information technology, her English wasn’t strong enough to support a career in the field. At 32 years old, with no job and no clear path ahead of her, Le enrolled in an English class at the College of Alameda.

She struggled to keep up at first. While her listening improved, her speaking lagged behind. It was hard to focus at home when she could turn off her camera and take care of responsibilities like cooking, cleaning, or catching up on sleep. When her teacher would call on her, she couldn’t answer in English, even if she understood the question.

Eventually, classes returned to in-person instruction and her English began to improve. By then, Le had found an entry-level job as an assembler, earning $21 an hour. She looked for programs that could improve her skills and land her a higher-paying position, eventually deciding to try the machining program at Laney College in Oakland.

Vy Le in the machine technology lab of Laney College in Oakland on May 20, 2024. (Photo by Laure Andrillon for CalMatters)

After just one class, Le fell in love with learning about machines. Two years later, she’s taken enough courses to receive a Machine Technology certificate. At the same time, she worked her way up in the machining industry, and now earns over $36 an hour as a quality control inspector for a medical technology manufacturer, using precise computer-controlled equipment to test assembly parts. She hopes the new credential will net her a raise at her current company.

Le isn’t done learning. She wants to spend another year studying English. After that, she’s got her sights set on a one-month program in Los Angeles that will teach her the machine programming skills she needs to advance to the next step in her field. But Le also wants to slow down and spend more time with her two kids. Between school, work, and household duties, it’s been hard to find time to take her 5-year-old son to the park.

Others in her life question her choice to go to school, learn English and work in the male-dominated field of machining. They ask her why she didn’t choose to be a nail technician, like many other Vietnamese women in her position. Le thinks about her daughter, 12, looking on from the crowd at her graduation, and knows she made the right choice.

“That is my life, you know?” she said. “I want to do everything.”

-Profile by Li Khan


‘This changed everything about me’

Larry Gonzales – Cal State Bakersfield | Major: Sociology


Between navigating the foster care system and helping raise his siblings, Larry Gonzales did not spend much time thinking about his academics after graduating from Wasco High School in 2002. But on his way to the parole office in February 2018, Gonzales saw a flyer for Project Rebound, a program at Cal State Bakersfield that provides resources and support for formerly incarcerated students. It had been just seven months since he was released from prison.

“Knowing that I needed to do something big and massive to show that I’ve changed my ways, college is what’s probably going to be that,” Gonzales said. “If there’s anything that shows determination, I would say it’s a degree.”

Larry Gonzales, a graduating senior majoring in sociology, outside the science building at Cal State Bakersfield on April 22, 2024. Gonzales is a part of the Project Rebound program and a member of the student government on campus. (Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local)

Gonzales enrolled at Cal State Bakersfield in 2018 as an undeclared student. Although he briefly majored in environmental resource management and agricultural business, sociology provided insights that interested him the most.

“Sociology kind of got me to study the head game of people, per se,” Gonzales said. “I would rather look into a community as a whole and why they do what they do.”

Gonzales, an Army veteran, was a leader in Veteran’s Club and student government at Cal State Bakersfield and on a committee for students with disabilities across the Cal State system. While he advocated for students in those various roles, Gonzales says there is limited support from his university for students like himself: a single father working a full-time job while being a full-time student. College became even more challenging when he, and his family, had to transition to online classes during the pandemic.

“It was the hardest thing ever to do,” said Gonzales. “To do college and then help junior high kids and elementary kids, and be the teacher when there was no teacher, and then go to work. It was probably the hardest year and a half of this entire college thing.”

Now that he has graduated, Gonzales is still unsure what his plan will be. Although he has been accepted into a master’s program online at Capella University, he says his top priorities are supporting his two teenage daughters and landing a position where he can put his sociology degree to work.

“I’m really worried about, now, I’m going to be a college graduate and I can’t find work,” said Gonzales. “Am I going to end up in fast food with a college degree? Is someone going to hire me at this age with that background? Our school doesn’t have any help when you’re done or in the last semester.”

For Gonzales, going to college helped turn his life around. He’d like to start a nonprofit that focuses on helping students, including those who are formerly incarcerated, understand their rights.

“I would say that your chances shouldn’t be limited,” Gonzales said. “You just have to find the right way to unlock somebody’s potential, and for me what it was is higher education. This changed everything about me.”

-Profile by Haydee Barahona


‘Open to the right range of possibilities’

Lauren Neibel — Cal State Long Beach | Major: Creative Writing


One of the things Lauren Neibel never got back from the pandemic is her sense of time. She remembers stepping onto campus for the first time two years into her education at Cal State Long Beach and feeling like a freshman.

“It was a little jarring,” Neibel said. “There’s a little sense of strangeness that’s overhanging because I feel like I’m kind of starting to get used to campus and now I’m graduating.”

Originally from San Jose, her family moved to Nevada in 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began. So despite being a Cal State Long Beach student, Neibel was taking her classes from Nevada. Both places were completely new to her.

“It was strange to have life just kind of pause for a while,” Neibel said, adding that the pandemic and quarantining forced a lot of introspection.

Going to college was always a given for Neibel. Both of her parents graduated from Cal State Long Beach and she has been passionate about learning all her life. Learning remotely was not her vision for her college experience, especially after just having moved to a new state. To make matters more difficult, virtual workshops that Neibel once enjoyed were noticeably impacted by remote learning. As a creative writing major, workshop classes are the space where students can share their writing and receive feedback, but the communication process was daunting over Zoom.

Lauren Niebel, a student majoring in creative writing, at CSU Long Beach on April 24, 2024. (Photo by Jules Hotz for CalMatters)

“I feel like there’s a lot of value in being in the classroom, and getting to kind of see people face to face and getting to know each other and kind of having a more natural flow of conversation,” Neibel said.

For Neibel, the transition out of college feels quite similar to the transition into it: a sense of excitement intertwined with nervousness. Now that her time in academia has finished, she finds it bittersweet. Each time she felt nostalgic in class she would remind herself to “stay in the present.”

While a lot of her plans for the future feel vague, she is excited about going back home to Nevada and catching a bit of a break. Grad school is a possibility but, overall, Neibel grounds herself in knowing that what she wants to do is write, and she will figure out the avenues for that with time.

“​​I’m just trying to be open to the right range of possibilities and kind of appreciate that time in my life that’s coming up, and just really make the most of it,” Neibel said.

-Profile by Briana Mendez-Padilla


‘For the first time in my life, there’s not really a formula’

David Wang — USC | Major: Business Administration with Finance Emphasis


After spending his first year of college at Southern Methodist University in his home state of Texas, David Wang moved halfway across the country to transfer into his dream school — and his parents’ alma mater — the University of Southern California. Moving to Los Angeles was the farthest Wang had ever been from home. Having just gotten out of a long-term relationship and without his support network in a new city, Wang said he felt “insanely overwhelmed.”

“Everyone around was going a million miles per hour, right — the whole busy thing,” Wang said. “I was very intimidated when I first got here and definitely felt the imposter syndrome: ‘Do I deserve to be here?’ and then it’s like, ‘Can I even cut it here?’”

After a great deal of trial and error, the doubts eased over time as Wang found communities and clubs that made him feel comfortable and enriched his college experience. After being in a slew of extracurriculars all through elementary and high school, from Model United Nations and debate to sports and art classes, Wang said he cut back what was on his activities at USC to find necessary balance.

“I tried to replicate that, and I quickly realized that it was just simply not sustainable,” he said. “I was just running myself in circles for no reason, and so that’s naturally why I started cutting a few of them.”

Pursuing a business degree always felt natural for Wang, the first in his immediate family to pursue a career outside of music. Though he didn’t once question his decision to major in business in the last four years, the COVID-19 pandemic changed Wang’s mindset, pushing him to let go a little, he said.

“I spent a lot of time both self-reflecting on the person that I want to be, but then I also took a step back and realized how unserious certain things in life were,” Wang said.

At the start of his final semester of college, Wang put up 18 sticky notes on his bedroom wall, each symbolizing a week he had left at USC. As he looked at the nearly empty wall signaling what little time he had left of his senior year, he knew he needed to make the most of what time he had — for once in his life, to appreciate the journey over the destination.

David Wang, a student majoring in business, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles on April 23, 2024. (Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters)

“I’m not very great at enjoying the moment,” Wang said. “I find myself oftentimes getting into a club that I really wanted or getting an internship I really want, or like, a really great moment with friends as well — I’m very grateful for them, but I find myself not savoring them enough.”

A few decades from now, Wang said he envisions himself back in Texas, starting a family and maybe even owning a business. As he mulls over the consulting job offers he’s received, both in Texas and on the East Coast, Wang said he feels the weight of the uncertainty and the broad range of possibilities facing him after he graduates.

“For the first time in my life, there’s not really a formula,” Wang said. “It’s like, ‘What am I going to do with my life? My future?’ I’m very worried about what that looks like, just because I’m very big on structure, but I guess part of the beauty of life is that there isn’t that structure.”

-Profile by Christina Chkarboul


‘The journey never ends’

Kenneth Bevens – Cal Poly San Luis Obispo | Major: Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration

For the first time in his life, Kenneth Bevens made a New Year’s resolution for himself. After finishing a rough first year of college with all his classes online, Bevens said he couldn’t connect with his professors and classmates on a meaningful level. His grades suffered as a result and it took a toll on his mental health.

So to start 2021, he set out to try 183 new activities – or a new activity every other day. Bevens completed 156.

He conquered his fear of heights through skydiving. He took up “curiosity days,” researching a new topic for fun. He met strangers, tried digital art, went on mystery road trips and road roller coasters. By the end of the challenge, Bevens felt like a completely new person.

Kenneth Bevens, a Cal Poly student majoring in recreation parks and tourism administration, sets up a hammock at Montana De Oro State Park in San Luis Obispo County on April 23, 2024. (Photo by Julie Leopo-Bermudez for CalMatters)

“That kind of catapulted me into becoming more sociable and realizing the value of just pursuing kindness,” Bevens said.

Then, in March 2022, he picked up his mom’s old camera for the first time. Bevens said he was immediately hooked. Since April of that year, he’s documented approximately 50 events, including club trips and outdoor excursions. He’s also taken portraits of Cal Poly students, which he will use for his senior project.

“I feel like I crammed four or five years of college experience in three, between all the outdoor adventures,” Bevens said. “And I feel like I have no regrets about leaving college because my college experience is so well-documented in photos.”

Bevens grew to be an extrovert during the pandemic. Now, a successful weekend for Bevens is marked by how many people he meets and connects with. Bevens can often be found taking pictures on low-cost backpacking trips or running barefoot through the mud. He loves finding communities of curious people like himself.

After graduation, he sees a future full of photography and adventure, starting in Alaska. Then, he’s not too sure. But one thing is for certain: he will be organizing his life to travel. He ultimately hopes to capture images that inspire people, especially young kids.

“The journey never ends, truly, even though this chapter will,” Bevens said. “All these relationships I’ve poured so much love into will last a lifetime and my heart will be full.”

– Profile by Elizabeth Wilson

Khan, Barahona, Mendez-Padilla, Chkarboul and Wilson are fellows with the College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. CalMatters higher education coverage is supported by a grant from the College Futures Foundation

About the Contributor
Li Khan
Li Khan, Editor in Chief
Li Khan is the Editor in Chief of The Citizen, and a member of the CalMatters College Journalism Network. She believes in the power of student media to hold local institutions accountable. She's particularly interested in analyzing how changes to higher education policy trickle down from the Capitol to colleges and their constituents. Li holds a degree in Computer Science from The University of Texas at Dallas and hopes to incorporate that knowledge into data-centered reporting projects. 
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