Story Produced by Valley News, a Member of
SHARON, VT — Patrick Sharpe was taking the train into New York City in March when COVID-19 suddenly derailed his post-college plans.
Sharpe, a member of the class of 2016 at The Sharon Academy, was just about to graduate from Montclair State University in New Jersey with a degree in musical theater and was on the way into the city for his first meeting with a talent agent who had recently signed him as a client.
“My agent called and said, ‘Broadway’s shutdown, everything’s canceled,’ ” and so was their meeting, Sharpe recalled hearing his agent explain over the phone.
“I quite literally jumped off the train and got an Uber back to my dorm, moved out a couple weeks later and I’ve been back home in Vermont ever since,” Sharpe said last week from his parent’s house in Sharon.
Sharpe is hardly alone.
Many of the 29 members of TSA’s class of 2016, who graduated from college four years later in 2020 — widely dubbed now “Class of COVID-19” — have found their post-college plans disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic in ways they could never have foreseen as they entered their final semester of college.
In the nearly six months since Sharpe, 22, came home, he’s been keeping busy by taking online piano lessons via Zoom and has set up a video recording studio with a backdrop, lights and video camera in order try out for online auditions for roles in TV commercials.
“There’s no theater at the moment. It’s mostly commercials. That is about the only sector of the industry working now,” he said, acknowledging that there have been times this summer when he’s been “a little bored.”
College graduates of 2020 are entering the grimmest job market since the peak of 2007 to 2009 recession, according to government data. The unemployment rate of young adult ages 16 to 24 stood at 18.5 percent in July. Although that’s down from 26.9 percent in April, it’s “still about twice as high as a year earlier … and is the highest July rate since 2010,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Thursday.
TSA’s class of 2016 of 16 girls and 13 boys followed divergent paths after leaving the hillside campus in Sharon, whether it was attending liberal arts colleges, engineering schools, state universities or taking a gap year.
Ellen Bagnato, TSA’s director of career and college advising, said that “about 20 percent of the 2016 class right off the bat pursued alternate routes” by postponing or foregoing college in favor of other endeavors.
Bagnato said she has been in communication with a member of the class whose move to Boston was upended by COVID-19. She’s now working as a nanny while preparing to apply to graduate school.
Another member, she said, told her how observing the sudden wholesale shift to remote learning by even the elite schools has lifted the “stigma” associated with online education. That moved her to finish her bachelor’s degree in an online program designed to prepare careers in helping people with disabilities.
“There’s a lot less ‘do your four years, get your degree and then start your career’ that progresses logically to the next step,” Bagnato said. “Uncertainty and COVID has accelerated a lot of these trends in people being more open to different paths.”
For members of TSA’s class of 2016, the pandemic has forced them to make the most out of a difficult situation.
Lucia Gagliardone, who graduated this spring from Bowdoin College in Maine with a double major in dance and sociology, is transplanting the interests she had hoped to pursue in New York City back home in Sharon. Her plan after college was predicated on her interest in pursuing a career in performing arts, particularly related to dance.
“Unlike my peers applying for concrete 9 to 5 jobs, I realized the path of a performing artist is moving to a rich arts scene and getting involved. So I was going to move to New York and do the classic get-immersed-in-arts scene,” Gagliardone said.
“That definitely isn’t happening right now,” she said.
Instead, Gagliardone, 22, is spending 20 hours a week behind the counter at the Blue Sparrow Kitchen in Norwich, VT, where she worked during high school to earn spending money, and has partnered with TSA classmate Lydia Roe, who just graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, to choreograph a dance duet that they will perform — along with a 45-minute, five-dancer performance that Gagliardone choreographed for her senior thesis — at Star Mountain Amphitheater in Sharon next month.
A portion of the money raised through ticket sales will go to the SUSU Healing Collective in Brattleboro, Vt., an organization centered around Black, indigenous and people of color that offers programs and resources related to wellness.
Gagliardone said she also realizes how fortunate she is — “I have a house, I’m safe and (have) an amazing family. I recognize there are situations a lot more challenging than mine” — but is also “someone who really craves a plan” and the pandemic is making that a challenge.
The pandemic is “teaching me a lot in how to return the present moment. … I’m trying to embrace the idea that I don’t have to immediately start the next big thing of my life,” she said.
TSA classmate Quinn Thomashow, who majored in film at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, like Gagliardone was also looking forward to moving to New York City for a job with an independent film company when, she said, “COVID hit and it all fell through.”
In order to keep herself occupied, Thomashow, 22, and a college friend have an experimental music band named Shrimp Mash and are collaborating on an album — virtually — which they hope to have finished “in a month or two.”
An old-school filmmaker who likes to work with 8mm and 16mm film, Thomashow is making a film about her father Peter Thomashow’s extensive collection of antique block toys and outsider art objects.
Because her parents are older and considered in a high-risk group, Thomashow said she takes COVID-19 “very seriously” and is spending most of her time at home, getting back into riding her horse and tending a “big garden … I never had time to grow vegetables before and it definitely makes being here worthwhile.”
She’s also earning money by helping to take care of a friend’s horse and doing some research for a Canadian film company that was exploring make a film in the Upper Valley. She’s participating in an “anti-racism working group” that has been informed in Strafford to understand the systemic biases and ongoing violence experienced by people of color.
“I tend to make a lot of projects for myself. But at the same time it’s hard to feel connected, so having time to ride and be in the garden makes me feel grounded,” Thomashow said.
Thomashow said she’s using the time to build her film portfolio, which needs to be “really good” if she applied to graduate study in film, which she is considering. She’s also looking at perhaps going to Iceland — once the travel ban due to COVID-19 is lifted, that is — where she spent summers previously and has a vibrant young filmmaking community.
“I’m taking it day by day,” Thomashow said, and she’s optimistic about her opportunities even though she doesn’t know how long she will be at home. “Something will come up,” she said.
Gretta Stack’s plans were also dealt a setback. Stack, of Hartland, graduated this spring from University of Vermont with a degree in wildlife biology. She had planned to be going directly to Bozeman, Mont., to rejoin the Montana Outdoor Science School, a nature and science camp for young students, where she had a job as an instructor. But COVID-19 forced the camp to cancel the first half of the summer program.
Stack said she and her boyfriend decided it would not be wise to drive across the country in June while the pandemic was raging and she stayed home in Hartland, where she’s been helping out her mother with her landscaping and gardening business. Stack said she was hoping to land an internship or job with either the World Wildlife Fund or work as a wildlife vet tech, but hasn’t had any luck yet.
Ideally, Stack said she’d like to work in environmental research, or work with kids in outdoor programs or even start her own school one day. But for the time being she has a Plan B.
This weekend Stack was scheduled to leave with her boyfriend to Bozeman and help him with his outdoor wood fire pizza business, The Ugly Onion, which utilizes unspoiled but blemished produce that is rejected for market sale and uses it as ingredients to bake gourmet wood-fire pizza. They are hauling the mobile pizza oven across country behind his truck and plan to settle in Bozeman, a college town with lots of people who share their interests in the outdoors.
“I was really excited to travel a lot of places and trying out different jobs when I graduated,” Stack said. “So that’s pretty much on hold.”
COVID-19 has changed the direction of travel in the opposite direction for Stack’s TSA classmate and fellow UVM student Chris Gish.
Gish, 22, a dual major in geography and ecology who would have graduated this spring but in January decided to hold off taking his final credit until spring semester of 2021 in order to participate in another season of UVM track, had been hoping to return this summer to work on the farm in western Colorado where he worked last year.
Instead, Gish stayed at his Burlington apartment where he had a remote internship with the climate education nonprofit 350Vermont and is about to start a job on the crew at Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman’s organic Full Moon Farm in Hinesburg.
“Just any plans to relocate or travel doesn’t feel responsible right now, even if I could do it,” said Gish, who added that as much as he wanted to go back West this summer and after he graduated, he’s now “looking at putting roots down in Vermont in a way that I would never have imagined without COVID.”
Despite having the goal of moving West thwarted by COVID-19, Gish said he’s not bitter.
“I just feel super lucky to be having a fulltime job I’m interested in,” he said.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.