College Graduates for a Year, Hoping for Chances in the Throes of Reality

The New York Times, Education Desk
May 11, 2005
by Marc B. Zawel

It has been a year since members of the class of 2004 donned caps and gowns, hugged friends goodbye and left the campuses where they had been for four years.

Today, some of these graduates are continuing their educations, others have replaced tattered jeans and flip-flops with business suits, while still others are searching for that entry-level position.

Spring 2004: Bates College, history
Spring 2005: Graduate student, University of Chicago

“The worst-case scenario for newly minted college grads is to spend their first year of real adulthood pent up in their childhood house, doing nothing, missing the college social life and regretting not being on top of things last year. I know many people who have fallen into a depressive malaise this year. One of the most important things is to be productive. This doesn’t necessarily mean getting a job, but just having a purpose.

“Grad school is good at providing a sense of purpose. It’s basically a continuation of the college lifestyle, allowing me to work on my own clock and under my own terms, doing what I love to do: study history. But it doesn’t foster financial independence.

“So students are either living off their parents or incurring massive debt. And it can also be difficult to differentiate this new experience from your college days. Questions like, ‘If I still take courses with undergrads, write essays on deadlines and take examinations, have I actually moved on with my life?’ eat at me sometimes.

“At least I’ll have those two letters – M.A. – after my name, though. That’ll be pretty cool.”

SPRING 2004: Emerson College, film
SPRING 2005: Unemployed, Stamford, Conn.

“I’m living at home with my mother, and since it’s just me and her, we interact constantly. It mostly revolves around what I’m not doing to find a job. Most of the people in my industry are freelancers, and that scares me. So, I continue to search for an entry-level job in film or television that at least covers my living expenses and starts me off on the right foot for a career.

“I’ve considered moving to the West Coast. Moving overseas and volunteering or teaching English somewhere has also crossed my mind. I’m all over the place and trying to whittle down the possibilities, but I’m staying calm and thinking happy thoughts, reassuring myself that the right opportunity will show itself eventually.”

SPRING 2004: University of Southern California, French and communications
SPRING 2005: Staff assistant to Barbara M. Clark, New York assemblywoman, Albany

“While the transition has been pretty smooth, I definitely miss the college days. My friends from school and I constantly talk about how stagnated we feel in the working world. We all studied abroad and constantly met interesting people whose world visions meshed with ours.

“Now we feel nervous that we’ll never have that much fun again. But our jobs are providing us with skills, money and knowledge, and we know it won’t be like this forever.”

Spring 2004: University of California, Los Angeles, psychology
Spring 2005: Executive assistant, National Football League, Manhattan

“Having graduated from a big public university, one of the most important things I’ve learned is how to navigate an equally as large bureaucracy in the real world. Going to U.C.L.A. made me more independent — no one is going to hold your hand through it all, which helps when it comes time to look for a job.

“I feel prepared for having to be aggressive in the working world, making myself look competitive. But sometimes I wish more general life skills, like how to budget and deal with your landlord, might have also been taught to me somehow.

“Being away from home now is not like being away from home in college: you have to put yourself out there to meet people, as opposed to just walking down the hall of your dorm.”

Spring 2004: Lehman College, social work
Spring 2005: Graduate student, Hunter College, Manhattan

“Working four different jobs while going to college was hard. I had the demands of my professors, my employers and Con Edison all wanting a piece of the pie. Here, I’m only working one job, but it’s a very intense program. My internship is also demanding, and I still need to make a paycheck.

“Now that I’m in grad school, I feel prepared, but sometimes don’t feel prepared. There are many barriers to higher education that women of color face – having less access to financial and emotional support, and persevering through single parenthood. It’s scary because my awareness is changing and my social class is changing, and I’m learning the truth about being middle class.

“Even though I’m able to afford $3,500 a semester in tuition through financial aid, that does not mean that I can afford three meals a day, that my basic needs are guaranteed to be met. Maybe this is what experts have called middle-class poverty.”

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