“Journalism internship” is the most searched title on my Google search history. Every day, after I am done working — or procrastinating on YouTube — I always make it to the Google search bar, endlessly scrolling to see if there is a new opening or opportunity to apply to. As a university student graduating this year, this semester has filled me with dreadful anxiety from endless LinkedIn searches for job opportunities, coffee chats, and the constant barrage of writing cover letters and resumes for the next phase of life: adulthood. 

To me, adulthood means getting ready for what happens after university life: finding that dream job that can pay me a salary to live on, making the life-altering decision to move out, and creating a repayment plan to pay back tuition loans. I have always had these expectations that my “adulthood” would look a bit like something out of a cheesy coming-of-age movie, where I’d become a completely self-sufficient person. But most of all, I know it means transitioning from having the identity and status of a student to a new adult.

Conversations around life after graduation always seem to be focused on jobs — how to prepare to land a job in the industry you want to work in. But how does transitioning from university affect your social life and mental health? Are our expectations of being a new adult ever realistic? I spoke with two U of T alumni, who revealed the ways that transitioning out of university and into the workforce felt nothing like what they expected.

Navigating the job market

“My expectation of being an adult and graduating… it was definitely more like, ‘Oh, I’ll get a job, and I’ll be working in an office, and I’ll [have] money, and it’s going to be so fun. It’s going to be just like the movies [where I am] going to be so successful — and it just didn’t work out that way,” explained Noora Zahedi, a U of T alumni who graduated from U of T in April 2022.

Zahedi majored in political sciences and minored in sociology and history at UTSC. She currently lives with her parents. Zahedi feels responsible for her parents’ well-being, since her mother is sick. To Zahedi, being an adult has been about having more responsibilities without enough time to fulfill them. “It’s not as if it’s not necessarily busy. It’s just not having as much free time,” she said.

Currently, Zahedi works for her family’s printing company, which can be very physically demanding. Although she works more on the marketing side, she “[does] a little bit of everything.”

It took half a year of job hunting and a terrible corporate sales job before Zahedi decided to work for her father’s business. Even though she wasn’t the most organized person when it came to looking for jobs, she started job hunting in her third year to get a bit ahead of the process. In her third year, Zahedi took every career opportunity she could to figure out what exactly she wanted to do. “I started going to random job placements, random info sessions, trying to see if I have an interest in anything at all. Around [January of my] fourth year… I started applying,” she explained.

Zahedi says the job market was challenging to crack into when she started applying for jobs. In fact, she knows people who, to this day — two years after graduation — are still looking for work.

According to Statistics Canada’s (StatCan) Labor Force Survey of October 2023, the unemployment rate reached 5.7 per cent that month, a 0.7 per cent increase since April 2023. The unemployment rate among youth aged 15–24 had the highest growth at 11.4 per cent — 2.4 times higher than the unemployment rate for individuals in the next age bracket. Another StatCan quarterly report found that, from 2016 to 2022, the number of currently unemployed people with bachelor’s degrees or higher exceeded the number of positions available for them.

Laura Cohen, a career counsellor and registered counselling therapist at Canadian Career Counseling (CCC) — an organization that helps people seeking career support — explained that depending on the industry, it could take about six months to a year for a student to find a job in the current landscape.

Cohen says that many undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 25 come for support at CCC, all facing different circumstances. A lot of her clients experience frustration, exhaustion, and self-doubt during the job search process. “Young people in their 20s, who are maybe looking for work and don’t have success, might start to doubt themselves and then spiral and [think], ‘Who am I? What am I doing again?’ So there’s that existential anxiety,” she said. 

“[Applying for jobs] takes a lot of resilience and patience and emotional gusto… It can be personally taxing when you’re trying to find work and you haven’t found work,” added Cohen.

To help make the job process easier and more successful, Cohen says that there are three main things students should focus on. First, they should try to get as much exposure to their field as they can, and get any type of work experience. Second, students should use the platform LinkedIn as much as possible. Finally, networking, Cohen explains, is one of the most powerful tools that can help one in the job process — especially when it comes to the “hidden job market.” According to her, 60 per cent of jobs are found through “hidden markets,” where people hire people they trust and know.

Throughout the job search process, Zahedi used platforms like LinkedIn and tools like networking heavily. Everyone told her that networking was crucial to finding a job and that handing in resumes and cover letters was not enough anymore. However, those tools never found her the job she was looking for. 

“I was applying to 10 jobs every day, and networking every day with different people, online, sometimes in person. And, you know, I would get a lot of interviews, which was good, a little hopeful, because I did have work experience and it was all relevant — [but] at the end of the day, I would not get the position,” she shared.

For Zahedi, the process of navigating through the job market left her feeling massively disappointed and exhausted. “You get your hopes up every time, and it just crashes,” she said.

The international student experience 

Lidiia Tulenkova, an international student who studied sociocultural anthropology with a minor in art history and media culture, graduated in June 2023. She shared the same sentiments as Zahedi on job hunting.

Originally from Russia, Tulenkova works as a design research lead and program coordinator at a design thinking firm. She currently lives alone and is grateful to have some financial support from her parents. 

In an interview with The Varsity, Tulenkova shared that coming to U of T to do her undergrad was “decided overnight.” One day, she was sitting in her dad’s office playing video games in St. Petersburg, and the next minute she had to learn how to speak English in six months to pass the International English Language Testing System, a standard English language test required for applying to Canadian universities. 

Although her undergrad life was very busy, it was a time she enjoyed. It felt like a moment in her life when she felt she had an infinite amount of time to try anything — which, she explained, was the “beauty” of being an undergrad student. “Every single day was different,” she said.

Since Tulenkova wanted to stay in Canada after undergrad to either get work experience or take graduate studies, she started thinking about her career path in the third year. At one point in her third year, she was attending 40 coffee chats each month to figure out what she wanted to do in the future. 

Tulenkova officially started applying for jobs in her fourth year of January 2023 and received an official interview and job offer in June 2023. It took her five months.

Tulenkova said that the job search process was filled with a feeling of uncertainty and some panic due to her immigration status as an international student. Figuring out how to get a Post-Graduation Work Permit to continue working in Canada added additional pressure to her search. She was also filling in grad school applications at the same time, which left her mentally exhausted. She didn’t exactly know what her life would be like after graduating in terms of her career or what she would be doing, but she knew she wanted to stay in Canada. 

Post-college blues 

Significantly, throughout university and the transition to applying to jobs, one of the hardest and most important hurdles Tulenkova and Zahedi had to experience was compromises to their mental well-being.

The issue of students having poor mental health in university is not new. It’s something I have personally experienced, and no doubt that other students have experienced, what with the balancing of studies, life, and everything else. A 2019 study from the National College Health Assessment that surveyed Canadian post-secondary students found that nearly 70 per cent of students had been dealing with “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous 12 months, and more than half were living with debilitating depression. 

In 2017, Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez found that post-graduation depression is a very real feeling recent students can face. This phenomenon is often unreported and understudied due to the lack of “young adulthood” population in research studies and because graduation is normally seen as a joyful time.

There is no official diagnosis for post-college depression, but it can be categorized as “the extreme sadness and impaired feeling” that new graduates report when they leave college. The symptoms therapists have found in post-graduation depression can include an abnormal negative perspective, a lack of motivation to get out of bed, and hopelessness. 

I feel that strong sense of hopelessness as I am trying to find that internship and job myself. Although I am very excited about the accomplishment of graduating and getting a degree I worked so hard for in the past four years, the challenges around finding a job and the cost of living have created a sense of hopelessness and a negative outlook on the future I can see for myself. 

For Tulenkova, as an international student, the experience of loneliness is very different. Being alone is something that she learned at an early age to be comfortable with. After university, Tulenkova shares that the feeling of loneliness comes and goes, but she has been able to work on it by making her social life better by joining dancing groups, meeting new people, and always trying to make friends. 

The loneliness and sadness Tulenkova feels through this new transition in her life, however, comes from being unable to see her parents. She misses the comfort her parents could give her, letting her know everything would eventually be okay and being part of her major life events. Although her parents support her financially and she calls them at times, Tulenkova explains it is not the same as being physically in the same place as them. 

She knows that she is capable of solving most of her problems on her own, but having her parents physically here supporting her would make a world of difference. She misses the feeling of her mom hugging her and telling her everything is going to be okay. “But now you have to be the person who goes ahead and makes [you] a cup of tea and hugs you,” she explains. 

During the end of her fourth year, Tulenkova says she only got to talk to her parents once in two weeks. She hopes to become a Canadian permanent resident in the next four years, at which point she will more easily be able to travel to see her family. She is counting down the days she gets to hug her mom. 

International students in Canada also face a wide variety of issues during and after university when applying for jobs, including food insecurity, poor mental health, discrimination, and the effects of the housing crisis — and the pandemic also exacerbated some of these factors. Meanwhile, a 2021 International Student Survey,  in which more than 40,000 international students across the country responded, found that students who identified as Asian and Black experienced discrimination, harassment, and feeling unsafe on and around their campuses.

All of this may affect international students’ financial stability. Another StatCan study published in 2021 that analyzed the income trajectory between how much domestic and international students earn after their post-secondary education found that in a five-year period after graduation, international students still had lower earnings than domestic students.

For Zahedi, mental health is something that “doesn’t exist right now”: it’s the worst it’s ever been with her mother’s illness. The feeling of loneliness is something she feels because of a lack of social life post-graduation. She explains that university forced her to be around people and socialize. “The fact that I could sit in a class and be surrounded by people my age who would give their opinions and I could talk to, that was so much a gem that I didn’t realize at the time… I wish someone would force me to be in a group right now,” she expressed.

Zahedi shares that she doesn’t often get to socially interact with her friends, due to responsibilities at work and home and her friends’ similarly busy schedules — or due to the realization that she didn’t have much of a connection with some of them in the first place. Still, even though living with her parents sometimes means a lack of privacy, Zahedi finds that her parents help her feel less lonely through this transition as an adult.

Finances and the housing market

Just like Zahedi, I have always had this belief that after graduating and finding a job that paid a living wage, I would be able to move out and make the life transition to become what I would like to think is a “real adult.” However, considering the job market and the housing affordability crisis, these expectations seem less likely with each passing day. 

According to StatCan, in 2021, 35.1 per cent of young adults aged 20–34 still live with a parent. A 2001 study found that only 30 per cent of 20–34 year olds lived with a parent.

There are many reasons numerous adults still live with a parent well into adulthood. Umay Kader, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia who is planning to study this phenomenon, predicts that the increase of adults living with parents may be related to the precarious job market, and probably has to do with the state of the housing market. 

Canada is currently experiencing an unaffordable housing crisis: many young Canadians cannot afford to buy a home. Part of the unaffordable housing crisis stems from housing prices — which rose 44 per cent during the pandemic — outpacing incomes. Canada has also seen an increase in rental rates, which are currently up to 12.2 per cent from January 2023. According to Global News, the average asking price for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto — one of the most expensive cities to live in after Vancouver — is around $2,457 per month. 

One of the biggest factors behind the housing crisis, according to the National Bank of Canada and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, is that housing demand outweighs the supply. The Royal Bank of Canada warned that Canada will need to construct houses and rentals, or Canada will be short 120,000 units by 2026.

A report by the Ontario Real Estate Association (OREA) that did a poll with Abacus Data found that student debt was one of the biggest barriers to homeownership. OREA has called on the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) to increase the grace period for OSAP loans repayment from six months to a year so that students can find stable employment and save money before worrying about paying off student loan debt.

Right now, Zahedi estimates that she earns the equivalent of rent for a one-bedroom apartment each month, which means she won’t be moving out anytime soon. Her older sister, who was also a U of T alumnus, was just recently able to move out at 25. 

She hopes when she gets to that age, she will be able to move out. “If I don’t move out by then [by the time I am 25], at least, I [have failed] at life, and I don’t know where I’m going,” Zahedi believes.

Although I have realized my expectation of what my transition to “new adulthood” might not ever be a reality due to many factors like the current housing and job market, I was impressed at both Zahedi and Tulenkova’s optimistic outlooks on the future. 

Tulenkova plans to focus on continuing to build the life she wants for herself. She sees next year as a chance to figure out a proper balance in life and to create more of a community around her. She’ll continue building a network of meaningful friends, meeting new people, and she hopes to maybe even get a promotion at work.

Zahedi hopes that in the next five years, she will get a chance to move out and become more financially free. If you ever ask her late at night, she might even say she’d like to be married. 

Regardless of what Zahedi and Tulenkova might have expected about the transition to this next phase of life called “new adulthood” — and regardless of the struggles they currently face — in the end, both are excited to see what the future might bring.