Editor’s Note: In honor of the Class of 2020’s long-anticipated Commencement, The Heights Magazine spoke to members of the class who exemplify adapting to a new direction of life after an abrupt end to their senior year.
During an Agape Latte talk in the summer of 2020, professor Thomas Wesner compared St. Ignatius’ life-changing encounter with a cannonball—which caused damage to both of his legs—to the onset of COVID-19. The connection? Both caused drastic changes in many peoples’ lives.
Few people experienced these “cannonball moments”—a phrase coined by Wesner—quite like the Class of 2020, whose final months at BC consisted of curveball after curveball. Along with the usual stress of post-graduation job hunting, 2020 graduates had to adjust to online jobs, lost jobs, and modified job descriptions. Now, over a year after the Class of 2020’s time at Boston College ended remotely, many find themselves in a very different position from where they envisioned they would be.
Pablo Cardenal, Courtney Smith, and Emily McCarthy, all BC ’20, are some who have had their own share of “cannonball moments.”
Cardenal’s job as a high school campus minister through Lasallian Volunteers (LV) wasn’t canceled—but it certainly didn’t look as he expected it to.
Cardenal was an applied psychology and human development major in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development with a double minor in marketing and leadership in higher education. He was born in the United States, but he moved to Nicaragua—his parents’ native country—when he was five years old. While there, Cardenal attended the American Nicaraguan School.
From an early age, he knew he wanted to attend college in the United States because of the opportunities it could provide, he said. BC’s Jesuit identity also drew him in because his faith had been important to him in high school, he said.
“I knew it would be a big transition moving to another country,” Cardenal said. “No matter what college it was going to be, I knew it would be hard. But I’m glad I took the leap of faith into BC.”
Cardenal came to BC planning to pursue business. He declared a major in economics but quickly found that it did not interest him, he said.
During his first semester, Cardenal said that he also struggled to feel connected to the BC community.
The second semester of his freshman year took a turn for the better when he was introduced to Campus Ministry, he said. Upon the suggestion of his resident minister, Steven Patzke, Cardenal attended the Ignite Retreat, an Ignatian spirituality retreat for first-year students. Cardenal also volunteered with Appalachia Volunteers, a service immersion program.
“With these experiences, I realized Campus Ministry was the space where I felt at home, I felt heard, I felt I could be my funny self,” Cardenal said.
At the same time that Cardenal was finding his place socially at BC, he dropped his economics major and transferred to Lynch. He hoped this major would help prepare him to pursue higher education or student affairs, he said.
When it came time during senior year to think about his post-graduation plans, Cardenal was interested in doing a year of service. Patzke recommended Cardenal apply to LV, a year-long service program emphasizing faith, service, and community.
In February of 2020, a month before COVID-19 shut down much of the United States, LV accepted Cardenal as a campus minister at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, Minn. As a campus minister, Cardenal’s primary duties were to lead retreats and service immersion programs for DeLaSalle’s students, he said.
Even when COVID-19 hit the United States in March of 2020, Cardenal and the other LV members had an optimistic attitude, he said. They were under the impression that the pandemic would be short term and would blow over before the start of their program in August.
When the pandemic had not improved by July, LV’s yearly pre-program training session was moved online, Cardenal said.
“That was the first loss I felt,” Cardenal said. “I just felt like I was missing out because all of the other LVs seemed like such cool people, but the fact that we were meeting in an online setting took so much away from the experience. It just felt very hard to make social connections through a screen.”
Also in July and due to the pandemic, LV canceled all retreats and service immersion programs— Cardenal’s two primary responsibilities as a campus minister.
“There’s no one I could be mad at because it’s no one’s fault,” he said. “But it was kind of like, ‘Okay, now what is my role going to be?’”
With these two disappointments, Cardenal began to reconsider doing service and thought about taking a year off from it. As Cardenal was processing whether or not he would participate in LV, he vividly remembered the message of Wesner’s talk, he said.
Inspired by the story of St. Ignatius’ encounter with a cannonball, Cardenal began to see his situation with LV in a new light—he saw it as his own personal “cannonball moment,” he said.
“And so now my job was, ‘How can I make the best out of this experience?’” Cardenal said.
DeLaSalle was on a hybrid schedule with half of the student body coming on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half coming on Thursdays and Fridays, making it hard to build a community among the students. One way Cardenal worked to combat this was through hosting “Fun and Games with Campus Ministry” events for freshmen twice a week with his fellow campus minister, Nicole Stecklein.
“We started off with only four people showing up, and we literally only played spoons … but then the next week, out of those four people, four more showed up who were their friends,” Cardenal said. “And then we played Uno as a group. And then 16 people showed up. And then we got to play … bigger games.”
The second semester at DeLaSalle opened up new opportunities for Cardenal, as a change in COVID-19 restrictions allowed DeLaSalle’s Campus Ministry to host modified retreats. For the retreats, Cardenal and Stecklein set up stations around the campus with different activities.
While at DeLaSalle, Cardenal took on a variety of roles that were not in his original job description but were great learning opportunities for him, he said. Cardenal became the moderator for the Association of LatinX and Allied Students, which strives to provide a space for Latinx students to form a community, he said. Cardenal has also been a substitute teacher, a teaching assistant, and has run the front desk of the school.
“It kind of caught me off guard because I wasn’t mentally prepared for those roles, but I’m glad I said yes because at the end of the day, I’m not here to say what the community needs from me,” he said. “I’m here to do what the community says they need me to do.”
Prior to his experience with LV, Cardenal aspired to work with college-aged students in a student engagement role. After his time volunteering at DeLaSalle, though, he could envision himself working with high school students, he said.
Cardenal said that current college students should be open to the changes life may throw at them when it comes to finding a job and figuring out their career paths.
“Just try to be flexible and open and always be gentle on yourself,” he said. “It’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to think of the could have, should have, would haves of life, but at the same time, always be proactive about trying to make the best that you can out of an experience. Try to find the beauty and try to find the light in the darkness.”
In June of 2021, Cardenal received an offer to do a second year at DeLaSalle through LV. As much as he wanted to do another year with LV, Cardenal was given the opportunity to attend graduate school back at BC and to pursue higher education and student affairs, he said.
After spending the summer at home with his family, Cardenal returned to BC in August to begin his first year of graduate studies. Originally, Cardenal was in the higher education program with a concentration in student affairs, but he then switched to Faith Formation Spirituality.
“My year of service experience kind of influenced that transition from student affairs to Faith Formation Spirituality,” he said. “They’re basically both the same concentration … the distinction is that my current concentration focuses more on Catholic institutions.”
Cardenal also serves as a programming graduate assistant for the three College Road dorms: Williams, Welch, and Roncalli. In this role, Cardenal helps out with various programing in the dorm including bigger programs such as trivia or game nights, and also works with community engagement and wellness programs, he said.
Although Cardenal is grateful for the lessons he learned during his year of service, he is happy to be back at BC again, he said.
“I’m glad to be back at BC, but I’m glad I took a year off before coming back to BC, just because I kind of wanted that outside experience [to] kind of grow in the more professional setting,” he said. “And also, BC is the only thing I’ve known, and the BC bubble is real … the fact that I was able to take a step back, allow[ed] me to take two steps forward now that I’m back here and have a bit more perspective.”
The career curveballs caused by the pandemic led Smith, also an applied psychology and human development major, to undergo what she thought would be temporary shifts in her career aspirations. Now, a year and a half later, these changes may be here to stay, Smith said.
While at BC, Smith was involved in the Campus School. She began as a teaching assistant for the Campus School her freshman year and worked in the same classroom through her senior year. Smith also worked at a middle school in Dorchester her sophomore year for her PULSE placement. Her experiences in the classroom at the Campus School and her PULSE placement sharpened her interest in working with children for her future career, she said.
When COVID-19 hit in spring 2020, Smith returned to her home in San Diego, Calif. and began looking for jobs. Smith experienced difficulty finding a job with a psychology major and no master’s degree, she said.
After four months of job searching without any luck, Smith landed an interview at Liberty Healthcare Corporation (LHC), a health and human services management company. Smith was hired at LHC as a behavioral support professional, where she works with three adult women in their 50s who have disabilities.
Her role working with adult women at LHC was already different from what she had imagined her career path to look like, she said. But, she quickly learned how heavily the lives of her clients at LHC had also been impacted.
Clients used to be allowed to go outside freely, as well as have activities in the neighborhood and engage with community members, but COVID-19 largely restricted them to their homes.
The new conditions have forced Smith and her co-workers to get creative when interacting with their clients, she said. One strategy has been taking the clients for daily van rides around the neighborhood, sometimes stopping for an outdoor picnic.
Another dramatic change was the workers’ uniforms—Smith wore full PPE gear every day, which many of her clients were confused about, she said.
“It was really hard because we were just like, full PPE … they couldn’t leave the house, it was like before the vaccines,” Smith said. “That was really, really difficult because obviously one of the biggest things with people with disabilities is getting them involved in the community, but also most of them are immunocompromised so they were … lacking for a whole year and a half this socialization that they really needed.”
Despite working with a different age group than she envisioned and the difficulty of adapting to COVID-19 restriction, Smith enjoys the same little moments that she did at the Campus School—whether that be when typically more reserved clients engage with activities or spontaneous dance parties, she said.
“It’s the little moments, similar to at the Campus School, that stay with you a while, because sometimes you go days without seeing anything like that,” Smith said.
In February of 2021, Smith transitioned to working at Beacons North County, a nonprofit providing vocational training and social activities for adults with developmental disabilities. At Beacons, Smith teaches 18 students a day, many of whom are around her own age. Since she herself recently navigated entering the workforce, Smith has been able to leverage her own experience when aiding her students, she said.
“We see people get jobs, we see people move out on their own, we see people navigate … public transportation for the first time,” she said. “It’s just like all these mini milestones that seem maybe pretty easy to some, but … a lot scarier for others, so it’s just fun to help them walk through these little things and see them so excited that they did this on their own.”
Last spring, the inherent difficulties of teaching over Zoom made Smith’s job challenging, she said. Yet, this fall, the transition back to being in the classroom with her students has posed new difficulties due to her students’ lack of socialization over the past year and a half, she said.
“We had to do the first couple of weeks just like [the] basics of conversation … like what do you say when you meet somebody new … how do you continue a conversation,” Smith said. “Every Wednesday, we … have them all sit in one room and talk to each other about various topics … they regress a lot faster than neurotypical people, so that year and a half of not being around anybody hit them a lot harder than most.”
One of the hardest parts about her job, which she also experienced at LHC, has been confronting stigmas surrounding what people with disabilities are capable of. Smith has seen people with disabilities be pushed toward jobs like being dishwashers rather than applying their strengths in more challenging positions, she said.
“We’re trying to show them, “No … you have all these other very marketable skills … you should actually go for the dream job that you want,” Smith said. “Many of them can build their own websites and stuff like that, but it’s just this weird stigma that they belong in these … mundane positions, like bussing [food] and not talking to anybody.”
The curveballs thrown her way by the pandemic have been impactful in their own ways, she said. Although she never imagined being in full PPE gear for her first job, Smith said she is also grateful that she has been able to go to work in person when many of her friends’ work has become entirely remote.
After working with both adult women and young adults, her career horizons have also broadened—perhaps permanently—she said.
“I just loved working in like elementary, middle school age, and then I went to like my first job [with] 50s-and-60-year-old women which was a huge shock, and then now being with young adults, I just really love it,” Smith said. “You’re dealing with these … real life problems that are just so fun to figure out with them … long term, I’ll probably stick in this age group for sure.”
When the pandemic prohibited Emily McCarthy’s plans to pursue a year of service, she dove—quite literally—into a completely different field.
During her time at BC, McCarthy, who majored in English with a Spanish minor, volunteered with 4Boston and charity: water, and taught immigrants English at the Education Development Group during her sophomore year PULSE placement. These volunteer experiences, as well as her Spanish language skills, inspired her to pursue a year of service in a Spanish-speaking country post-graduation. The travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, made her shift her plans.
When doing a service program abroad was no longer an option, McCarthy scrambled to figure out what to do next and came across a unique opportunity in a place that held a sense of nostalgia for her.
Her hometown is in southern New Jersey, but she spent her summers in Green Pond, N.J.
During the summertime, McCarthy and her friends worked all kinds of jobs—waitressing, lifeguarding, and babysitting. Yet, she never encountered what she would now be doing post-graduation—diving into a lake at Green Pond. Despite having no prior diving experience, McCarthy joined a small team of all-male divers to remove the invasive species milfoil—which needs to be hand-pulled out by the roots—from the waters of Green Pond as a part of the Highlands Glacial Lakes Initiative.
“I was so nervous. I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” McCarthy said.
Although she was new to diving, McCarthy felt welcomed and supported by her team, she said.
“It was the most fun experience I’ve ever had in my entire life,” she said. “These men were from all walks of life. They were so funny, so smart, and so compassionate. They were so willing to teach me not just about pulling milfoil from the bottom of the lake, but about what life is about, what careers are about, and how you should go about choosing what it is that makes you happy. They basically mentored me.”
McCarthy’s unique post-graduation path was even picked up by CNBC, who wrote a story about McCarthy and the Green Pond dive initiative.
In addition to diving into the lakes of Green Pond, McCarthy was also the editor-in-chief of The Ponder, Green Pond’s summer newspaper. McCarthy took the volunteer opportunity after the prior editor-in-chief stepped down. As editor-in-chief, she led a small group of journalists who reported on Green Pond’s current events and rich history.
When September of 2020 rolled around, it was too cold to dive and the newspaper had finished its summer cycle, so McCarthy worked as a nanny and then traveled to her mother’s hometown of Seattle, Wash.
“Along the way, I am reading, writing, taking time to figure out what I want to do, who I am, and all those big questions,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy kept up with her writing by taking a short-story creative fiction writing class with GrubStreet, a creative writing center, which she started in January. Also in January, she moved to Park City, Utah for a month, followed by a three-month road trip.
“[I] traveled around Utah, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, and skied and rode, and … just explored and stuff, hiked a bunch, slept on people’s couches, you know, slept in motel rooms,” McCarthy said.
In May of 2021, she began to work at A Bar A Ranch in Encampment, Wyo. There, she worked as a waitress alongside about 100 other college-aged students, which she said was “a blast.” Similar to McCarthy, her co-workers were uncertain about where they wanted to take their careers.
“[They’re] educated and smart and driven, and they work hard, and it’s just a blast, like you could do whatever you wanted when you weren’t working, and … we worked hard. We worked long hours, but it was just so much fun. It was like an experience unlike anything else … I mean it was the best time of my life.”
While working at the ranch this past summer, McCarthy said she felt separated from the real world and the surge of the Delta variant of COVID-19, as the ranch is approximately 45 minutes away from the nearest town. She finished her job at the ranch about two weeks ago, and since then, the return to COVID-19 regulations has shocked her, she said.
McCarthy said her experience working at the ranch is the reason why she is moving to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where she plans on continuing her work as a waitress. She hopes to continue to implement her love for outdoor activities in her daily routine after the move.
“The idea is to ski during the day and work during the night,” McCarthy said. “[I] loved waitressing. It was super fun, and, like, you can make some good money, especially in a town like Jackson Hole.”
Instead of letting the onset of COVID-19 throw a wrench in her career, McCarthy said that, in retrospect, it has opened doors for her that she didn’t know existed.
“I thought I was going one way, and then, you know, I moved across the country, and I met all these amazing friends, and I’m doing something that I’ve never done because of it,” she said. “And I knew in my brain [that] … pre-COVID, pre-graduation, I wanted to move somewhere and do a year of service or just, like, meet new people, or do an experience [that] I’ve never done before.”
McCarthy said that COVID-19 has helped her find comfort in uncertainty. She doesn’t know where she wants to take her career yet, but she looks at her unsure future through an optimistic lens.
“Maybe I’ll live in Denver and I’ll work at a magazine there, like, I don’t know,” she said. “Now I just have all this opportunity. I feel so comfortable in myself and, like, traveling, and I think that’s what COVID gave to me, and now, I just feel like the job will come from that, because I can feel like I can be anywhere.”
Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan and Olivia Charbonneau / Heights Editors
Photos Courtesy of Courtney Smith, Emily McCarthy, and Pablo Cardenal