Born to the Internet, Grew Up Fast in a Pandemic

A junior at Texas State University lost his jobs as a bartender and a barista when the pandemic started. Now he sells instant ramen and CBD-infused baked goods that he makes in his kitchen.

A senior at Vassar had some income from an internship, but it wasn’t enough to keep her or her family financially secure. So she started an online tarot-reading business.

A senior at Stanford used to work at his campus library until it shut down. Now he has a job with a storage marketplace start-up modeled after Airbnb.

Working through college is nothing new for college students. About 70 percent have some type of job, a Georgetown University analysis found. When the pandemic hit in the spring semester, about a third of students lost their jobs, according to Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.

Many of them have had to get creative, taking advantage of a digital economy that grew up around them while college was still a far-off dream.

Carrots, celery, onions and garlic, tossed in a white miso paste and then roasted in the oven, give Raymond Cabrera’s instant ramen more flavor, he said as he chopped vegetables in the kitchen of his small San Marcos, Texas, apartment during an interview over video.

After losing his jobs in March, he filled his days with a lot of thinking — and, of course, YouTube videos.

“That’s kind of where I got that idea for the ramen,” said Mr. Cabrera, 23, a junior and recent transfer to Texas State University.

He credits a video from Bon Appétit’s popular “Gourmet Makes” YouTube series as the inspiration to make and sell instant ramen, something he had daydreamed about doing.

Mr. Cabrera now sells his instant ramen to an Austin coffee shop, hoping to one day branch out to selling at farmer’s markets.

His packaging is simple: plastic containers that hold his homemade broth, pulverized with added spices and uncooked store-bought noodles. The coffee shop pays $1 per container, and he usually makes about 50 containers at a time and will make more batches at the shop’s request, he said. The Texas cottage food law allows residents to sell certain foods they make at home without a license or state inspections.

The pandemic further spurred Mr. Cabrera to start making cookies and brownies infused with CBD, a cannabis derivative believed to have health benefits. He sells them to relatives and friends for about $5 to $10 each.

The limited counter space in his compact apartment kitchen is laden with small appliances — a dehydrator, a blender and an herbal oil infusion machine.

“I’m one of those people that needs to work because I have a lot of passion,” Mr. Cabrera said.

Sara Cochran, a professor in the department of management and entrepreneurship at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, said the ingenuity students are showing during the pandemic demonstrates why “this generation has been called the most entrepreneurial generation yet.”

She said tough times in history had often benefited those with a mind-set to see opportunities “where are others are seeing the chaos and the confusion.”

Mr. Cabrera said that he had qualified for unemployment compensation starting in April but that “little cushion” had ended, making it a challenge to cover rent and car payments while he pursues a bachelor’s degree in communications. He has financial aid for tuition.

“The pressure I’m under right now is kind of overwhelming,” he said, “especially with how uncertain things are right now.”

Some welcome news came earlier this month, when one of his old bosses said he could return to his barista job working four or five nights a week. Mr. Cabrera said that he was grateful but that he still planned to keep his business going on the side.

Sabrina Surgil, a senior at Vassar College, had been reading tarot cards for herself, relatives and friends for about three years. It wasn’t until this summer, however, that she was inspired to use her hobby to deal with financial troubles.

“I have to pay bills and help support my family, too, and help pay my fees and tuition, and it’s just — money comes first, not my education,” she said. “Which is frustrating, but just the situation as a low-income student.” Ms. Surgil, 21, is a senior with a double major in history and French.

Through her Etsy shop — the Sun, the Star, and the Moon Tarot Readings — she offers appointments with social distancing included. Customers can opt for a taped reading or a live one online. They ask to know about life, love and past lives.

Tarot reading is a “tool to reflect back deep truths about yourself that we already know,” Ms. Surgil said. She spreads the word on Instagram and TikTok.

A TikTok user from Georgia contacted Ms. Surgil and ended up getting all of her friends to ask for readings.

“I don’t quite understand TikTok or its algorithm,” Ms. Surgil said, “but some videos will get a lot of views and then direct people to my Etsy.”

She said she gives some of the money to Covid-19 relief and other causes and also helps her family with financial problems related to the pandemic.

While people often think of parents supporting college students, the reverse is not unusual, and coronavirus has exacerbated the need, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor at Temple University whose expertise includes higher education policy.

“We really like to think of college students as privileged,” Dr. Goldrick-Rab said. “It’s easier on our brains. You picture them with Mom and Dad dropping them off with a ton of stuff from Ikea, and then they go to the cafeteria, and party at night. We cling to that, and policymakers are completely stuck on it, even though it has almost no resemblance in reality.”

Courtney Brunson, 20, had been planning to work as a resident adviser on campus at Clemson University over the summer, but soon after she went home early to Florence, S.C., in March, she learned that the job had gone away.

“I really don’t want to be out and about working around people, and the numbers are not going down at all,” she said. She is a junior majoring in management.

Her parents pushed her to be innovative, so she settled on making scented candles. She hopes to set up an Etsy shop. She has given up on being an R.A. but has not seen many other opportunities around campus. “I thought I was just going to be able to get another job on campus,” she said, “but that’s become harder too.”

Neil Burton, executive director of Clemson University’s Center for Career and Professional Development, said the career center was trying to direct students to more campus-specific opportunities, such as internships, as more traditional off-campus jobs become scarce.

“That’s going to be a challenge working in a small town where you have a lot of one- to two-people businesses, restaurants and T-shirt shops and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough fall.”

Theo Charusi, a 22-year-old senior majoring in science and technology at Stanford University, said he experiences probably “more pressure than the average student.”

“Nothing’s open, or things are barely open, and nobody’s hiring,” Mr. Charusi said, “so you have to get creative to find ways to make money.”

When his campus library job went away, Mr. Charusi went to work for the online platform Stache, which he calls an “Airbnb for storage,” which was started a few years ago by a friend of a friend.

The platform connects people looking for affordable storage with others who rent out parts of their homes or garages for storage space. Since his mother lost her job in food services, he has been sending $800 a month back home, where she cares for his two siblings, who are 4 and 8.

“It’s stressful,” he said, “but I feel like a lot of people are in even worse positions, so I’m lucky in the sense that I got the opportunity I have.”

A red Cricut cutting machine and a heat press are the foundation of Ta’Marek Sweat’s college apparel business.

She started the business, the College Trap, in early July after, she said, she had searched for a way to make her own money beyond selling personal items on apps like Mercari and Letgo.

A sophomore studying biology at Texas A&M University, Ms. Sweat, 19, said she had made sweatshirts, T-shirts and masks for students at over 30 schools, having made about $2,000 as of mid-August.

She runs the business mainly through Instagram. Masks are $7 each, or two for $11. When she started the business, she was still waiting to hear back about a campus mentor position she had applied for in the spring.

“I’ve had my times in college where I was worried about books, expenses and all that other stuff that comes with college,” Ms. Sweat, 19, said. “I’d call my Mom and my grandparents crying, like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ So I think that was a burden on them, and I didn’t want to have to always worry them about not having money.”

She buys supplies at wholesale shops in Houston. On a good day, she works on about 15 to 20 products, prepping them to be picked up or shipped and enclosing personalized thank-you cards.

This fall, she’ll move the business from her mother’s dining room table in Pearland, Texas, to her apartment in College Station.

She’s still waiting to hear about the mentoring job.

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