David Babikian

New College Graduates Take Uncertain Paths in COVID-19 Era

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By Serena Hajjar

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOSTON – Which demographic has most innately felt the chaos wreaked by COVID-19? While the virus has certainly unsettled everyone’s lives in a multitude of ways, it appears the youth have been uniquely impacted by the quarantines and shutdowns. The healthy dose of uncertainty which college graduates typically experience during these times under normal circumstances has now been amplified by an increasingly ambiguous future. Speaking to an assortment of graduates from the local Armenian community, I was struck not just by the distinct ways in which the pandemic has disrupted their lives, but also by their maturity and temperance regarding the difficult situation.

All three individuals – David Babikian, Antranig Kechejian, and Ani Chobanian – found themselves living at home with their parents after the outbreak of the virus and the resultant transition to online classes. This has certainly posed a stark change of scenery for these young adults who have grown accustomed to the independence of college life.

“We have an interesting experience now moving back in with our families at a time when we didn’t think we were going to,” said Babikian, a graduate of Princeton University. “We were just about to arrive at what we thought was more independence, and instead it turns out we’re back in the rooms we lived in during high school. I think that’s a strange feeling, maybe of regression and uncertainty about where we stand.”

Indeed, this unique situation has encouraged these youths to spend more quality time with their families, especially with siblings who similarly would not be living at home otherwise.

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“One of the silver linings is that my sister is working from home,” said Kechejian, a graduate of Boston University. “She works as an engineer for Philips in Cambridge, and she usually lives in her apartment and works a lot so I don’t really get to see her too often. Now she’s home all the time, which is nice.”

Antranig Kechejian

This arrangement has also prompted some reflection on the nature of their relationships with their parents.

“I think it accelerates the process of change that naturally happens with 20-year-olds and their parents, where we really want to be seen and validated as adults and our parents still think of us the same way they used to,” said Babikian.

In an effort to maintain relationships with their peers during this socially distant time, the three have relied primarily on apps like HouseParty, FaceTime, and, of course, Zoom.

“I’m fortunate that my high school friends and I communicate frequently through Zoom, Discord, and voice chat,” said Kechejian. “I have scheduled Zoom times with one of my best friends from college. Sometimes on weekends, even some weeknights, we’ll get together on voice chat, have a couple of drinks, play a game we can all play together online.”

However, these apps are certainly no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

“As fun as voice chatting and playing games online is, I do miss going out for real,” he said.

The hassle of using apps to facilitate communication has also illuminated dynamics within friendships which might not have been apparent under the status quo.

“My friendships have been an interesting test of ‘who do you want to Facetime?’” said Babikian. It’s not just people that are around you at college anymore, it’s people for whom you have to make a conscious effort. It’s a lot more one-on-ones, and you have to be comfortable navigating that environment. You’re not drinking with your friends, you’re not doing activities with them, you have to be able to just sit and talk to your friends about things.”

Despite the disruption in routine, these graduates are nevertheless determined to continue learning and building their skillset. Babikian, for example, has decided to teach himself French, while Kechejian has opted to tackle math and programming classes.

“A big part of this for me is recognizing that this situation will end at some point and that I have the time and capability to take action now to prepare and equip myself with the skills I need to create the best possible future,” said Kechejian.

Likewise, Chobanian, a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, has been utilizing this time to hone her teaching talents. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in education, with the goal to become an elementary school teacher.

“I’ve been using this situation to try to teach my little cousin Tiffany everything I can,” she said. “For example, her teacher told me that they would’ve been learning fractions now, so I’m trying to teach her fractions. There’s no Armenian school now, so I’ll practice reading Armenian with her more often and teach her spelling.”

Chobanian has also been busy working at CVS Pharmacy, an experience which can be daunting at times due to the possibility of exposure to the virus. The company has indeed adopted several precautions to mitigate the risk, including gloves, N-95 masks, sneeze guards, and increased cleanings.

“On one hand, it’s kind of exciting to go to work because I get to leave the house and have a change of scenery, instead of being home all day, and it gives me the opportunity to get away from everything,” she said. “But it’s also scary because I’m going to work and I don’t know what I’m going to be facing, since we get exposed to people coming from the hospitals, or just people in general.”

Home delivery of prescriptions has also grown in popularity, which aids greatly in reducing exposure

“I think that’s positive because people are avoiding coming to the pharmacy, avoiding personal contact, but it does create a lot of work on us,” said Chobanian. “The pharmacy is already a busy area, and now it’s on overload because of the virus.”

Asked whether he thinks this period has been more difficult for him and his peers as youths than for adults, Babikian remarked on the stark difference in lifestyle which the coronavirus has necessitated for his age group.

“It’s strange because the workplace lends itself to being done virtually,” said Babikian. “The workplace doesn’t necessitate social interaction all the time, whereas getting an education does. As college-age and school-age kids, a lot of what we’re learning is in the classroom, but a lot of it is also at lunch tables, in athletic facilities, in other places outside the classroom. So it’s a bigger adjustment period, because it’s a bigger change from what your life was beforehand.”

These disparities naturally extend into home life as well.

“For our age group in particular – college students – you are used to a dorm, which is so different from living at home; you’re used to not having parental supervision, which is so different from this situation; and your whole life has been upended,” said Babikian.

The three graduates also expressed a marked sense of disappointment about the reality of missing out on some of the most pivotal and defining moments of their lives.

“I think a lot of young people are anxious about that because we’re not getting these years back,” said Kechejian. “It’ll never be Senior Spring again, that’s just gone. If you’re a young person, you’re thinking, ‘How many more things will be gone?’ You can be the most positive, grounded, productive person, and it’s nevertheless really challenging to mentally overcome the fact that we’re missing out. You can’t shake the feeling that this was supposed to be such a big milestone.”

Babikian concurred on the adaptable nature of humans, especially the youth, while lamenting the loss of experiences so unique to these specific moments in time that they simply cannot be replicated in the future.

“We find ways to make it work, because that’s just how life goes – a situation happens to you, and you need to find a way to adapt, to make it work,” he said. “But it was a loss. You didn’t get closure with college or with people with whom you thought you’d have a few more months and memories. It’s done before you had the chance to say goodbye. It’s disappointing that there will be no ‘recompense’ for that. This time is unique to the moment, it’s not something we can make up for or substitute in the future, even with postponed real-life graduations.”

Chobanian also noted the diverging effects of the quarantine on not only generational differences, but also personality types.

“Another factor that might play a role here is whether someone is an introvert or an extrovert,” she said. “For example, my boyfriend is an introvert. He’s working at the frontlines at the hospital, seeing patients, so he’s been by himself in his apartment in Worcester for the past two months, no physical contact with anyone. But he’s more of an introvert, so he’s handling it OK, whereas me on the other hand, I’m more of an extrovert. I like social situations, I like seeing my friends, going to parties, seeing people on a day-to-day basis, so if I was in his position, all by myself, in my own apartment, I would go insane and lose my mind.”

The coronavirus has also forced Chobanian and her boyfriend into a long-distance relationship of sorts.

“It’s definitely difficult,” she said. “It’s like we’re in a long-distance relationship now because of the virus, even though he lives an hour away. We talk every day on the phone, we pray together, I always message him.”

Despite deep uncertainty regarding the months to come, Babikian and Chobanian maintain that their plans remain largely the same. Babikian’s job in New York will proceed with a postponed start date, while Chobanian has just started her graduate school classes at Lesley Unviersity remotely.

Beyond these immediate plans, the graduates foresee a tremendous amount of change when the pandemic draws to a close.

“Once this does go away, it’s going to take a good amount of time, at least two to three months, for people to return to their old mindset and be able to spend time with each other without being scared if someone coughs, or having a birthday party and not worrying about someone blowing the candles on the cake,” said Chobanian. “It’s definitely going to take a lot of time for people to get into their old habits again. But I know that we’ll get through it and we’re going to recover from it no matter what.”

For Babikian, the potential aftereffects of the pandemic evoke those of 9/11.

“After 9/11, the United States experienced a ‘post-9/11 era,’ a period of time where decisions made by the government were reactionary to 9/11 specifically. For many years afterwards, people tied decisions that were made within companies and even in households back to 9/11. I think it’s going to be the same situation for the coronavirus. People in the future are going to alter how workplaces and social gatherings operate, how all sorts of human interactions are conducted.”

Kechejian concurred, remarking on the myriad changes to come in the near future.

“A big part of this is thinking about the ways in which the world is going to be different afterwards,” said Kechejian. “I think people need to keep in mind that even when this is over, there are going to be even more changes to adapt to. This whole thing is really only getting started, and we need to find the mental fortitude to hunker down, because things are not going to be normal any time soon.”

Indeed, the coronavirus has prompted a veritable paradigm shift with regards to the kind of future that awaits.

“By no means will it be the future that I thought I could predict, in the past,” said Babikian. “My own goals will have to cede to and change according to what’s about to happen at a national and global level. I don’t know what those changes are yet, and I can try to predict them and account for them, but when it comes to making plans for my future, I’m now realizing just how little is in my control.”

Despite the uncertainty, the graduates remain optimistic.

“I think once this ends, we’re all going to come out of it stronger,” said Chobanian. “It’s kind of like the Boston Marathon. In the immediate, it was a terrible event, but afterwards, the phrase ‘Boston Strong’ emerged and we all came together as a community and rose above it.”

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