The graduating class of 2020 finds itself in limbo.
Even before the novel coronavirus sent the world into lockdown, Afrouz Rahmati planned to finish the final semester of her master’s in landscape architecture remotely. A third-year MLA candidate at the University of Maryland (UMD), Rahmati had an internship lined up at a nonprofit parks organization in Los Angeles, where her family lives. The plan was to spend the spring working on a regional-scale greenway project and finishing her thesis, which focuses on the intersection of landscape architecture and gerontology.
To work in the United States, however, Rahmati needed authorization for what’s known as pre-completion optional practical training (OPT). OPT allows international students to accept temporary employment in their fields of study. Rahmati grew up in Isfahan, Iran. She worked as an architect before emigrating to the United States in 2017, when she enrolled in the landscape architecture program at UMD.
By March 2020, Rahmati’s OPT authorization still had not arrived. By the time it did, the country was fully in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization that had offered Rahmati the internship—which she preferred to keep confidential—e-mailed to say that things were uncertain, but that she could maybe join them in the summer. She hasn’t heard from them since. Now she is applying to full-time positions, but is finding that most employers are also unresponsive. Rahmati worries about what will happen if she can’t find a job. Foreign students have just three months following graduation to secure employment in their fields of study and apply for post-completion OPT—a timeline that now feels alarmingly short. Rahmati says the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has yet to announce any changes or updates to the OPT program’s rules.
The transition from college or graduate school into a professional landscape architecture career is one of trepidation but also buoyant possibility. But for the graduating class of 2020, it’s as if a giant pause button has been hit. As cities remain under orders to shelter in place, firms of all sizes are halting the hiring process. Summer internships have been canceled. Recruiters have gone quiet. Students on the verge of graduating now find themselves in a kind of extended intermission, a limbo in which they can neither remain in the cozy world of their universities nor make the leap into professional practice.
A survey of more than 50 undergraduate and graduate landscape architecture students conducted in early April by the Boston Society of Landscape Architects (BSLA) revealed that three-quarters of respondents had been forced to alter their immediate plans as a result of the coronavirus. More than half reported that a job or internship was “on hold.” Roughly one in five reported that an internship had been canceled or that a job offer had been rescinded.
“The first thing to go was internships for the summer,” says Emily Noonan, Student ASLA, a senior in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s undergraduate landscape architecture program and co-president of the student ASLA chapter. Initially, Noonan and Katina Decoulos, her classmate and fellow co-president, had envisioned getting internships for the summer and fall and then taking the winter off to ski. Maybe they’d spend a season in Colorado or Utah, a last adventure before settling into their careers. Maybe they’d get jobs in Portland or Seattle, just for a year or two, before returning to Massachusetts and getting serious. Now, their concerns are far more pragmatic: Finesse their portfolios. Send out résumés. Get a foot in the door in case things get worse. “I had grand ideas of whisking myself away to different states, and traveling, and really taking that time to do that,” Noonan says. “Now, I think that whole idea is kind of lost.”
In response to the concerns of students like Decoulos and Noonan, the BSLA organized “A Panel for Students: Landscape Architecture in the Age of Corona,” a Zoom lecture and panel discussion aimed at addressing student questions around employment. The panel included Matthew Cunningham, ASLA; Cheri Ruane, FASLA; and Lauren Stimson, ASLA; all of whom practice in and around the Boston area. They encouraged students to stay busy, to use the forced downtime to develop their portfolios, take online classes, or design gardens for their families—anything to continue honing their skills as designers. Although they advised students to “reset their expectations” and to consider interim jobs in plant nurseries or stone quarries, if necessary, overall the panelists’ message was one of optimism. The public’s understanding of the value of parks and public spaces was growing by the day, they argued. Rarely has the importance of landscape architecture been so visible.
“Parks are critical infrastructure,” Ruane said. “Now is the time to make that case.”
Still, for those who weathered the 2008 recession, there is an urgent sense that without support, young designers could struggle and fall out of landscape architecture before they even test the waters. The profession experienced staggering losses as a result of the 2008 recession, shrinking to 15,750 individuals in 2012 from more than 22,000 in 2006, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “We lost a generation of landscape architects” in that period, says Stephanie Rolley, FASLA, the head of Kansas State University’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional and Community Planning. “That loss has been particularly obvious the last few years as firms struggle to fill mid-level leadership positions.”
To prevent another major exodus, universities around the country are working to build ad hoc support networks for graduating students. Kansas State is extending access to its Career Center for graduate students, which will allow them to meet with advisers and access career resources for a full year following graduation. And landscape architecture faculty voted to provide full academic credit for all of the students currently completing internships, many of whom are working for their respective firms remotely. “So far everyone is still employed, but we wanted to alleviate worries about what might happen,” Rolley says.
At the University of Virginia (UVA), members of the Young Alumni Council helped create a mentorship program that matched third-year MLA candidates with professionals working in areas or cities of interest, to help the students network and provide an opportunity for one-on-one conversation. The effort was led by Danielle Alexander, ASLA, the founding principal of Studio AKA in Washington, D.C., and chair of the Young Alumni Council for the School of Architecture. When Alexander sent an e-mail query to alumni, asking for mentors, her “inbox was immediately flooded,” she says. “The big thing that I noticed was how much people wanted to channel their own discomfort and nervousness about what was going on into helping somebody else.”
Alexander also knows what it feels like to be on the other end of the equation. She had planned on hosting an intern at Studio AKA this summer. But as a firm of one with less than two years under its belt, she felt she had little choice but to reconsider, in part because of uncertainty that the business could support an intern—several residential projects are now on hold, she says—and in part because Alexander is currently pregnant. “I was hoping to have somebody in my space and be able to bring them to construction sites and teach them, but I’m immunocompromised, so for my own personal health I can’t offer that kind of interaction.” But it was a tough decision. “I really wanted to do it. I wanted to pay well. I bought a laptop to get the person set up. I was really, really excited to have somebody and invest in that.”
Universities may have the most leeway in creating bridge positions that could help students—including those from other countries, like Rahmati—weather the transition. Already, some university departments are employing graduate students to help professors transition course content to online platforms. Brad Cantrell, ASLA, the chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Virginia, says he has been in talks with university leadership to do something similar there. He says faculty members need to think deeply about how universities can be creative in supporting students amid this transition. Otherwise, the profession loses out.
“We’re a very small discipline,” he says. “There’s a need for us to really take care of each other and cultivate our young talent. This is a strong upcoming group of landscape architects. We need to come together as a discipline to provide a platform where their voices still exist.”