April 2021 Alumnae Reflect on Career Shifts During COVID

The tremendous workplace transformation of the past year has changed the way we approach networking, collaboration with coworkers and the idea of the traditional workday. Read on as Sienna Combs BS/MBA ‘15, Linda Lynch ‘91, Lauren Pate ‘16, and Stephanie Felicetti ‘09 share their perspectives on the career shifts brought about by the pandemic.

Alumnae Reflect on Career Shifts During COVID

By Maria Finan ‘14, ‘16 MA

What we all thought was a short-term stay-at-home order turned into so much more. Working from home went from novelty to necessity to will-we-ever-go-back-normal, and what is ‘normal’ anyway? What felt like a temporary pause became a year that has changed where we work, how we work, and the ways we connect with others.

This great pause became a time of constant change. Children running into Zoom meetings, dogs barking in the background, virtual coffee (or drinks), and working from home suddenly became part of many people’s lives. People moved across the country, and some moved back. Others searched for new jobs, or tried to help those navigating the search. Full-time working moms somehow managed to navigate both roles simultaneously, and some even brought new humans into the world. Although it’s impossible to capture all the ways work has changed, we talked to four alumnae about work during the pandemic.

Networking and the Job Search - Sienna Combs & Linda Lynch

What do a UK-based sales trader and a California-based manager of Regional Employer Engagement have in common (besides being Notre Dame alumnae)? Insight into navigating a job search.

Sienna Combs BS/MBA ‘15 has worked in sales trading since graduating, first in New York, and then in London the last few years. Whether actively job seeking or not, her philosophy has always been, “If someone approaches you about a job, take the call. You might not need the connection now, but you never know when you will.”

This advice helped her during the pandemic as companies seemed to shift away from recruiters toward direct recruitment. “The powerful thing has been networking directly with people,” Combs said. “I had years-long relationships, which came with referrals or advice that helped me.”

Sienna Combs

Those connections helped with her recent job search. “There have been a lot of people who have been very helpful, maybe not with a concrete lead, but people have been happy to pass along resumes. There have been points in my job search when I felt much more connected to others, like part of a team. People would pass my name on or take a phone call.”

Utilizing your network, Notre Dame or otherwise, is key, echoed Linda Lynch ‘91. As a manager of Regional Employer Engagement for Notre Dame in California, Lynch supports students, alumni, and employers by fostering connections. Lately, Lynch has been organizing Irish Networking Huddles, where one alum is paired with up to five students who are seeking employment to talk about strategy and career paths, and to help the students network. 

Lynch noted, “Young people early in their careers are going to miss out on water cooler casual conversations with their managers. They have to be a go-getter, and get outside of their comfort zones to make those connections.” And that’s not easy. 

Combs emphasized the need to push yourself but also to reflect. “The more I’ve done it, the more I’ve found it easier to reach out and ask for help. It gets easier to send an email or make a cold call. Those things may not have ultimately led to the job I’m taking, but they’re still helpful down the line, or they helped me to determine what I want to do next, and what opportunities are available to me.”

Lynch knows how tough getting started can be, especially for students feeling overwhelmed right now. Regional Employment Engagement has been less active than in the past, but the Meruelo Family Center for Career Development (CCD) is doing a lot of programming this spring, and job placement has been going well. CCD also supported the first ever Winter Session, which enabled students to work on projects, take classes, or take internships, which some students have continued throughout the semester. 

The CCD’s strategy has been to think about growth and to encourage outreach with companies that are growing during the pandemic. Lynch helps students think about how and where they want to work. “More people are going back closer to home,” she said, but “so many cool companies are still doing well, and so many of them are hiring remote workers.” She asks students, “Do you want to be a 22-year-old entering the workforce fully remote, or do you want to have the prospect of being in person?”

Linda Lynch

There’s no right answer, but spending the time figuring out what you want out of a job, and how you want to work is so important. As Combs said about her own experience, “I’ve done what I consider two major career transitions - moving from the US to UK, and then I changed jobs here, which came with a team and culture change. During both of those, there were a lot of external motivators [as to] why it was the right thing [for me to change jobs], but I didn’t really take the time to reflect what I was feeling or why I felt the way I did.”

The pandemic gave her an opportunity and also demanded that she take time to think about what she wanted. As a US citizen working in the UK, her visa is work-sponsored, which added time-sensitive pressure, but as she said, “I have felt the whole time that it's really important to take time, and to take care of myself… It takes more time, and energy, to just be okay, when so many things you find fulfilling aren’t available to you.” Combs added, “When you’re looking for a new job, you want it to be the right decision. You don’t want to be back in the position you’re in now [...] two years from now.”

Combs offers some advice for anyone seeking a job: “The biggest thing is to make sure you move towards something, rather than away from something. There’s a big difference to be reaching towards something positive. You need to be prepared for the fact that one or two opportunities will pan out, but you’re probably going to go after 30, or 40, or 50. Rejection is part of it. Failure is not personal.”

Navigating Moving and Working as a Woman of Color - Lauren Pate

Lauren Pate ‘16 also has experience shifting jobs during the pandemic. After working in Washington, D.C. since graduation, Pate decided to move across the country to Oakland, Calif. She said, “I had been living in D.C. from August 2016 until July 2020 so I felt like I had seen much of what DC had to offer. I lived in different neighborhoods, and I felt it could be time to try a new city while my job was paying me to do so, and I wasn’t moving with family or a partner.”

Last June, when Pate decided to move to Oakland, the timeline for our return to “normal” was very much up in the air: “At this point we were telling ourselves maybe by the fall/winter things would open up, and we could return to the office. I felt like if this was the case, I’d be in the Bay by September 2020 and able to be in the office hopefully by November or December 2020. Unfortunately, this was not how things came together!” (Ed. note: After a brief move to Oakland, Pate has since returned to D.C.)

One of the interesting shifts noted by both Pate and Lynch has been the large number of  employees moving away from cities like those in the Bay area. As Lynch has discovered, “So many alums have gotten out of California. What will be interesting is, what will the policy be post-pandemic? Companies haven’t figured it out yet.”

Lauren Pate

“It [the shift to virtual work away from cities] has been relatively okay for the ‘haves,’ but really difficult for the ‘have-nots.’ All of their support systems are the ones that are taking the hit. It’s not just the workers, but a question of how will we impact the ecosystem around us.” Lynch anticipates large changes to the ways we work as more things go virtual. 

Pate personally felt that virtual onboarding was difficult. “I found that the biggest thing I was missing through onboarding a new job remotely is that you don’t get the hallway interactions or walks to lunch where you get to know your co-workers personally,” she said. “It’s hard to understand an office culture remotely.” Her solution was to schedule one-on-one virtual coffee chats to get to know her team members. 

“In 1:1 chats people felt more comfortable telling me information like: this manager prefers work done this way, or this attorney is hard to work with - different office culture things one would not pick up having never set foot in the office,” said Pate.

Much like Combs, she also learned a lot about herself: “I’m a person of routine and habit. I thought moving to a new city would be an adventure for me, but really I just missed my old habits and places I frequented. I learned I’m the type of person that takes pleasure (to some extent) in doing the same thing every day.”

She also noted the other challenges presented not just by moving during the pandemic, but also by working during social upheavals and racial violence that have plagued much of the past year in the U.S. 
“Racial injustice and discrimination is [navigating] everyday between microaggressions, violence, and systematic oppression,” Pate said. “I am expected to show up and work every day like everything is fine. It’s tiring.”

Some companies are gradually becoming more aware that they need to do more, but as Pate observed, “I’ve seen some performative shifts in companies speaking [up] and putting up BLM signs, but no real changes to combat the pay gap and alleviate some of the burden Black people in the workforce face.”

As a Black woman working in tech, Pate is especially aware of the world she and other people of color must traverse. “Navigating the working world as a Black woman means dealing with a lot of microaggressions and people saying the ‘right things’ but not really wanting to lay aside their privilege to change things. It’s also questioning if I’m receiving the same treatment as others or being paid equitably,” she said.

A lot of the work for change often falls on employees. As Pate noted, many companies “are relying on Black people to do the work on behalf of the company, as well as AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] people. Without many of the employees of color speaking out and forcing CEOs to make a statement, the press releases we are seeing would not exist.”

She encouraged other women trying to find their place in the workplace to remember “Life is too short to be someplace unhappy. There are so many jobs out there and companies, so go to a place where you are respected and paid equitably. Also remember it is a recruiter’s job to hire you for as little as possible, so negotiate EVERYTHING!”

Working Two Full Time Jobs Simultaneously - Stephanie Felicetti

Alumnae like Combs and Pate aren’t the only ones who have experienced shifts in their work. Millions of moms across the country have had to balance two full-time jobs: mom and employee. Stephanie Felicetti ‘09 is one such ND mom who not only has been balancing work and parenting, but who also recently welcomed a new baby to the family.

Stephanie and her husband, Adam ‘10, ‘15 MBA, are parents of three children under five. Graeme is four-and-a-half, McKinley is two-and-a-half, and MacKenzie is 6 months old. Felicetti’s biggest advice about navigating a pandemic as a working mom was to “rely on your people, especially your ND people.”

Felicetti noted that there used to be separation with kids at school while you worked your job. But now “if you hear them crying, you want to go help. There’s no separation.”

This new “normal” is one we’re all trying to navigate. “Everyone,” Felicetti said, “is taking a step back and trying to figure out what the right mix is. It’s fantastic to be there for our kids. We are able to spend more time with them and do more to help them.” 

This extra time spent caring for children during the day has shifted the way moms like Felicetti work. “It’s all a balance. I look at priorities in a different way. I can help my kids during the day, and after they go to bed, I pick up my laptop to do more work. It’s not a normal 8-5 anymore.”

Stephanie Felicetti and her family

In some ways, Felicetti thinks the pandemic has improved the way we interact. We show greater empathy. “For example, last week, the two-year-old ran in while my husband was on a Zoom call. That would have been tough previously, but our level of understanding now is very different. There's kindness and flexibility now, regardless of your gender and what role you play in the household.”

For moms, whether they work traditional jobs or focus on raising their children full time, there’s a lot to balance. Felicetti recommended carving out distinct times for each aspect of your identity (and also putting your phone down). “This time is dedicated to work, this time is dedicated to my kids, this time is dedicated to my significant other… otherwise they blend together and then I’m frustrated with work, with the kids, and with my spouse. In my mind, I at least have awareness and try to be mindful and give myself grace to attend to each priority as best as I can,” she said.

Felicetti acknowledged the struggle of mom guilt: “It existed before COVID, but I feel it even more so now. I ask myself, am I giving enough to work, enough to my family? It’s self-inflicted, social media inflicted, even ND-mom inflicted.”

She said being the best mom “looks different for everyone. Social media is so curated and mom guilt never-ending. I love mom friends who talk about it and recognize the fact we’re all struggling to do our best and that we’re all crushing it.”

When asked what she sees for working moms in the future, Felicetti predicted: “There’s no way we’ll go back to working eight-to-five, five days a week.” As Felicetti said, “I will give you my 40 hours, and then some, but it’s not going to be in the confines of eight-to-five. There will be interruptions. The pandemic has forced that upon us, but I think that will be the new norm.”

Although some moms like Felicetti have managed to navigate being a full-time mom and full-time employee, others have been victims of what Lynch described as the “‘she-cession’ - the recession happening for women.”

Widespread studies evidence women in early to mid-career leaving the workforce en masse to care for school-age children. As Lynch notes, there are people earlier in their careers who often “have younger children or school-age children, and they’re having to manage everything with education and online schooling.” At this point, it’s too early to know whether women will be able to get back to their pre-pandemic work days - or even want to - but undoubtedly the ways we work are changing.

For career and professional development resources, join other alums on IrishCompass which offers users the ability to tap into the Notre Dame network in a wide variety of ways -- from networking and mentorship opportunities to a private job board (for Notre Dame alumni and graduate students) and industry specific groups.

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