During a normal year at Harvard, students can conveniently drop in at Harvard’s Office of Career Services to speak with a career advisor or grab coffee with a Peer Advising Fellow. Throughout the semester, hordes of undergraduates often swarm career fairs in the Science Center to meet recruiters from reputable companies and connect in person with alumni all over the world.
But now, the check-in desk in the OCS building on 54 Dunster Street has become a virtual kiosk. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, OCS had to abruptly adapt its resources to an online format, trading pizza events and lively career fairs for virtual advising and webinars: In-person internships have turned into remote opportunities, and Science Center career fairs have become one-on-one virtual meetings with job recruiters.
When Harvard initially confirmed the switch to virtual learning in March, OCS had to convert its services to a virtual platform in a matter of days, according to OCS director Robin E. Mount. The office confronted difficulties ranging from reallocating summer funding from cancelled in-person internships to conducting widespread outreach to freshmen.
Though the road to virtual operations had its bumps, the path also presented unexpected opportunities by eliminating geographical and financial constraints, allowing for a greater range of speakers and recruiters at its events.
After the pandemic derailed many of OCS’s original plans, Ami Ishikawa ’21, an OCS career cluster PAF, said it was challenging for the office to reimagine how this past summer would take shape.
“But we wanted students to understand that this would be an atypical summer, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t going to be a worthwhile, rewarding summer for students,” Ishikawa said.
Prior to COVID-19, most Harvard undergraduates rarely considered interning remotely. At the start of the pandemic, OCS staff members themselves only knew “tangentially” about virtual internships and had to quickly educate themselves on the matter to support students after many programs canceled or moved their in-person internships online, according to Anthony Arcieri, the director of Undergraduate Career Advising and Programming at OCS.
“We spent a good deal of time researching job boards that focused on remote internships, identifying employers who had remote opportunities, and getting those posted in Crimson careers,” Arcieri said. “Educating ourselves but also being able to share what we learned with students we’re meeting with was another part of that pivot.”
While some in-person internships could not continue online, several OCS partner organizations said they were able to successfully transition to a virtual platform despite only having a few months to do so.
“A lot of us were worried what this transition was going to look like. Will our nonprofits be able to sustain this?” said Alysha L. Johnson Williams ’14, director of the Harvard College Center for Public Service and Engaged Scholarship’s Pathways to Practice division. “And the answer was overwhelmingly yes.”
Johnson Williams said students responded well to the internships and found them to be “high-quality, valuable experiences.” The organization’s partners also praised the student interns for their helpfulness in the remote setting.
Though the pandemic has devastated the economy at large, it has hit certain industries, including airlines, cruise lines, hotels and restaurants, harder than others and restricted opportunities for employment in these areas, Mount said.
For example, after COVID-19 tanked sales in brick and mortar stores, the retail industry has been especially strained. Though students usually tend to want to work in the corporate side of retail, Deborah Carroll, the associate director for employer relations and operations at OCS, said it has had a snowball effect.
“It’s all a chain of events so if things are struggling in brick and mortar, it’s going to affect the whole organization,” she said. “That makes it harder for students to find opportunities in the corporate side.”
Jake E. Schwencke ’21, a PAF for arts, media and entertainment industries, also highlighted the unique consequences the COVID-19 has had for creative industries that require in-person interaction, particularly live theater and production. He cited Broadway’s indefinite shutdown as an example.
“I think that’s a little scary for people who are trying to enter the entertainment industry, because it’s not like a lot of other careers where there’s a clear breadcrumb trail to getting to success,” he said. “So to add the pandemic, on top of that, I could see why a lot of students would be nervous to think about fields like this.
As students navigate a job market rife with uncertainty, OCS has simultaneously had to reimagine its services for an online landscape.
OCS is no stranger to remote programming, however, given its experience servicing not only Harvard undergraduates but also students nationwide who study at the Harvard Extension School. Further, because OCS has always offered its services remotely during breaks when students are at home, the office was able to quickly adapt its advising resources and career fairs to a virtual platform using familiar practices and technology, according to Mount.
Nonetheless, there were still other tools and skills OCS had to quickly pick up, Mount said.
“We have to confess Zoom was not in our vocabulary at the beginning but it’s now everybody’s first word,” Mount said.
Another obstacle OCS has faced is one that is more difficult to overcome: the impossibility of spontaneity and connection in an online environment. This universal, pandemic-wrought challenge was starkly apparent during OCS’s virtual career fairs.
Before the pandemic, students would flood campus buildings to speak with job recruiters and sometimes float in the back of the crowd to observe and listen in on conversations around them. Now, students must meet with job recruiters one-on-one, which Carroll said has given these fairs a more intimidating and evaluative atmosphere.
“A career fair is an event that has a lot of energy,” she said. “There’s lots of people, there’s lots of conversations, and people would run into their friends they hadn’t seen all summer or somebody who they don’t see as frequently on campus.”
“That’s not really replicable online, so I think that was just another hard part in terms of executing the event,” she continued.
Despite the numerous struggles the pandemic has brought on, Johnson Williams said the flexibility of virtual platforms has also offered exciting opportunities.
In fact, Mount said OCS has actually had comparatively higher turnout for its online programming since students can swiftly move from online class to other virtual events. The transition time from event-to-event is now just a few seconds instead of the regular commute across campus.
OCS is also no longer limited by the maximum capacity of its building and can invite a wider range of guest speakers and companies since the hassle and costs of travel are nonexistent.
“It just allows for increased accessibility for those that would have had barriers to access during the normal school day,” said Swathi R. Srinivasan ’21, a Pre-Health Peer Liaison Peer Advising Fellow for OCS.
Some students said they have been impressed by the quality of OCS’s remote services despite obstacles of the pandemic.
When virtually connecting with an OCS representative during an advising session, Alexandra J. Fogel ’23 reflected on how helpful they were in highlighting possible internship opportunities.
“She directed me to all the relevant websites and gave me further contacts for the opportunities I was interested in and helped me figure out deadlines. She did so much in just 30 minutes. I was really impressed,” Fogel said.
The switch to virtual operations has also forced OCS to think creatively about their future as a hub for career advice on campus.
Mount said OCS has a few initiatives planned for winter break that are meant to energize students and combat “Zoom fatigue” while still providing them with helpful advising and job opportunities. For example, the office’s seminars during which students brainstorm career paths may feature creative modes of communication, such as virtual white boards and sticky notes.
Its annual site visits where OCS exposes students to local companies will also be virtual, allowing the office to expand its reach beyond the Greater Boston Area. For example, OCS is planning a virtual site visit to the National Basketball Association in January, which is typically not possible because it is based in New York City.
As students look toward seeking jobs for the summer and after graduation, Arcieri said OCS is committed to supporting them through the uncertainty of the upcoming semester.
“We want to help students think about their resume, connections with alumni, and we do all these great programs to help students explore paths, but also to make those connections,” he said.
—Staff writer Alexandra N. Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alex_wilson2023.