When you’re fresh out of college, what next?

By From page A7 | July 06, 2014

*Editor’s note: Marion is taking the week off. This column first ran in 2007 before our current economic recession.

Two months ago I received an email that began, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I was a student you interviewed.”

The email included details to refresh my memory, but I didn’t need them. Even though I interviewed many students over the five years I wrote for UC Davis, I remembered Kate Eby.

She stood out because she was unusually helpful. She gave every question her full attention and provided insightful answers. For example, she said, “Friends are a much higher priority at college and we’ll push work until later if we need to. Parents push fun stuff to the end of the day, and they often run out of time.”

Kate graduated in 2006 and had been working for a year when she sent me the email. Her report was bleak.

“Life is definitely not what I expected it to be,” she wrote. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and wishing someone had told me some more realistic expectations about life after college. I thought I would get in touch to see if you’d be interested in doing an article together and maybe helping some students have a better transition into work…I want to channel my frustrations and disappointments into something positive!”

The timing of her message was a little painful for me. One week earlier, I had submitted my last piece for UC Davis Magazine, on the topic of what to do if your college student chooses a major you don’t like.

I wrote with optimism, reassuring parents that any major could lead to happiness and success. Kate’s was Technocultural Studies, a new major combining digital art and media, which sounded employable.

Did I get it wrong?

Shaken, I nevertheless agreed to meet. Kate arrived at Dos Coyotes straight from work, as bright-eyed as I remembered, although visibly fatigued. Before our food came, she stepped out for a five-minute phone call.

“Another job interview on the phone,” she explained and sat down to tell me about her year of work.

She was working two jobs, one at a small company in a rural area, the other poorly paid. For months she had been spending every free moment looking for something better. She came in third or fourth for several positions, but “first” eluded her and she blamed herself.

I thought it might have been because she is only 22.

She wanted to write something that might help other students prepare better, or at least to anticipate that the first year out of college would be tough: “I’ve got a college degree and I’m working 55 hours in two jobs. No one told me that even with all that, I still wouldn’t be able to afford an apartment on my own.

“Recently, I realized it’s like freshman year, and then I became less hard on myself. Everything is new.”

Although she suggested we write together, I recommended she tell her own story, with me as her editor.

I began contacting people to ask where such an article might be placed.

Every time I talked to someone, a funny thing happened. I’d begin by saying, “I met this young woman who is going to find a new job any moment, but right now…”

Who was I to predict that her problem was about to end? And yet I felt she had done everything right.

She started job hunting before graduation, honed her résumé, practiced interviewing, and surveyed the market. She had held internships.

And there was that special something I noticed in our first interview: her alertness, her ability to spot trends and name them, her urge to communicate. If she can’t “make it,” what happens to others?

In August, CNN reported that, “A survey of college graduates from 2000 to 2006 by Experience Inc. found that 58 percent of those polled had moved home after school and that 32 percent stayed more than a year. Even among those who’ve managed to stay away, Pew found that 73 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds have received financial assistance from their parents in the past year, and 64 percent have even gotten help with errands.”

Students newly out of college depend on their parents. Do the students expect that? Have we misled them? Have we failed to acknowledge how difficult — financially and psychologically — the first year out of college can be?

While I was mulling this over, a new email arrived from Kate labeled “big changes.”

Opening eagerly, I learned that the phone interview before our dinner had borne fruit: Finally, Kate came in first for a job she wanted.

A few weeks later, she wrote to me again, saying she was having trouble writing the article we talked about. She wondered if the moment had passed.

“Yes!” I replied joyfully. As a columnist, I know it’s hard to write about a feeling after it’s gone. Her struggle to find a good job was over.

“Let me write,” I said. Let me talk about how student and parental expectations may be too high. Let me say that some students need to go home first, need to take a job that is below target. Let me say that a student who works hard, who has the kind of spirit and drive I saw in Kate, can succeed, but it might take time.

Let me say it because that’s what happened.

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]

Marion Franck

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