Voices of 2024 grads who spent their university years during the coronavirus pandemic

For some time following the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, we have faced limitations in our lives. As a result, many companies adopted different working methods and students faced life at school that was unlike what it had been before.

Among these students, those who entered college in April 2020 spent their first few years of student life amid such unique conditions. Many of them will graduate in the spring of 2024. What kind of experiences did these “’24 grads” have and what are their thoughts about them?

In today’s column, we will introduce the characteristics of these ’24 grads who will soon enter the workforce as revealed through interviews we conducted with 12 of them.

The environment for college students who entered in 2020

In 2020, college entrance ceremonies were postponed and classes began later than usual. Because face-to-face classes were not possible, many new college students took all their first-year classes online. And they continued to face such circumstances for some time, even after having completed their initial year.

The restrictions imposed by the pandemic also affected the students’ extracurricular activities. One such example was club activities. At the start of a new academic year, each club would hold a welcome party for new students, which provided a good opportunity for them to get a feel for the club’s atmosphere and its members. Such welcome parties, however, all had to be held online. This led to many instances in which people chose a club to join without ever actually having met its members, which made it difficult for many of the new students to choose the community that was right for them.

Whether it be academics or extracurricular activities, under normal conditions, just going to school provides access to a variety of information as well as opportunities to obtain information through various channels. But amid the remote conditions imposed by the pandemic, such information could not be attained without an active effort to get it.

This alone should give you some idea of how different things were compared with before COVID-19. From here, we’ll take a closer look at the situation these students found themselves in, specifically what they thought and how they acted under such trying circumstances, as reflected in the interviews we conducted.

Difficulty in building relationships with others and ease of dissolving them

Having launched their college experience online, the interviewees faced difficulties in building relationships with those around them.

In college life, language classes, which are required and provide students with opportunities to meet their classmates several times a week, usually become a community that serves as a foundation for networking and information gathering on campus at the beginning of one’s college career. Such language classes, however, were all conducted online. There were even some cases in which the classes were offered on an on-demand basis that didn’t allow students to interact with one another at all. This also appeared to be the case with other compulsory subjects.

Also, in lecture courses attended by large numbers of students, it seems that they only listened to the lecture without much engagement with the other students in the class.

“Unlike in face-to-face situations, it’s difficult to have chats online. Chatting gives you a chance to connect with different people, but I haven’t had many opportunities to do that, so I haven’t been able to expand my network.”

“Even if you work in a group with other students on an assignment, we didn’t really have much of a chance to introduce ourselves, so we just worked on the assignment together without getting to know each other better.”

During the interview process, we heard several similar comments to those above, indicating the challenges that these students faced in building interpersonal relationships in online classes.

“I thought that taking part in face-to-face club activities would expand my network, but I couldn’t do that due to the risk of infection (especially if you had elderly people living with you). Also, during the time I spent choosing a club, I could see other students who had already joined were building relationships and getting to know each other, so I sometimes felt hesitant to join in.”

And with regard to extracurricular activities as well, it seems as though those students who took a cautious approach found themselves being left behind by those around them.

Conversely, there were also those of the opinion that, amid the unique circumstances posed by the pandemic that made it difficult to connect with others, it became easier to sever ties with people whose values and personalities did not match their own. This seemed to be a byproduct of an environment that didn’t allow for chance face-to-face encounters and provided people with the option of exiting a conversation whenever they wanted to by simply ending the video call.

Some interviewees did, however, voice concerns that growing accustomed to such an environment could, once face-to-face human interaction resumed, result in a decreased awareness of how to continue working with people whose thinking and values differed from their own.

Polarization of the willingness to take on a challenge

Among the ’24 grads, it seemed that it was often the case that they were left with no choice but to give up on taking part in something or taking on some sort of challenge during their time at college. This was due to various obstacles, such as events that had previously been held but were cancelled and the lack of ease in traveling overseas. Because such circumstances persisted for so long, some of the interviewees sensed they had given up on attempting things and found themselves losing their ability to be proactive in various situations.

But on the other hand, one interviewee said, “Not being able to undertake a lot of challenges due to the pandemic enabled me to clearly see what I really wanted to do, so when things settled down somewhat, I was able to actively take on the challenge of pursuing those things.”

Through the interviews, we were able to conclude that these differences were influenced to some degree by individual personalities. But due to this major, perhaps even inevitable, obstacle, some people who otherwise would have taken part in something or embraced some challenge, found themselves unable to do so. This may have resulted in the large gap between those who were able to clarify what they wanted to do and take on challenges later, even despite the significant limitations, and those who were not.

High-level online interaction skills

Many of the ’24 grads who were forced to build relationships with others online rated the level of their online interaction skills as “high.” When asked about the skills they were able to acquire as a result of having spent their college life during the pandemic, in addition to “literacy in online meeting tools,” many of the students mentioned “points to be aware of when building relationships with others online” and “online dialogue skills.” The reason for these responses, they said, was because the information that is conveyed to others in an online setting is more limited than in face-to-face communication, so more attention needs to be paid to various aspects.

The students gave use several specific examples of such online interaction skills. For example, when reacting, since the information conveyed online is more limited than in face-to-face interactions, it is necessary to clearly let the other person know that what they are saying has been properly conveyed to you, thus reducing any anxiety or doubts they may feel and ensuring a smooth dialogue. Accordingly, the students took such measures as using the reaction buttons on online meeting tools and employing gestures that were more exaggerated than those they would use when communicating with someone face to face.

Some of the students also mentioned the importance of using pauses during conversations. Even in face-to-face discussions, there are times when several people may attempt to speak at the same time, but from our own experience we’ve all probably noticed that the chances of this happening are higher online. For this reason, the students said that they engaged in conversations while paying attention to the timing of their comments so as not to interrupt others when they were speaking.

Additionally, when asked, “Was there anything you learned from your experience during the pandemic that you think you will be able to leverage to build relationships after entering the workforce?” here are a couple of the responses we received.

“Properly introducing yourself. The impression you make on others will change significantly depending on what you say in your self-introduction. When you introduce yourself, it will be easier to build a relationship with the other person if you can really disclose who you are to them.”

“Focus on the things you have in common. I feel that people I’ve been friends with for a long time have a lot in common with me. When building a relationship with someone, how often you meet with them is important, but I also value finding the things we have in common.”

Although these findings were based on the students’ experiences in communicating online, we think they are valuable perspectives that can also be applied during face-to-face communication and relationship-building.

Lack of vertical connections

Due to the pandemic, restrictions on movement and other limitations led to various activities being canceled, scaled back, or conducted in other ways, resulting in them no longer being carried out as they had before. This made it difficult for ‘24 grads to interact with students in higher grades and pass on the knowledge of those senior students.

As a result, some students found themselves in situations where, upon advancing to a higher grade, they lacked the know-how required to manage club activities and events. They discovered that they weren’t able to do things in the way they used to be done, and didn’t know how to operate in the “normal mode” even after the pandemic began to subside.

Some students, however, said this enabled them to forge stronger horizontal connections with other students in the same school year who shared this same lack of understanding, nurturing a “let’s just give it a try and see what happens” spirit.

Additionally, due to requests by the Japanese government that people stay indoors, there were almost no opportunities for students to go out for drinks. As a result, some of the interviewees shared that, due to their lack of experience participating in large-scale drinking parties with people who ranked higher in Japan’s social hierarchy, they don’t properly understand the etiquette at such events, and expressed concerns about whether they will be able conduct themselves properly in such situations upon becoming a working member of society.

For ’24 grads, in addition to advice directly related to work, it may prove effective to provide them with knowledge spanning a range of aspects.

Seeking the best of both the online and offline worlds

Lastly, when the students were asked what they expect from the company or organization they will work for, two common opinions emerged: “opportunities to build relationships” and “flexible working styles.”

Looking first at opportunities to build human relationships, this likely reflects a strong desire on the part of these students, who had few such opportunities during their college days to do so and were also subject to various restrictions and constraints along the way. Furthermore, since they faced difficulties in forming connections with senior students during their time at school, it seems that upon entering the workforce, they aim to make connections not only with their peers but also vertically with coworkers positioned higher in the organization.

They have experienced firsthand the challenges of building relationships without meeting face to face, so despite having acquired online interaction skills, they are also aware of the importance of meeting in person. Accordingly, why not actively create opportunities for new hires to engage in offline interaction in your organization?

Next, as for flexible working styles, many of the interviewees said they want to work remotely or under a flextime system. Having made use of online tools for their class assignments, seminar activities, and club activities, ’24 grads know just how convenient and efficient such tools can be, making work and connecting with others possible with few constraints in terms of time and location. Accordingly, after they enter the workforce, they would like to realize this same flexible and efficient approach in their work.

People newly starting their careers who spent their college years during the COVID-19 pandemic may be averse to the recent trend toward a return to office-based work. For those with more experience in the workforce, if new hires should ask, “Wouldn’t it be better to do that online?” you may want to take this opportunity to reconsider the significance and meaning of working face-to-face so that, if asked, you will be able to explain why, and when, gathering in the office offers advantages for working better.

In this column, we summarized the trends that emerged through our interviews with the ’24 grads. Although they are aware of the benefits of online engagement and have become proficient in communicating online, they also know just how difficult it is to build relationships solely through online means. Therefore, they understand the importance of face-to-face relationship-building and communication. Additionally, they have experienced the importance of proper self-disclosure when building relationships.

At the same time, having been in an environment that made it easy to sever relationships with others, they seem to have concerns about maintaining relationships with people who have different values in settings where communication is predominantly conducted face-to-face.

Due to the limitations they faced in taking on challenges, many ’24 grads appear to have lost their awareness of challenges and their motivation to embrace them, even after the pandemic subsided. Conversely, the spirit of challenge seems to have lit a fire under some of the students.

We can also deduce that many of the students we spoke to want vertical connections and realize the importance of learning from their senior colleagues.

Come April 2024, these students will be joining you as coworkers. As an employee with experience to share, why not think about what you can teach them and what you can learn from them, and use that to help spread well-being within your organization?