Diploma in Hand, Job Out of Reach

The Washington Post, May 17, 2009

BY: YAMICHE ALCINDOR

Seas of caps and gowns. Eagerly turned tassels. Crowds of proud families. And an economic recession that has many graduates from the area’s universities still searching for a job, feeling anxious and vulnerable about the future.

Student strategies have ranged from tirelessly sending out dozens of résumés to waiting out the storm in graduate schools. Some say they are lucky to find an extended internship.

Emily Petro, 22, of Allentown, Pa., said she applied to more than 40 companies. The public communication major interned at Global Events Partners during the fall and spring of her senior year at American University. She said she used job search sites including Monster.com, Career Builder, Craigslist and Career America, but nothing came of it.

A lot of us ended up in training and internship programs,” said Petro, who hopes to work in event planning but accepted an offer to enter a five- to six-month training program with the Washington Nationals in premium client services. “I’m lucky that I have what I have.”

Typically, 10 to 15 percent of members of a graduating class haven’t nailed down a job or plans for graduate school, said Paul Villella, chief executive of HireStrategy, a recruiting and staffing company based in Reston. But after contacting between eight and 10 area schools this year, he said, “about 35 to 40 percent are graduating without jobs or a predetermined plan in place.”

The National Association of Colleges and Employers said in its spring “Job Outlook” that employers plan to hire 22 percent fewer new graduates from the class of 2009 than they hired from the class of 2008.

Sable Sweeper of Passaic, N.J., a sociology major who is graduating from Georgetown University this weekend, is delaying a serious job search while she applies to a paralegal studies program.

“I came here thinking when I come out of Georgetown, people will look at my level of education and see my skills,” she said. “But what we’re going into — there are no jobs.

“And even the people who do have jobs, they are so nervous because companies are making cuts,” she added. “The situation is so bad that now even the people with jobs know that if they make one little mistake, they can be gone.”

Mike Schaub, executive director of Georgetown’s Career Education Center, said he encourages students to be flexible about their career options. “We tell them to be open to new fields and to be realistic,” to look at smaller companies and consider different job locations, he said.

“This year’s class seemed more anxious,” Schaub said. “I’ve been seeing helplessness and hopelessness. Some [students] took the lack of internships and jobs personally.”

Some students had the added stress of worrying about their parents’ finances.

“I saw several students whose parents had lost jobs,” said Alisa Schwartz, a Georgetown staff psychologist who sees students at the university’s Counseling and Psychiatric Service. “It was painful for students with concrete concerns in terms of what their parents could afford this summer,” she said. “It was also very emotional.”

Added Hallie Lightdale, also a staff psychologist there: “Some are fearful about the changes in their parents and about the responsibilities they must now assume. Some students are going to lose family health coverage and for the first time have had to consider purchasing their own.”

Ayana Watkins-Northern, chief psychologist and director of Howard University’s Counseling Service, said: “This graduating class has faced challenges unlike those before them. The days of college students having normal stressors about adjustment have gone by the wayside.”

Students, both those with and without jobs, said they are nervous and confused about what the next few years will bring.

Many, like Brittany Lewis, 21, of Dover, Del., hope President Obama’s message of change will translate into a better job market and a stable future. Lewis, who graduated from Howard last week and hasn’t found a job, has interned at five news organizations, including WTTG (Channel 5), VH1, Vital Marketing and the American Federation of Government Employees. “I’m just hoping Obama comes to save us,” she said with a half-smile.

Kevin Shaks, 24, of Richmond, Calif., put off graduating from Howard with a degree in audio production until December in the hopes of waiting out the recession. “A lot of people are very confused,” he said. “They really don’t know what they’re going to do. But it adds to the excitement because Barack Obama is president. With him in office, there may be more jobs and opportunities.”

Most graduates say that the recession has not taken away all of the excitement that comes with walking across the stage. They talk of resilience and a sense of community in the class of 2009.

“I think the recession is a bad thing, but I feel that we should learn from the experience,” Sweeper said. “We bounced back from the Great Depression, and now we’re in this situation. We just need to be more mindful of our money and our spending habits so that this doesn’t happen again.”

Sweeper, like so many other students, hopes that the recession will be a learning lesson for a generation of students who know what it is like to bear the brunt of decisions made by their predecessors.

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