Lindsey O’Neal: I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana when COVID-19 hit then I received an email and just like that everything changed

Beginning my career during a pandemic felt like the end of a dream. 

I graduated college in 2018 and had goals to travel overseas and do meaningful work. I became a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana at the end of 2019. I was beginning to make close friendships with coworkers and people in my village when I received an email on Wednesday, March 11 and by that Saturday night, I was back at home in Florida. Just like that, a pandemic made my dreams screech to a halt. 

I spent a lot of time crying, eating ice cream, watching Netflix, and trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I had the privilege of being able to live with my mom, like a lot of my colleagues during these trying times. I could take a little more time to get back on my feet and start something new.

Looking back, I unknowingly followed three rules that helped me survive, and even thrive, this massive life change.

Lindsey O'Neal in Botswana as a peace corps volunteer before COVID-19 hit 
Lindsey O’Neal in Botswana with other Peace Corps volunteers before COVID-19 hit
  1. Reassessing My Values

Throughout college, I always wanted to work for the government. I wanted a chance to serve my country, work overseas, and have a really dynamic and challenging career. I thought that applying for the Peace Corps would be an opportunity to begin this perfect journey into my professional life. I planned to have jobs lined up prior to returning to the States. I knew I was moving straight to D.C. I had everything figured out. I made no room for unexpected challenges. This was my biggest mistake.

I got caught up in the job title. I wanted the clarity of a linear resume and a sense of consistency. Instead of focusing on the job title or industry, I shifted my mindset to look at what skills I wanted to improve upon. I also looked at what kinds of jobs I wanted to have. For example, I feel like it is important to look at jobs that could adapt to another pandemic.

I think for anyone right now, it can be very helpful to look at what you value most. What are the core characteristics of a job that keeps me there? These can include job security, a good paycheck, a diverse and open-minded staff, a work-life balance, the ability to work from home, creativity, etc. It is usually different for everybody and it is also okay for those values to change as I get older and my lifestyle changes. 

Maybe the job title is not as fancy but I only have to deal with that when I update my LinkedIn. My values are the part of the job that I will have to deal with on an everyday basis. 

  1. Remember that you are not alone 

For months upon my return, I realized that much of the world was halted. Still, there were a lot of people making the pandemic work for them. I had friends with amazing jobs, amazing internships, some who were settling down, and others who were moving to new cities. Of course, I was jealous. I wanted something new to be excited about.

Then, I saw a NBC news broadcast of the show, Think Again, where Andrew Stern reported on how Millennials, as an entire generation, got the short end of the stick. It really put my entire attitude about the pandemic into perspective. Older Millennials in their 30s were still recovering from the 2008 crisis when the pandemic hit and are now unemployed, again. For many individuals who already had a career established in industries, like travel for example, are now finding themselves in completely different work. For younger Millennials, like myself, who are recently out of college and looking for a job, career goals have been completely put on hold, or are having to change. 

I also reached out to peers on similar career paths as mine to discuss some of the challenges we all face during this time. Being vulnerable with them in my anxiety about finding a meaningful job helped me realize that I am not alone. It has been helpful for me to vent, share job hunting advice, and encouragement. In result, I have made new friends and it has made this process feel less daunting.

Lindsey O'Neal says goodbye to her work colleagues in Botswana just days before her departure. Credit: Lindsey O'Neal CAPTION: 
Lindsey O’Neal says goodbye to her work colleagues in Botswana just days before her departure. Credit: Lindsey O’Neal CAPTION:
  1. Be easy on yourself

I think the best thing about being in my 20s is having big dreams. I think it is exciting to be fresh out of college, want to make an impact in the world, and begin a first job to start a new and exciting journey. When those dreams do not happen the way I originally planned, it does not make me less successful. It makes me more able to adapt to failure and unexpected changes.

For a long time I felt I felt like I was not doing nearly enough. I tried to navigate the complicated Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, also known as PUA benefits and tried to apply for jobs, I tried to plan trips to see friends, and move to a new city. It is more than okay if it does not happen overnight. In fact, almost a year has passed and a lot of my plans never came to fruition. I welcome changing priorities and reminding myself that I am not perfect and it is okay to not accomplish every single goal. The most important thing is to focus on the next step. 

In conclusion, my career journey has not been traditional. It has not been linear or easy, but I am learning a lot about myself and what is most important. 

Millennials have this interesting emphasis on career more than any other generation before, that a successful career is the most important part of our lives. While in previous generations, having a family or having economic stability was more important. It has become increasingly clear to me that we are more than our job titles. 

We are bound to face endless challenges throughout our lives beyond curating the perfect resume.

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