Persistence Pays Off for UofL Alums


By Stuart Esrock, Ph.D.

The Great Recession of 2007-2009 was a dark economic time in the U.S. and globally. The real estate market crashed, banks went under, and millions of people lost their jobs.  It took 6-plus years for unemployment rates to fully recover from the most severe economic meltdown since the Great Depression.   Now, recent graduates and students who will be graduating in the next year face the prospects of an uncertain economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what advice can job seekers who confronted the Great Recession offer to today’s students and recent graduates?

We talked to two UofL graduates from that last economic crisis to provide some perspective.  Katie O’Sullivan completed her MBA in 2008 and today works as the Director of Communications at the Nerinx Hall High School in St. Louis.  Gavin LaPaille graduated with a BA in Communication in 2009 and works today as a data manager at Humana in Louisville.  Both had initial difficulties looking for a job after leaving UofL.

O’Sullivan admits that she had unrealistic expectations about the jobs she could obtain and salary she was going to receive in the midst of a recession. “I found myself falling back on my undergraduate degree in journalism to even be able to get interviews, which made me question if grad school had been worth it and I was discouraged about the future.”

After months of trying, O’Sullivan landed her first job as a spokesperson for the St. Louis County Police Department, although it wasn’t what she really wanted to do.  “I just assumed I would do something finance/business related. Ultimately though, my career was permanently altered by that first job. It might not have been my dream job at the time, but it set me up for a clear path forward. And though the timing of my degree was a little unfortunate, I am still so glad I had my experience at U of L. There are so many lessons I learned in my program that I continue to use every day.” 

LaPaille found himself competing with older, more experienced applicants when looking for his entry-level job in the midst of the recession. “Businesses were laying off employees and eliminating positions left and right, so there wasn't much to pick from and most were looking for someone who had more professional experience than I did as a new graduate. I had expectations of entertaining multiple job offers upon graduation, and I discovered very quickly that wasn't going to happen.”

LaPaille initially lived with his parents to ease the financial burden of unemployment until he landed his first temporary position, and later a full-time position troubleshooting cell phone customer problems.  But it wasn’t the “right” job. “The whole experience was incredibly humbling. I had always excelled in school and had completed several internships while in undergrad, in addition to working for the school newspaper, so I thought I had done all the right things to put myself in position for success after college. But when I started applying and interviewing for jobs and then later getting the call or email that they were going in another direction; I began to realize how difficult it was going to be to achieve the level of success professionally that I wanted.” 

In LaPaille’s case, his work toward a fulfilling career path included a side trip for a master’s degree after two years of positions that were just not what he really wanted. “I'd never planned to go back to school, and in some ways, it felt like I was admitting failure when I first enrolled, but I had a different perspective the second time around and the opportunity to broaden my experiences, both professionally and personally. It was after getting my master’s that I was able to turn the corner and start seeing some of the successes I thought would come so easily in 2009. It definitely made me appreciate what came my way later on, and still does to this day in a way that I never would have otherwise.”

So, what advice do these UofL graduates have for job seekers in the midst of a global pandemic?  O’Sullivan says first and foremost, network-network-network.  “Start making calls to any connections you may have from UofL, student organizations, your high schools, or friends/family. I currently work at a high school, and have had a lot of young alums reach out to say they were looking for jobs. People really are willing to help if they can, and you just have to be open to what you might consider that you previously would not have. I have picked up more unknown numbers since March than I have in the last 10 years. Take advantage of that and make some phone calls (not texts or emails) to let people know you are looking.”

LaPaille suggests to remember that your first job, or even the second one, does not necessarily define who you are as a person. “It's important to look yourself in the mirror and feel confident in who you are, even if you're not happy with what you're doing professionally. Everyone used to tell me it would work out eventually - and it did - but in the moment, it can definitely feel like things are never going to get better.” 

O’Sullivan thinks graduate school could be an option for some students, but those who are looking for jobs need to consider expanding the possibilities geographically beyond Louisville and Kentucky.  She also recommends potentially working in a political campaign or volunteering for a cause you believe in, to fill in gaps in your resume and also to meet people.  Above all else, she urges you to keep active and keep pushing.  “We are often told as young people to find a job we love, but that can be difficult under the best of circumstances and even more so in a financial crisis. If I could tell 22 or 24-year-old me something, it would be to recognize that fact. Sometimes we are lucky to find jobs we love, but sometimes we just have to find a job for a year or two that leads to something bigger and better. If you can find something that allows you time to continue to explore your passions outside work, and that shows you what step might be next in your career, those are significant wins.”

LaPaille, too, says above all else, be persistent. “You have to fight through that the best you can. There's going to be aspects of job hunting that seem incredibly unfair, whether it be a position you wanted not working out or seeing others who you don't think worked as hard as you getting to a level of success faster than you. Everyone's path is different, and you never know what those skills you learn in that job you think is beneath you will eventually lead to. The worst thing you can do is give up and quit trying - then it definitely won't get any better. Keep plugging away and putting yourself in good positions, and eventually someone will notice.”