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'I had to grow up real quick': Gen Z reflects on major life changes since COVID-19

The youngest generation has seen major changes in the past year, and are reconsidering decisions like where to go to school and what career to pursue.
/ Source: TMRW

It's been more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic sent people around the world into lockdown, forcing everyone to adjust to a "new normal."

For Gen Z, the pandemic and the subsequent changes it's caused are forcing them to reconsider serious decisions, like their choice of college or their ideas for future careers.

College freshman Katterlea MacGregor told NBC Now's "Stay Tuned" that in March 2020, she would have automatically said she was going to live in the dorms at Oregon State University and study journalism and creative writing. But when her scholarship was rescinded in June because of budget cuts, she realized she might have to make some changes.

"I knew then that I needed to look at a more secure career, which is when I started thinking about business and kind of abandoning the hope of becoming a journalist and following my dreams," said MacGregor. "I had to grow up real quick."

MacGregor also said that she's missed out on some of the college experiences she had assumed she'd have, like spending time in the dorms and making friends on campus.

"I've lost all those things that are supposed to make college memorable, because a lot of those happen in your first year," she said. "And I've also lost the flexibility to switch my major and change career paths."

MacGregor isn't the only student disappointed with her college experience amid the pandemic: College enrollment has dropped across the country, and universities are worried that the declining trend will continue into the 2021-2022 academic year.

Generational researcher Jason Dorsey, who has been studying the impact of the pandemic on Gen Z, said that he's not surprised to see the pandemic causing teens and young adults to rethink major choices.

"Without question, this pandemic is the generation-defining event of Gen Z," Dorsey said. "What we've seen is it's actually been even more impactful than other generation defining events or moments such as 9/11, because, the key is, it's lasted so incredibly long. And even more importantly, it's been similar around the world. It's causing them to rethink everything from careers, education, relationships, marriage, kids, being able to retire in the future and even their own health."

Nathanem Dagnachew was a senior in high school when the pandemic hit. Initially, he thought he and his classmates would only miss a few months of class, then return to school and celebrate milestones like prom and graduation — but none of those events happened.

"I was just really bummed," Dagnachew said. "One of the main things that really kind of got me down was that I wanted my family to see me walk across that stage, because that was just such a huge accomplishment, and it just didn't happen."

Dagnachew also said doing his first year of college online has been difficult, grappling with poor internet and other technical issues.

"That's kind of made it harder to learn," he said. "I want to say I learned some things, but I feel like I didn't get the full first year education that I was hoping for. ... The concern is always there (that) it's going to make it much more hard to be get in internships and to get a job, because most of your experience is supposed to come from college."

Dorsey predicts that while getting a degree amid the pandemic may feel like a lost opportunity, he doesn't expect severe long-term downsides for this generation.

"The impacts of getting a degree during this period of time are probably not going to be as negative as we might assume. ... These are students that persisted through this period of time with their learning to still get a degree," Dorsey said. "I think really speaking to the adaptation and resilience Gen Z brings as students right now, that's what they need to use and that's what they need to be talking about when they talk about their degree."

Dagnachew said that he's hopeful that no matter what, his family will at least be able to celebrate his college graduation, which should take place in 2024.

"I cannot wait for that," he said. "That's just going to be such a great moment and I can just share that with everyone and know that I could just be like, 'I got this degree, and I did it through a pandemic.' Just seeing my parents' faces — it's going to be amazing."