Student life and the path to graduation in COVID-19

Nick Brown graduated in summer 2020, in our first graduating class in the COVID-19 era. We caught up with him to find out what it was like being locked down in the Spring on campus and then also how he found the path to graduation and the job market after.

I started off in January 2020, living in York with all my friends, in the final year of my Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree and ended 2020 on a laptop in my spare room, in the early stages of my graduate accountancy career!

My first encounter with coronavirus was back in February 2020. At the time, I was working for the University’s fundraising team, YuCall, as a Senior Fundraiser. We were forced to cancel a week’s worth of fundraising calls as the University battled to support students and their families who were concerned about the first case in the UK, that was identified in the York community. At the time, we didn’t really think much of it, sanitiser was available in the call room and anyone who was ill after returning from abroad was urged to isolate. Fast forward a month to mid-March the situation was very different as we all know.

By the 23rd March, the Spring term had ended, and most students had returned home before the situation really got bad. It was just me, my girlfriend Chloe, her housemate and his girlfriend left in York. The night the Prime Minister announced the national lockdown, the four of us decided to wait it out and stay in York for the three-week lockdown and carry on with our University essays/exam preparation as normal. Little did we know, we would end up staying in York for 3 months while the lockdown kept being extended! We studied and wrote our essays in the days, exercised in the evening sun, and clapped outside our student house every Thursday with everyone else! 

Campus lockdown ducklings in June 2020

The Heslington campus was eerily quiet, devoid of the usual hustle and bustle of a large- University. We walked around the campus lake and fed the geese most days (who by mid-lockdown had pretty much taken over). It was nothing like pre-pandemic University. I sat Economics exams online, over the course of 24 hours and wrote my essays in between our daily walks. It was a disappointing end to my University experience, having waited the whole of my course on the promise of final-year celebrations with friends and family. I often think about the missed graduation in Central Hall, the final Summer Ball and the general experiencing of living in York for my final few University months. However, I wouldn’t change my decision to stay in York throughout lockdown- who would want to leave such an amazing city!

As lockdown progressed, my mind switched focus from University work, towards my future career. In late March and April, I cannot count the number of auto-generated emails that I received from outstanding job applications, that informed me the process had been ‘paused’ or ‘temporarily suspended’. I was lucky that one application, from my now-employer, the professional services firm, Mazars, still progressed. I was fortunate enough to be a participant in one of their very first ‘virtual’ assessment centres, hosted on Zoom. I was put through the paces with a group exercise featuring students from across the country, numerical and verbal reasoning tests as well as a tough interview with a Partner at the firm. About a week later, I received a phone call to offer me a place on their graduate scheme working in their Audit team, starting in November 2020. I was ecstatic- running around the house in joy!

The day the tennis courts re-opened in York, June 2020.

Once it had sunk in that I finally had secured the graduate job I had always wanted, I looked around for a job to fill the time over the summer. Luckily having worked for UCAS’ call centre over the summer the year before, I was able to secure a role there. I worked long hours, fielding queries from students about the teacher-assessed grade fiasco! This was my first experience of working from home. I found it very strange at first, having a headset on and being connected to concerned parents and students across the country. Over time, I got used to it, the constant ‘Teams’ calls and running downstairs for quick brews in between! 

The University did a great job in setting up a ‘virtual graduation’, filled with all the normal ceremonial aspects and dignitaries. My family bought the gowns online (although they could only source black ones, unlike the traditional York grey!) and we had a celebration of our own in the living room in front of the television! It was a bitter-sweet experience, on one hand I had my future career to look forward to, but on the other I could not celebrate my York years with all my friends, as my last proper days in York were taken away from me. The whole virtual-graduation experience was made better as I was notified just before that I was to be one of three graduating students, honoured with the Chancellor’s Leadership Prize from Sir Malcolm Grant, the University Chancellor. 

At the end of my UCAS contract, I was offered a new role to take me up-to my November start date at Mazars, as a contact tracer for NHS Test and Trace. This has to be, hands down, one of the most difficult experiences I have ever faced. I spoke to people who could barely talk due to the breathing difficulties the virus caused. In October, at the start of the second wave, I was seconded to Tier 2 clinical contact tracing, speaking directly to cases to find out their recent interactions, to support the existing Nurse and Doctor-led team. This was tough, but the working from home experience prepared me thoroughly for the start of my role at Mazars.

In my last week at Test and Trace, I received a plethora of boxes from my new employer including a work computer, laptop and the obligatory merchandise! Mazars inducted all the graduates joining the firm in November over the course of one big ‘Welcome Week’. I think this is one of the benefits of remote working, as I was able to network and connect with like-minded graduates and school leavers in offices in every UK city. 

The new normal, my working from home set up during my induction week.

Over the last few months, I have started the certificate level of my ICAEW qualification whilst working in our Industry and Services Audit team. I have been balancing study and work, all whilst working in my spare room office! This has been challenging at times, as I have to manage my responsibilities on client work with my exam commitments. However, I am lucky to work for a company that recognises this and puts measures in place to support trainees such as study leave and regular mentoring from management. As I am currently employed on an accountancy training contract, I will be studying towards my chartered accountancy status for the next few years, whilst working with our expanding client base in the North West. Since joining, I have taken every opportunity to get out of the house so have completed 4 client stocktakes since November, donning the hi-vis jackets and steel toe-capped boots every time. Hopefully by the Summer, we will have some normality, so I can finally meet colleagues in person and not just on my laptop screen!

I hope this has given you a good indication of my experience of graduating during a pandemic- it’s been challenging but has definitely helped to build my own personal resilience!

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