Sunday, June 8, 2003

Every day

College is one thing, life's another - and it's not fair


In a few weeks, 23-year-old Michelle Ehlers will be coming home. She will load her clothes, her jewelry and some cacti into the back of her Jeep Cherokee, making the 2,000-mile trip away from a life she assumed was possible and now understands was not.

She wanted to live out West, where she'd never been, so after graduating last November from Ohio University, she took off for Scottsdale, Ariz. It didn't occur to her that she wouldn't find a job.

Why would it? Didn't she own a double major, in Marketing and Information Services? Hadn't she spent an extra quarter earning all those credits?

She finished with a 3.6 grade-point, made honors every semester, did all the right things. She was young, eager and optimistic. Of course it would work. Until it didn't.

"I thought it would be much easier," she said this week. "I was told they had a great job market, and maybe they do. But not for what I want to do."

You see them all the time now, college graduates waiting tables and working the register at the department stores. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not what they went to school for.

The ol' Catch-22

As a freshly minted college graduate in 1979, it never occurred to me I wouldn't find a job. If I'd had to move back home with my parents, someone would have died, and it wouldn't have been accidental. My biggest fear that first year working was managing a crock pot.

It's different for these kids. The economy has squeezed them, downsized their ambitions, made them grow up faster than we did.

We're not supposed to begin our adult lives as cynics. That's supposed to take time.

"I had a hard time," Michelle is saying. She didn't know anyone. The job-search engines on the Internet turned up dead leads. The job fairs weren't productive.

Recruiters would look at her substantial college resume and say she needed experience. It's a familiar Catch-22 - How can I get the experience if I can't get a job? - and it's tough on eager kids new to the way the world works.

Some even said Michelle was overqualified. "What a crock. I just graduated. How could I be overqualified for anything?" she asked. She had six interviews.

Small fish in a big pond

Real World 101 slapped her upside the head. It also taught her an invaluable lesson, one every high school and college kid ought to understand: In the workplace, nobody thinks you're special until you show that you are.

No prospective employer is out there hoping you'll walk through the door. Your smile, your wit and your obvious charm stop being important the minute you flip the tassel.

Michelle enjoyed Arizona. She'd have stayed, had a job become available that suited her career goals. As it is, she'll be moving back home, to West Chester, into the bedroom she used during college breaks.

She'll start networking. She's looking for a job in marketing or public relations.

"My parents have friends who know friends, and so forth," she said. That's another lesson to graduating job seekers: It's often whom you know, not what, that gets you hired.

"I know a lot of people with the same major I have, who were mediocre in school, (but) they had the perfect neighbor or their dad knew somebody or they literally ran into somebody at the mall, while they were shopping with their mom. It seems almost random," Michelle said.

She's glad to be coming home, seeing friends, renewing acquaintances in familiar territory. But she won't be packing her blind optimism along with her clothes and her jewelry.

"I busted my butt in school," she said, "and what do I have to show for it? I can't imagine a student like me not getting a job. I'm still thinking that to this day."

There's another lesson some of us didn't have to learn so quickly:

Life isn't fair.


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