Karina Cole was among the many college graduates this past spring who faced unprecedented challenges. Aside from the normal uncertainties of finding a job and transitioning from student to professional, COVID-19 added an additional hardship for job seekers. But seven months after graduating with her Master of Social Work, Cole has persevered and begun her social work career during a pandemic.
COVID-19 raised levels of anxiety and uncertainty among the Class of 2020. A combination of hiring freezes, lack of in-person trainings to gain certification, and other factors led to fewer job opportunities.
“It was a nervous time for me and others,” Cole says. “Leading up to graduation, you get to that point of excitement of accomplishing life-long educational goals and starting your first job. There’s always the uncertainty of finding a job after graduating, but COVID has made it worse.”
Cole did find a silver lining while the country was coping with the pandemic. She viewed the unprecedented environment as an opportunity to move to her dream location of Orlando, Florida, where she immediately began applying for jobs in July. Facing a challenging job search, Cole interviewed for two openings at Aspire Health Partners and received an offer for both positions. She began working in early September as a co-occurring disorders specialist in the adult residential treatment facility. Cole is responsible for individual and group counseling for those with alcohol or drug dependency and co-occurring mental health disorders.
“Everything has exceeded my expectations. The program is based on structured, evidence-based protocols with a purpose and reason,” Cole says. “I've also been fortunate to work with University of Central Florida mental health counseling graduate students. Working with five interns has helped me develop my leadership skills.”
Cole admits that working with substance use patients is new for her, and she previously would not have preferred to work with the population because it was not one of her areas of interest. But one of her field placements helped her see new possibilities.
“My field placement at the Dorn VA (in Columbia) developed and created a new awareness for how vital substance use treatment is not only for personal well-being but for health and the social environment,” Cole says. “I became more open to working in substance use and thrilled that I challenged myself and enhanced my own skills and techniques. Especially during the pandemic, it's become more vital than ever to develop new skills because people are coping differently based on their circumstances.”
Cole had already earned one master’s degree before entering the College of Social Work in 2018. It was while studying for her master’s in school counseling at Morehead State University in Kentucky that she decided to change her career trajectory to social work.
“I recognized my niche of wanting to do more of a therapeutic approach by focusing on providing therapy services for people who have endured trauma,” Cole says. “I liked the versatility of a social work degree because it provided more opportunities for accomplishing my goals.”
COVID-19 may continue to add extra obstacles to graduating students entering the job market in 2021. But based on her own experiences, Cole believes remaining positive and patient as a job seeker are keys during unusual circumstances.
“It may feel self-defeating by just graduating with a master's degree and no job, but it’s important to realize that you’ve completed all of the steps to reach this point,” Cole says. “You may have thoughts of thinking it’s impossible to find a job and if this struggle will ever end. But someone will recognize you.
The education is the hardest part of the journey. I’m thankful the college helped me develop a foundation that made me more confident as a social worker, prevent feelings of self-doubt, and prepare me for any challenges.”