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With summer jobs canceled and internships on hold, students struggle to pay for college

"I have hourly panic attacks about when unemployment will end,” said one student.

With unemployment at its highest level since the Great Depression and more than 1 million Americans filing for jobless benefits for the 14th straight week, high school and college students are facing a challenge many did not anticipate at such a young age.

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold, internships were canceled, summer jobs disappeared, and research programs added restrictions, stripping many students of valuable experience — as well as an income.

Sam Hughes, a rising senior and English major at Temple University in Philadelphia, is unsure how she is going to pay for her final semester at the school.

“I’ve lost two jobs during the pandemic,” she told NBC News. She has not been able to collect unemployment benefits for either of them.

“I had a full-time job as a barista at a small coffee shop,” Hughes said. “I lost that back in March, but because we were paid under the table, I couldn’t collect unemployment.”

She also lost a part-time position at a small digital marketing company.

“The first day I was supposed to start was the day Pennsylvania shut down,” Hughes told NBC News.

She said she wasn’t surprised the state instituted a lockdown. Her parents live in New Jersey, and she was well aware that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy had placed a stay-at-home order on his state two weeks prior.

The lockdown, nonetheless, affected Hughes. She had hoped the company would offer her an opportunity to start the job remotely. Instead, the firm removed the position, leaving Hughes out of work entirely.

“It’s definitely been a struggle,” she said.

Lena Murray, who studied ethnic studies and political science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, before graduating this past spring, said this is the first summer that she does not have a stable job.

“I’ve worked every summer since high school, all throughout college,” Murray said.

She was slated to participate in a paid conservation research program in Alaska. Initially, she felt hopeful that the program would still be available, as Alaska had far fewer COVID-19 cases than most other areas in the U.S. But toward the end of the spring, the program announced that it would only accept local students in Alaska.

She had also hoped it could serve as a springboard for a first job out of college.

“It’s a little bit stressful, but the whole coronavirus pandemic is strange,” she said. “I’m now doing random things, like dog sitting and other temporary work.”

She has started studying for the LSAT, as well.

“I was looking for a job after graduation, but it now seems impossible to get one with so many people unemployed. So I just want to start law school as soon as possible,” she said.

If all goes right, she hopes to start in fall of 2021, and she’ll be using some of the money she is making this summer to help pay for it.

Hughes, on the other hand, is not sure how she will be able to pay her way through her final semester at Temple.

“I use the money I make at the coffee shop to pay my rent, my groceries, my utilities, and more,” she said.

She was hoping she would be able to start work again as states began to reopen, but her manager at the coffee shop announced that he would not be rehiring any of the employees.

“They said they couldn’t afford to,” Hughes said.

For now, she’s relying on money she has been saving since her first year of college.

“I’m lucky because I had always been planning on staying in Philadelphia after I graduated, so I’ve been saving money for a long time and I’m using that,” she said. “But I have hourly panic attacks about when unemployment will end.”

She hopes her past experiences in marketing will help her secure a PR or marketing job soon.

“I’ve had a couple of internships in the past, so I’m hoping those will help me get a job after graduation. But if employers are not even able to take back their current employees, I think it’s going to be hard to find anyone who is hiring new employees,” she said.