We wondered what the Class of 2021 wants from work. So we asked them

May 19, 2021, 12:30 AM UTC
Worksheet-2021 Grads
Five graduates at different stages of life tell their stories. From L to R: Alyssa Soto, Betty Valencia, Ahmad Aladawi, Mamunur Bhuiyan, Lallae Mirreza.
Photos courtesy of the graduates.

“We built a world we don’t even want to live in. So now what?” 

That was the title of Michelle Aboodi’s thesis for her MBA from Bard College. Aboodi, a former colleague, invited me to her presentation on Zoom a few days ago. As I listened to her urgent case for sustainability and why it must pervade all business practices, I wondered if her fellow classmates of 2021 shared the same frustration … and hope. 

So I set out to interview graduates this week, of high school, college, and beyond. The Class of 2021 is forever defined and changed by the pandemic, and yet impressively clear on what they want out of work, life and the balance between. Rather than summarize their thoughts, I think it’s best you hear directly from the next entrants of our workforce, the future they expect and the new world they are building. 

Edited excerpts: 

Mamunur Bhuiyan, 17

Brooklyn Technical High school

I turn 18 on May 21 and graduate in a month from Brooklyn Tech. I start at 8 and end at 11. Some days I end at 1:40 p.m. I’m in blended learning; one week, I go in three days and the other week, two days. It’s actually not as good as full school but better than just sitting at home. In in-person learning, the teacher gives you more. 

My dream school was Penn State. I got in but it was very expensive. I put a lot of thought into it. It was $200k for four years. Buffalo, I got a scholarship, grants and it’s in-state tuition. They gave me an estimate and I am still waiting for the full financial aid but I think I will pay between $10 to $15k a year. 

So I am going to the University of Buffalo for aerospace engineering. It was expected I would go to college but I am the first in my immediate family to go college in the U.S. It was challenging and I asked my cousins for help on applications and the essay. 

At Brooklyn Tech, we took a lot of college classes so it gives a head start on what you want to do. I took aerospace engineering. I took AP Physics and Principles of Engineering and I did pretty well. I got CTE (career and technical education) certification.  

I play football and had a few D3 (division III) offers. With my focus on engineering, I knew I would not have that much time. STEM majors are a lot of work. 

My dad wanted me to do engineering since I was a kid but he also said, “Do what you think will be best for you.”

Sports were canceled this year. I was hoping there was going to be one last season so I was eating well, working out, conditioning. Coach had to break the news to us. 

I am over that now. I just learned to move on. I had to put it in the past. Being sad about it isn’t going to do anything now.

I was born in Bangladesh and came here in first grade. Most of my family lives near me. After we all got vaccinated, it was a religious holiday a few days ago, and we got together. It was Eid. My mom’s uncle, who I was really close to, died of COVID in Bangladesh, and so did our family friend in Brooklyn. 

My goal is to land as many internships as I can while I am in college. I plan to do my master’s. My dream job is to work for Boeing—that’s the goal. I just want to help out the company I work for as much as I can. I want a well-paying job to support my family and me. I also want to make sure I have enough time to give to my family of the future. That’s the goal, too. 

Alyssa Soto, 22

Rutgers University

Yesterday was graduation. It was virtual and a little underwhelming to be honest. I had a lot of family and friends to support me though.  

I majored in communications with a specialization in leadership in groups and organizations and a minor in theater arts. 

The pandemic won’t underline my entire college career. It did affect how I feel about school. Some professors did a wonderful job with the transition. Other professors told you to read the textbook and did not provide much information. It made me see what a pandemic can do to different people and how people respond to it

Though it was difficult, there are some takeaways. I relied completely on myself to get my work done. 

I commuted to college. I didn’t socialize enough and that’s kind of what college is for. Being deprived of seeing people made me realize I want to engage in more relationships and build stronger relationships, to be more outgoing and put myself out there. 

I’ve tried recently to do more networking, whereas before I would go to the job fairs to try to look for jobs but now I am trying to build my personal network. 

I was president of the Rutgers Salsa Club. Everything went virtual and with salsa, it’s a very social dance. It’s hard to sit through classes on Zoom; you have to be really motivated to do that. We were able to maintain 10 members, and I was proud to have that many people dedicating their time to learn. 

It definitely takes a lot of motivation to run and be a part of the club in general. I had to keep my passion for the club. If I’m not going to be motivated and passionate about it, who is? You are letting down a whole group of people. There are people who come back every year and these are their best friends for the rest of their lives. 

So we hosted a few game nights and movie nights to keep that social aspect. People could mingle and share what they did for the day. 

I have an internship secured starting June 14 with IPG Mediabrands. I will be doing strategy. There’s a big presentation at the end. If I do well in the position and the clients are pleased, it could lead to full time. 

As of right now, it’s a virtual position. I don’t know if that’s going to change. I would be very happy if it would. I think learning in person is easier and getting to mingle with coworkers helps. 

We want employers to be understanding and flexible. My generation can be defined by this. It was easy to ignore what was happening behind the scenes at corporations. Over the last year, corporations have been put under the microscope. It is very important to work for a corporation that cares for its people, that works hard on diversity and inclusion, that invests in their employees. 

Ahmad Aladawi, 26 

University of Illinois at Chicago 

I graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago on May 9. It was not a normal in-person graduation. It was very quick and socially distant, but better than nothing. My focus in school was cybersecurity and the major was computer science. Before that, I did community college from Wilbur Wright College and transferred to UIC. 

I came to the U.S. just six years ago. I’m from Syria originally. Back home I did two years of business. Because of everything that happened to Syria and my plan to move to the U.S., I had to start over. I did my high school in Syria—the one thing I was able to get credit for. When I came to the U.S. I didn’t know any English. I took some ESL classes. Community college was the first place I went. 

I was part of a nonprofit organization, One Million Degrees, that works with community college students. I was an ambassador of the organization. An Accenture apprenticeship was one of the programs supported. I did not know what Accenture is and wanted to throw myself into any opportunity. 

I joined, applied, went through the interview process and started my journey. 

It was a great opportunity and basically puts you ahead of the game. Most of the students who just graduated, their next goal is to find a job. Three years ago, I already did my apprenticeship program and I already have three years of experience. I already have the plan for what I need to do, a master’s degree and maybe a PhD. 

Recently, I sent an email to my leadership at Accenture and said thanks to all of them, they made it very possible for me to manage between work and school. I didn’t know what was gonna happen. I had a goal in my mind and I just wanted to get to it no matter what. 

During  COVID, it was not easy. It was my last year at school, and COVID added more responsibility to me. My dad cannot work anymore. My sister changed her job because of COVID. I had to stay with my family longer, just to make sure they are okay. I was the person taking care of all of them. More challenge equals more motivation for me. 

As someone coming from out of the country, I ask, “Will I be able to add value to the community here, the workplace, the school?” Anywhere I am, I want to add value and have people recognize my work. 

For me, because I already have work experience for a few years, graduation is just something I need to move my education to the higher level. Education will never end. I don’t want to stop anywhere. 

Lallae Mirreza, 28

UCLA School of Law 

It’s been very existential. I took a couple of years after I graduated from college to think about whether I wanted to go to law school so I’m slightly older than many of my classmates graduating this year. 

I have a position lined up with a firm. Of course, I have to pass the bar first. It’s going to be virtual and videotaped. We’re not allowed to drink water. We’re not allowed to go to the bathroom. It’s six hours a day over two days. 

This year feels so different than last year. When the pandemic started I wasn’t prepared for what the end of my law school career would look like. It’s been a crazy three years of schooling. 

My first month was the Brett Kavanaugh hearing. At the beginning of my second year, we had to cancel Business Associations class because there was a wildfire a mile away. There’s been government shutdowns, presidential impeachments, social unrest. So much has been happening. It’s hard to put into words. It’s hard to comprehend. 

When the pandemic started, my dad said, “Pack your bags. You will be out of school for six months.”

I said, “Dad, that’s crazy. It’s gonna be two weeks.”

I didn’t want to spend the pandemic alone so I moved back to San Diego and have been living with my parents. Half my time of law school has been remote. My professors took a variety of approaches to it. I had professors who would actively bring up what was happening in the world. I had other professors who purposefully did not bring it up in class. I don’t know the better approach. 

When I applied in 2017, there was an uptick in law school applications because of who was in office. Like many of my peers, I was motivated to pursue a career where you can effect social change. 

Three years later, I am now looking at a career in business, tax and estate planning. Part of it had to do with just wanting stability. I did not want to be at a job where I could only see myself working a year into it and being burned out or feeling so depressed by the cases I was handling. I really admire my classmates going into the public sector. I wanted a more straightforward path. 

I ‘m hopeful. I really liked the people at my firm. When I was going through the job search process I came across some firms I found morally questionable. What I liked about this firm, they cared about who I was as a person. I’ll be working directly with people as opposed to just working for a large business. 

I know this is maybe not the socially progressive position but being able to work somewhere where I would be able to maintain peace of mind feels important. Law students and lawyers are having a lot of problems with mental health and anxiety. At a lot of the firms, people would go in and work themselves to the point of losing their physical and mental health. 

There’s a virtual ceremony on Friday and then there is an in-person walk on Saturday at UCLA. I will not be going to the in-person ceremony. It’s been such a tough year for me. I am not in that spirit where I wanted to drive up to L.A. Many of my classmates have gotten the graduation regalia. I am not among them. I am just grateful I have made it to the end of the year. 

The last nine months of the pandemic were harder than even the beginning when everything was unclear. I don’t know whether I will be starting work remotely or immediately going into the office. 

I’m looking forward to going into the office at some point. I am an introvert. At the beginning of the pandemic, I liked the idea of being able to work from home and create my own space. I realize, though, I definitely need that community aspect of being in person. 

Beatriz (Betty) Valencia, 50

PhD from Chapman University

I came to this country when I was 6 from Mexico City. I finished my PhD in leadership studies in December from Attallah College at Chapman University in the city of Orange. I’m just so happy it’s over. We will walk in August. 

The class we were in shows the resiliency of individuals in the midst of all this. We stayed with it. That’s really the story of our class. 

I started in September 2015. The 2016 election shook us all up. I was already in my career, so I am an older student. I come from a communications background and I really wanted to make sure I updated myself. How could I be this better thing called a leader?

In the midst of that, I ran for office. 2016 jolted many of us women of color. I am a queer woman of color. I really intentionally wanted to focus on things I could make a difference in. I ran for city council in Orange in 2018. 

I was the third vote getter out of eight people, for two seats. 

Now, after the council went from five to seven members, there’s two Latinas. The work we did paved the way. We didn’t get that seat but it was the change we were seeking. 

I didn’t graduate high school. My driver’s license says “GED2PhD.”  I dedicate all my extra time to speaking about public education equity. The change we are seeking in our communities, that’s where you will find me. 

If I had thought you would call me Dr. Valencia … never before would I have thought this was possible in high school. 

I have a day job. I’m the VP of operations for a small finance company. I’ve been very happy in a small company and work on skills and development. I don’t mind the word training, but I prefer development. Development takes us a step further. 

The way this program shaped where I am today: I learned to develop this thing called voice in this leadership program. Somewhere in the middle of all this chaos, the 2016 election, COVID, I started to use it to push through some of these boundaries in our city. This has developed me more as a leader in politics. 

I need a PhD to talk about issues that are often inconvenient and uncomfortable. We have to read more. We have to be more on top of our game to go into the places that were never designed with us in mind. 

COVID changed everything. Pre-COVID, we said we’ll work until this age and then we’ll retire and we’ll enjoy life. COVID, as shocking as it was, it shook our entire foundation and changed our idea of “waiting till…”

I have friends who lost their mothers and brothers and sisters to COVID. It sped up this idea that I need to start having meaningful, intentional actions. 

We cannot sit here and keep waiting for the time to enjoy life. I’m not going to wait until I am 65. I need to figure out how to be giving—intentionally—that is how I want to live the next couple of years I have. 

I’ve been a guest speaker in classes and I always tell students, “Don’t wait till you’re 50 to get to where I’m at.” 

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