Coronavirus-Era Career Advice From Recession-Era Alumni

How Grads Can Succeed in a Challenging Job Market

May 21, 2020

For years, you’ve pictured life after college: hanging your diploma on your wall, getting dressed for your first day on the job, starting your career—launching your new life.

You probably didn’t envision global quarantine orders, commencement ceremonies on Zoom, and record-breaking national unemployment claims.

It’s hard.

But it might help to remember that others have gone before you, graduating in times of intense financial pressures and frightening uncertainty. Students who graduated in 2008 and 2009 during the global Great Recession faced some of the same challenges you’re facing.

They lived through it, and they’re here to share with you how to make it through—and maybe even be better off for the struggle.

Danielle Shoots ’08, Marketing

Danielle Shoots ‘08 has managed a billion-dollar capital portfolio and 60-member team at Comcast, served as CFO for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and founded a leadership coaching startup called the Daily Boss Up. A mother, a community advocate, and often the youngest executive in the boardroom, Shoots has spoken at the Black Women Lead Summit, received the Denver Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 award, and been named a Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Business by the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce.

Danielle Shoots | Finance and Operations Executive, Founder and CEO of The Daily Boss Up

What was going through her mind after graduation:

“I really needed to get a job, because I was already a mom. I believe my focus on going to work versus getting the perfect job kept me open to possibility. I didn’t box myself into one job title or type of job, because I knew it was just a first step. That gave me the confidence and hope to approach the job market.”

Her biggest mistake:

“I tried to match my experience one-for-one with job descriptions. I talked myself out of applying for a lot of roles because of this. Understanding your transferable skills as you start a job search is critical, and I wasted a lot of time not knowing this. For example, a person who is a good problem solver can do so many jobs but often never puts that on a resume or understands how that qualifies them for a role that has more technical requirements.”

Her key to success:

“I know myself very well, what I am good at, and what I am not good at. And I know how to communicate who I am. I don’t let other people tell my story for me, and I own every part of my story and all the failures that make me who I am. Knowing yourself creates a confidence and willingness to take the risks that are necessary to achieve career success.”

The advantage you have as a new grad:

“During hard times, companies are looking to reimagine their processes and approaches, and they are looking for fresh perspective, innovative ideas, and creativity. In a downturn market, there may be less focus on experience and more focus on the ability to take the company to a new place. This gives [recent] graduates an upper hand.”

How to succeed in this job market:

“Your ability to do what you want to do comes from your internal strength and grit and the work you have done while in college. Economic and other environmental challenges are a part of life, and you have already been built to navigate them. Focus all of your energy on what you are capable of and as little as possible on the challenges in the environment that will rock your confidence. Approach the job market like companies are begging for employees, and you’ll get the same result you would’ve if the market were flourishing.”

Alaina Moore ’08, Philosophy

Alaina Moore ‘08 met her life and music partner Patrick Riley ‘08 in a CU Denver philosophy class. A year after graduating, they formed the American indie pop band band, Tennis, which has played everything from Coachella and Lollapalooza to late-night TV with David Lettermen and Conan O’Brien. They have worked with renowned producers like Patrick Carney of the Black Keys and the late Richard Swift and toured with artists like The Shins, Spoon, and Father John Misty.

Alaina Moore alum
Alaine Moore | Songwriter, producer, and primary artist in the band Tennis

What was going through her mind at graduation:

“There were no job prospects for us when we graduated. For months we applied to five jobs a day, five days a week—everything from technical writing jobs to cashier at Walmart. Patrick and I couldn’t find work anywhere. Eventually, we found jobs at a clothing store and a coffee shop for less than $10 an hour. It was the desperation and hopelessness we felt about our post-college career paths that motivated us to do something crazy: make a record and go on tour. Because we had literally nothing to lose.”

The key to her success:

“Our success has been dependent on a combination of hard work, seizing opportunities, and a lot of luck. Neither of us had any connections in the music industry, so our success relied on quite a bit of luck in terms of timing, having a viral first single, and being a part of a burgeoning musical trend. But the fact that we’ve been able to support ourselves through our music for over a decade means we’ve done it right.”

Her silver lining:

“Because of the recession, normal career opportunities were unavailable to us, so we put our effort into unlikely endeavors—like starting a musical project. If we graduated into a normal, healthy economy, we probably would have pursued conventional career paths and never written any music. Having nothing to lose forced us to take risks and bet on our own happiness. That led us to finding the most fulfilling work we could have ever hoped for.”

Words of wisdom on staying power:

“Always bet on yourself. You have to really push for what you want, create your own opportunities. There will be a lot of ‘no’s and a lot of rejection, but if you believe in what you’re doing, then you keep your head down and do the work. Staying power is key. All you need to do is outlast your competition, outlast the people who say ‘no.’ Also, live below your means and save some money if at all possible. It’s such a dad thing to say, but things go wrong, people get sick, work can be unreliable. Living below our means has allowed us to survive all the lean years, the disasters, the recessions, the illnesses.”

Brandy Reitter, MPA ’08

A Front Range native, Brandy Reitter MPA ’08 began her public administration career in Washington, D.C. She returned to her home state and has served as town manager for several mountain communities throughout Colorado. In Eagle County, an area of the state that was an early hotspot for the COVID-19 virus, she has been busy executing public health orders and serving on economic recovery task forces, all while maintaining normal town services and operations.

Brandy Reitter | Town Manager, Town of Eagle

What was going through her mind at graduation:

“I definitely had anxiety. The job postings weren’t there. People weren’t hiring. I realized this early and decided to try to find a paid fellowship or internship. I wouldn’t make as much money as in a salaried position, but I would get the experience I needed to be more marketable. I got a fellowship in Washington, D.C., working for the District of Columbia. A year later, I was offered a permanent position there. At first, it felt like I was taking a few steps back in my grand plan, but it actually launched me forward. You can still work toward your ultimate career plan, but during a recession, you have to be flexible.”

Her key to success:

“Having a good idea of what I wanted to do helped me. The more you know your focus, the easier it is to come up with a plan to achieve your goal. Of course, if you get on a path you don’t like, you can tweak it or try something else. But first, narrow your focus and put a plan in place to achieve your goal.”

How to survive rejection:

“What you’re facing is hard, but keep trying. Don’t get discouraged. The difference between a red-hot economy and the one we’re in now is that there are going to be more tries to get to the ‘yes’ you’re looking for. Don’t let a ‘no’ ruin your day. Treat each job interview that doesn’t go the way you want as practice to land the gig that you’re supposed to have. Reflect after every interview, and prepare for the next one. Eventually, you’re going to get a ‘yes.'”

When to temper your expectations:

“We’re told we can be anything we want to be. We can—but maybe not right after college. It takes a lot of time and energy to apply for jobs, so apply to those at which you think you can be most successful. Don’t underestimate the power of cutting your teeth somewhere. Your degree is worth so much, but you also need experience and networking, and you might need to temper your expectations a bit to align with the reality of the job market. You will get there. You’re amazing. You’ll reach your goal.”

Tischi George Balachandra MS ’09, Electrical Engineering

Tischi George Balachandra MS ’09 had dreams of working in the United States government and in the private sector as a leader, researcher, and investigator. He utilized the advice from military veterans at CU Denver to find opportunities in the U.S. government and to become an Officer. He has held leadership roles at notable organizations, including Raytheon Technologies and Honeywell Aerospace. Formerly chief operating officer for ZOI Group, he currently serves the company as a consultant, working with the natural products company JIO COCO. He is also a patent examiner for the U.S. government.

Tischi George Balachandra | Engineer, Entrepreneur, Program Leader

What he wanted to do after graduation:

“I wanted to be a part of cutting-edge research and feel like I was making an impact with my skills and knowledge. Close to graduation, I got a fantastic opportunity with the U.S. government that led me towards becoming a leader as an Officer. That was an honor for me.”

His keys to success:

“Like similar minds, it was my dream since I was 4 or 5 years old to join the U.S. space program and become a pioneer. I come from an ambitious family and my mother and father pushed me to excel and be virtuous. The values of dreaming big and manifesting them through diligence were instilled in me from a young age. I have a strong internal drive and motivation to pursue my own way. I met so many good and virtuous mentors in the U.S.A. (at CU Denver and in the U.S. government) and other parts of the world. All of these factors together motivated and supported me in my career.”

How to reach your biggest goals:

“Don’t be afraid to dream big. Listen to naysayers who might say something is over your head, but don’t be discouraged by their words. Seek advice. There are a lot of people out there who have probably had the same struggles that you have right now. Try to integrate the solutions they suggest and find your own personal solution.”

See? There is life—and career success—during and after a recession. Your fellow alumni got through this, and so will you.

No matter what the world throws at you, you will take your sharp mind, your hard-won skills, and your compassionate spirit, and you will keep moving on the road to your goals. That’s what makes you a Lynx.