Part blog, part oral history, part research project.
How has the Great Recession affected your path beyond college? What is your story?

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Recently I had the opportunity to do Story Corps and was interviewed by my partner about my experiences as a Recession Grad. I thought it only fair to share them with you.

For me as a kid, I dreamt of college, because I was a dork and I loved reading and I was very smart and I felt like, some day, I'm going to be in this magic place of [laughs] higher learning, where everyone will be like me.

I dropped out of school the day I turned 18, which was two months before I would've graduated. And to me, it wasn't even worthwhile graduating. I had been the perfect student all of my life, up until [family problems in] my junior year in high school. I missed a lot of school...

And what was the point? It wasn't like I was going to get into a good school now. Everything seemed like it wasn't worthwhile. It wasn't worth even trying. Or even finishing. At first I tried to get a social worker and I tried all of these different normal things to make my life better. And when that didn't work, I bought a plane ticket and the day I turned 18, I planned to fly out. To California. [laughs] I was from just outside of Cleveland.

When I first came to California I found minimum wage jobs. I worked a variety of strange things. Eventually I landed in a bookstore. And I loved it. Because everyone there was like me in a way. They loved books, they were very witty and smart and creative. And we could have these intellectual conversations that could go on for hours and I would forget that I didn't have a degree and that I was making minimum wage and that I didn't know what was going to happen in the future.

Almost a decade passed, while I worked in the bookstore.

Everyone that I worked with was shocked that I didn't have a degree. I thought I'd lost my opportunity, that I wouldn't, that no school would want me, that I couldn't afford a school, that I was too old, that it was too late but, [my partner] convinced me to apply to one school and I applied to that one school and was completely blown away when they called me up and said you're accepted and here's a scholarship.

I completed a bachelor’s in public policy while working on credits towards a master’s.

When I was in school I was part of an award-winning radio documentary, I made one of my dreams come true and won a scholarship to study in Egypt—[sighs] I did so many—I won an award for my thesis—so I expected when I got out of school, I'd at least be able to get a job. And instead I'm filling out resume after resume, different cover letters, I'm applying for jobs that I wouldn't have applied for before, because the job market's tough. There’s jobs out there, but you're competing with people that have ten years of experience and that are willing to take an entry level job. So you don't have a chance as someone fresh out of school without experience in that field or with only internship experience when someone who's an expert in that field or several someones who are experts in that field are interviewing for the same job. I've had some interviews, but it's pretty grim. It's been almost a year. And I still haven't found full time employment.

It makes me really question whether I can make it in the real world. It really crushes your self esteem. I don't know where I'm going to be ten years from now. I have no idea. And I thought I'd at least, I used to think that I would be a researcher somewhere, but now—or that I'd have, you know, my own independent firm or something, but now I hope that I'm at least able to pay a little bit towards my loans. I mean that's sad, but that's as much as I can hope for right now. Or as much as I can expect, given what I've seen so far.

I'm applying for all of these jobs and most of them are jobs I don't even want and not once, not in all of these months, not in all of these searches and networking, have I found a single career or job or opening that's doing what I love—which is collecting stories. I love doing interview-based research. And I haven't found anything like that. So, at some point, I decided, what the heck, if I'm not going to get paid to do it, there's no reason why I just can't do it on my own. And at the same time, I've been wondering how other people feel who went back to school. If anyone else is having a tough time and what their experiences are or maybe other people are seeing this as an opportunity to do a whole new thing with their life. So I started, back in October, an independent project researching how the recession is affecting recent graduates. And I've been interviewing people all over the country to see what their experiences are like.

I'm hearing so many different stories. And it makes me feel—not alone and it also makes me feel like there's a generational thing that's happening. That there's an actual historic thing that's happening. There's a subgeneration of people who are essentially being left behind because of the economic downturn. You have all of these fresh young minds—or people that went back to school to retool their careers—that are now left in this nebulous nowhere zone of unemployment or underemployment.

I feel angry that we had this promise, you know, this unspoken promise, that you go to school and you get a job. That's what happens in the United States, right? Wrong. And, and it's not being addressed. We're addressing the value of the dollar, we're addressing this and that—or we're creating jobs, but we're creating retail jobs. That's what I went to school to not do anymore. And it's not being...It's not being discussed, not really. And our voices aren't being heard. I feel like I'm collecting the stories of people that really have no other forum.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Laura graduated from a well-respected public university with a B.S. in civil engineering. She has a vivacious personality and is enthusiastic about her work at a large national construction management firm. She genuinely loves what she does and where she does it.

I kind of fell into the industry. I wanted to be able to work on large projects that would impact society and change people's lives for the better. I really wanted to do something with bridges. I thought they were fascinating. Whenever I saw a really complicated structure, I always would think, oh man, there's so much physics behind it! It's such a static thing—like a highway overpass or a bridge, but there's so much math! She laughs. And my friends would just roll their eyes as I dorked out. That's kind of where I saw myself. I didn't really understand the specifics of what it entailed.

XX Construction came to a civil and environmental engineering career fair—they have a large recruiting effort among civil engineers. I interned with them for two summers and all of the last academic year part time. After I worked for XX Construction the first summer, I decided to only interview with construction firms, so everywhere else I interviewed with, they were also similar general contractor/construction management type companies. They only differed in company culture and the types of project they took on.

I would say after the first year I had an internship with XX Construction, I didn't really feel the strain of any economic hardship, but when I was looking for an internship again, I talked with a lot of other companies and at that point, it was getting a little tighter and a little more competitive. In retrospect, it would've been nice to intern at other companies and see what their management style is like, how they do things differently than XX Construction.

XX Construction was really the only place that I wanted to work. I really enjoyed the project I'd been interning on, I really enjoyed the people that I worked with. And I felt like the type of people that XX Construction likes to hire was the type of people I like to hang out with. She laughs. So, for me, I felt like it was a really great fit. And I was really excited when they made me a full time offer.

It's different once you start working—when you intern, you're doing things that are helpful, but at the same time, nothing is that heavy in terms of accountability and responsibility. That's what's different, being full time. Realizing that the things you do and say always circle back and you have to be accountable for it. It's been really different…just not being in a setting anymore with a bunch of people my own age. It's kind of weird, 'cause most of my friends I still hang out with, they're either still in college or they're looking for jobs right now, but they don't really share the same experiences I have in that forty-fifty hour work week.

I really enjoy my job right now. I think it's a good mix of something that's practical and I can support myself pretty well doing what I'm doing and also it's something that keeps me challenged and keeps me interested.

The recession is like this thought in the back of everyone's mind—especially since XX Construction has done multiple rounds of layoffs within the company. I guess I feel like I have a little bit of security in terms of being a new hire, because I know that I'm the cheapest worker that they have. If they want to lay me off or...I mean they could, but I'm not worth that much in the first place. She laughs.

In terms of how the recession has impacted me outside of my job, I do feel like a lot of my friends are unemployed or they're working a job to make ends meet or kind of a temporary job while they apply to law school or some kind of graduate school. For me, it's a little bit of a dampener. Right now, I'm trying to move to an apartment in San Francisco. And, I'd like to live with more than one person, I prefer a more social atmosphere. But it's been really difficult finding people to live with, 'cause all of my friends don't have jobs, so they can't afford to move out of their parents' place.

Once you're off work you have all of this free time before you go to bed and sometimes it's frustrating—I shouldn't say it's frustrating because that makes it sound like a life crisis. She laughs. But, I wish more of my friends were making some type of income, 'cause it's hard to go out and grab a drink when your friends say they can't afford it. Sometimes I feel bad about having a job.

When I can, I help my friends out with resumes and stuff. I recently got put on the recruiting team—they put us through behavioral interview training. I try and pass on the knowledge to my friends who are going through the interview process and submitting resumes. I know what companies are looking for on a pretty basic level, so I can assist in some way. It's weird to feel bad. I guess I shouldn't, but when you're in a better situation than everyone else, that's kind of what happens. I wish all of my friends had jobs. That would be great. I could go out all of the time, there wouldn't be really any restrictions on what we could do.