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College grads struggle to launch careers in a pandemic economy. ‘I chose the worst year to get my life together’

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CHICAGO — Kevin Zheng had big plans lined up as he prepared to graduate in the spring with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The 23-year-old thought he’d enter the job market well-prepared, with an internship at the Chicago Police Department on his resume.

But the COVID-19 health crisis upended that plan. His internship was canceled, his graduation was delayed until August, and he sat in his bedroom for the virtual commencement ceremony. Now he’s looking for a job in a pandemic-induced recession.

“I chose the worst year to get my life together,” said Zheng, a first-generation college graduate who lives in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood.

As the coronavirus pandemic wears on, Zheng and other recent college graduates are grappling with a tight job market, high unemployment rates and pressure to find work to pay off student loans.

At the start of the year, Generation Z, typically defined as those born after 1997, was headed into the workforce during the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. But now the unemployment rate in Illinois for those ages 20 to 24 is 15.5%, one of the highest among all age groups in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

With more employers cutting jobs and some boosting qualifications for open positions, recent college graduates are worried they’ll fall behind in their careers. Some are saving money for student loan payments by cutting expenses, while others are applying for part-time and low-wage jobs. Many still live with their parents.

Zheng, who lives with his parents and owes about $30,000 in student loans, said he is considering picking up part-time work, but he’s seen how difficult it can be. Both his parents work in the restaurant industry, often cobbling together shifts at different dining

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Gen Z college grads struggle to launch careers in pandemic economy. ‘I chose the worst year to get my life together.’

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Kevin Zheng had big plans lined up as he prepared to graduate in the spring with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago.



a man looking at the camera: Jesus Mendoza, 23, at his Southeast Side home Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. Mendoza graduated from Chicago State University in May with a business administration degree.


© Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Jesus Mendoza, 23, at his Southeast Side home Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. Mendoza graduated from Chicago State University in May with a business administration degree.

The 23-year-old thought he’d enter the job market well-prepared, with an internship at the Chicago Police Department on his resume.

But the COVID-19 health crisis upended that plan. His internship was canceled, his graduation was delayed until August, and he sat in his bedroom for the virtual commencement ceremony. Now he’s looking for a job in a pandemic-induced recession.



a man sitting on a bench in front of a laptop: Jesus Mendoza, 23, graduated from Chicago State University in May with a business administration degree.


© Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Jesus Mendoza, 23, graduated from Chicago State University in May with a business administration degree.

“I chose the worst year to get my life together,” said Zheng, a first-generation college graduate who lives in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood.

As the coronavirus pandemic wears on, Zheng and other recent college graduates are grappling with a tight job market, high unemployment rates and pressure to find work to pay off student loans.

At the start of the year, Generation Z, typically defined as those born after 1997, was headed into the workforce during the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. But now the unemployment rate in Illinois for those ages 20 to 24 is 15.5%, one of the highest among all age groups in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.



a man sitting in front of a building: Kevin Zheng, 23, a first generation college graduate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, poses for a photo in the backyard of his parents' home, Oct. 9, 2020.


© Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Kevin Zheng, 23, a first generation college graduate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, poses for a photo in the backyard of his parents’ home, Oct. 9, 2020.

With more employers cutting jobs

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University of Washington and Greek Row struggle to contain COVID-19 outbreak

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As the coronavirus spreads through the University of Washington’s fraternities and sororities, the school contends it can’t do much to contain the outbreak — the second to hit Greek Row since June.

UW and local public health officials have advised the students on safety, met with chapter presidents and had them submit COVID-19 prevention plans. But students who live nearby report big parties that stretch into the early-morning hours and seem to invite further infections — and the cluster is starting to have effects beyond the Greek system.

The current outbreak was identified Sept. 11 with two cases and has grown to 179 as of Tuesday afternoon. The number of confirmed cases has climbed by about 37% in just the past four days, from 131 cases as of 4 p.m. Friday, according to the university’s tally.

Two weeks ago, Annie Stephens moved into McCarty Hall, which is on the northern edge of campus and across Northeast 45th Street from Greek Row. She said she could hear loud Greek Row parties every night until Sunday.

“It’s pretty frustrating to hear big parties happening every single night while people in dorms are being told that they can’t even be in an elevator with more than three people,” Stephens said.

UW has instituted outbreak prevention restrictions in dormitories, such as restricting the number of people who can ride in an elevator, closing some common spaces and moving furniture in common places to encourage adequate distancing, said university spokesperson Victor Balta.

“Certainly, the university has more control over the spaces that it operates, such as residence halls and dining areas,” he said.

The university contends its options are limited because the 45-house Greek system is located off-campus, but fraternities and sororities could lose university recognition if there are ongoing compliance issues, Balta said.

If