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Students vs. the economy: College grads face uncertain times

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Students vs. the economy: College grads face uncertain times

PORTLAND — University of Southern Maine seniors Brandon McKenney and Gwen Merrick have taken the last few weeks one day at a time. Both are wrapping up projects, finishing papers, and preparing for the final exams that will allow them to graduate this Saturday, May 16.

Neither has any idea what they'll be doing once they've walked off the Cumberland County Civic Center stage, degrees in hand. While it's not exactly uncommon for students to graduate with uncertain futures, this year's economy has made it particularly troubling to these students.

The state of the economy, Merrick said, "is a terrifying aspect, you hear about it constantly. If I was thinking about that right now along with my final exams, I'd be pulling my hair out."

According to Susan Campbell, USM vice president for academic affairs, "the jury is still out" regarding the economy's effect on the school and its graduates. While the school can often predict the economy's impact on students and the university's future during normal times, "these are not normal times," she said.

And Merrick and McKenney are feeling that pressure.

McKenney, an aspiring photographer and photojournalist, said he has spent some time scoping out the job scene locally and on journalism job boards online, "but there's just nothing. The only (photography) jobs are in places like rural Alabama, and that's just not where I'm going to go."

So rather than worry too much about chasing down a job, the 22-year-old said he'll spend his summer finishing up a few credits and freelancing for cash along the way. "Or I might get a 'normal' job," he said, working a typical summer job to save money for a possible trip to South America.

Merrick, 33, said that she, too, would settle for anything at this point – after 15 years of working toward graduation, she said the degree itself is her highlight, rather than the career that might come afterward.

"If I have to wait tables until I find something I want, then that's what I'll do," she said. "If it's just money coming in for a while, I'm OK with that. I'm just trying to be happy with what I've got right now."

Eventually, both McKenney and Merrick said they'll probably go back to school, but neither is ready to pay for an advanced degree just yet.

Mary Ann Benson, USM assistant director of career services, said that while Merrick and McKenney are reflective of some students' experiences, her office's message hasn't changed much this year. "It's probably going to take longer (to find a job) than in previous years," she said, "but if students are persistent and they network, they should be just fine."

Benson said she hasn't seen too many students saying there's nothing available at all, or that people absolutely aren't hiring because of the economy. Though this year's spring job fair attracted fewer vendors – 53 compared to last year's 95 – she said the job market in Maine hasn't changed much. It's a small market anyway, she said, so there wasn't much room for it to get any tighter.

The biggest reason Benson has found that students aren't getting jobs is that they're not being proactive. "And you just can't get a job that way, even in the best of markets," she said.

And not everyone is so uncertain. Benson said lots of USM students work their way through school, which means that many of them already have jobs. Others had internships this semester, and have been asked to stay on.

Some, like Kristopher Fecteau, 22, will simply postpone the job search by going to grad school. Fecteau said that while he'd planned on staying in school anyway, the economy thwarted any thoughts he might have had about looking for a job with his undergraduate degree. And, as it turns out, he'll make more money as a student than he might have otherwise – as a chemistry graduate student and teacher's assistant, he's got scholarships to cover his tuition and an income that will more than pay his living expenses.

Fecteau, Merrick and McKenney will all walk in USM's 129th commencement this Saturday, May 16, at the Cumberland County Civic Center. They will be joined by about 900 other graduates, according to university spokesman Bob Caswell. That number is down by about 100 from last year, which is reflective of lower enrollment levels. 

After several years of declining enrollment, Caswell said next year's levels are expected to remain steady, at around 10,000 students. The leveling off, he said, could be in part because of the economy, which has historically driven people toward education and new careers, but also because of stepped-up marketing efforts over the past year.

Joining the ranks of these southern Maine college graduates are the nearly 1,100 who graduated from the University of New England last weekend. Bowdoin College, which has not yet announced how many will graduate this year, will celebrate commencement in Brunswick on May 23.

Sarah Trent can be reached 781-3661 ext. 108 or at strent@theforecaster.net.

Where to now?

Where to now?
Photo:
Stephen Dorsey of Portland waves to a friend as he walks out of the Cumberland County Civic Center on Saturday, May 9, as a University of New England graduate. Members of the Class of 2009 are likely to face economic and career challenges not seen by college grads for decades. (Michael Barriault photo)
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