Graduating Into a Pandemic: Michelle Chan

Black-and-white half-length portrait of designer Michelle Chan

It’s been about a year since most of North America began social distancing to combat COVID-19. How has this strange and difficult time affected young people entering the design profession? We checked in with students who graduated last spring from university programs in North America. This is the final story in the series. The others feature Angad Singh, Francis Ho, and Damini Agrawal.

Michelle Chan
Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Vancouver

Our last year featured a professional-development class that helped us prepare for the “outside world”—we even had to work through exercises that had us launching a startup. But there are experiences you can’t gain from school, and I was glad to do two co-ops during my time at Emily Carr. Those were the most helpful because they were most like real-world work.

Last spring, we were getting ready for our graduate show—the thing the whole year had led us toward. Of course, it didn’t happen. There was a release of stress when it was announced that it wouldn’t happen because you didn’t have to worry about the crazy logistics of preparing for it. We still had to hand stuff in, but the professors were lenient about that; they let us work around things. Many of my friends created physical products, stuff that requires prototypes, and that must have been extra difficult. I do UX/UI design, so most of my work was already digital.

The school gave us clear instructions, but it was also clear the school was scrambling. I don’t think my class ever really met again, until the final Zoom call, when we all just said “bye.”

On a black background rests a mockup of website, shown on a desktop computer and an iPhone, for the GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre at Vancouver Coastal Health
MyGuide | Concussion website for Vancouver Coastal Health

My plans ended at graduation. I had nothing lined up. The professional-development course had helped me figure out who I wanted to reach out to. I had cover letters ready to go. Right when I began applying, my professor posted part of my work online and someone reached out to me. The message was, “We like what you do, would you want to join us?” It’s ironic to me that my worry increased as I sent out more applications, didn’t hear much back, and then ended up with an opportunity somewhat out of the blue.

Nonetheless, one of my interviews was with the government. The job didn’t come through, but I was added to an eligibility list for related work. “Within a year,” they said, “if we have an open position, we’ll offer it to you.” I was feeling discouraged at the time and thought, OK, I’ll just keep looking. I put it on the back burner, but then they followed up! It’s weird—I felt like I was tossing a bottle into the sea, but it actually worked for me.

I wouldn’t have gotten the jobs that I’ve had this past year without the pandemic. I know that Nexxt Intelligence, with whom I worked last fall, wasn’t planning to hire anyone outside of Toronto. “But that’s become a non-issue,” they said when they offered me a role.

I also think that having a focused portfolio helped. I have always been drawn to real issues, to research, to focusing on children and healthcare as subjects. I know what I put together isn’t super diverse; I could have taken another direction. But it worked in that people see me as an “expert” in this one area, that I’ve investigated the space thoroughly.

My worry increased as I sent out more applications. But I wouldn’t have gotten the jobs that I’ve had this past year without the pandemic.

Nonetheless, I’m trying to open things up again. I’m working for the BC government and if I get to stay with this team, I hope to take on a diverse range of public-service work.

Though I have a role, there are still down sides: working at home, I don’t get to meet everyone, to call my coworkers just to chat. You can schedule something, but it’s not the same as walking out the door to find and eat lunch with someone. That’s missing, and it’s integral to your career, to your social development, to understanding how office culture works. My colleagues have been very nice, very relatable; I can even get on a call and rant if I need to! But I’m an extrovert and I’m sad to not be able to go out for drinks.

But I feel like I’ve gone through a process that has given me useful skills. I’ve shown that I can adapt, that I can be flexible. That I can translate the work I do from a pre-pandemic to a pandemic environment—and, hopefully soon, to a post-pandemic environment. My superpower is translation. The Class of 2021, and others that follow, might experience something similar, if only because so many companies and institutions have realized there is a new, digital-first way of working. We may never go back to full-time office work again.

Up until August last year, no one contacted me. Right out of university, I thought, I’m screwed. My mom was skeptical, and we were all worried about how I would fit into my industry, especially during these difficult times. I’m happy—and relieved—that I defied that stereotype, and so did a lot of my colleagues. We’re young, we’re people of color, and we graduated together into a pandemic. It’s certainly a surprising turn of events.

A sphere with brightly colored abstract shapes floats on a black background; beneath it are the words "Bean Society, A Virtual Reality Experience" and six other brightly colored rectangles
Bean Society, a virtual-reality project