A Degree in Debt

With a mix of confidence, elation, and a side of exhaustion, Arber Doci entered his apartment in a suit and tie with bags still in hand. The 8-hour drive back from Washington, D.C., was clearly taxing as he struggled over the threshold. Ever so stoic, he sighed in preparation of the question, “How did everything go?”

For the better part of a week, Arber Doci, a senior electrical engineering major at UMass Amherst was visiting the nation’s capital to meet with big wigs in the Department of Homeland Security. His self-started business, Arbcor, is working to get federal support and funding in order to begin operations.

“I think it went well. I met with a lot of people and I’m just hoping that they’ll be able to help me out,” he said as he reached in the poured himself a glass of water.

Unlike most seniors preparing to graduate, Arber is looking to follow a different path post-grad. Instead of hunting for job opportunities, Arber is creating his own.

As a graduating senior myself, I worry about the opportunities that are available in a struggling economy. In 2011, unemployment for recent college graduates stood at 5.2% – up from 2.4% in 2007. Of all of those college graduates 9.1% have already defaulted on their student loans according to the Department of Education.

When faced with grim statistics, Arber simply said, “I feel good. Given my major, I don’t see an issue getting a job. There’s no shortage of jobs for electrical engineering.” He’s probably right. Studies by the National Association of Colleges and Employersve shown that employers are looking to hire in 13% more from the class of 2013 in fields like engineering, business, and computers.

Arber also mentioned that he feels financially secure. “I got paid the first 2 years to come here through scholarships. And you have to be smart about how you pay your debt.”

Those who chose to study topics not in the booming fields of math, science, or business have vastly different outlooks on graduation. Pat O’Neil, a senior communications major, says he is “scared to death about the job market.”

With such a broad area of study, competition becomes varied and stiffer. Pat says his area of focus, broadcast journalism, is a “dying breed, especially in radio.” He continued saying “it’s definitely a tough situation. It’s frightening.”

Although he is worried about finding work, Pat wasn’t worried about defaulting on his loans. “Coming from an upper middle class family, I feel that my family wouldn’t allow me to default on my debt.”

Family aid isn’t so surprising either. Reports show that 17% of graduates financially depend on their families. Another 33% report that they moved back in with their parents after graduation.

Pat mentioned, “if I could get a job in my backyard, obviously I’d move in with my parent. There’s no cooking better than Mom’s and Dad is always there to talk about anything.”

Arber felt very much the opposite. He said, “My parents try to give me money now and I never take it. I think after a certain age you should be able to take care of yourself so I don’t plan on being dependent on my parents.”

While students like Pat fear for their futures in a tough job market, there is still a glimmer of hope. Many such as Pat and Arber, believe that they will come out on top.

Sofia Barbosa is very optimistic, if not idealistic about her future. In the midst of her senior year as a marketing student, she transferred from Eastern Nazarene College to MassArt where she is now a freshman studying graphic design.

Her change of pace came from the revelation that she wants “to be a part of the design and branding team instead of selling what’s already been made.”

The biggest challenge for Sofia before switching schools was whether or not she will have better chances finding a job in graphic design compared to marketing.

“I decided that I’m ambitious, and where ever I find myself, I’ll make it work to the best of my potential. So I voted on quality of liver over perceived job stability,” she said in an online interview.

With the economy in its current state and job holders reporting that they are underemployed and overqualified, people like Sofia fear that they will get stuck in a position where they cannot advance.

“I’d be discouraged if after a few years of holding a degree, I didn’t get any serious job offers other than working at Starbucks,” she said. “I’m scared, but I would always be pushing myself for something else. Something better, or different.”

While those who are preparing for the real world collectively worry about finding work that will be valuable to their career, those who have already graduated have a different outlook.

“I feel that relative to a graduate from 4 years ago, there’s quite a bit more opportunities now than there was,” said Jordan Bennett, a graduate of the fall class of 2011.

Jordan began working immediately after his graduation at a “small product design company in Foxboro, MA, doing project management.” This opportunity was a result of networking he said from a job he had while abroad in London, England.

Jordan’s case is atypical, though, as the majority of graduates do not have work already lined up pre-graduation.

Alex Schneider, a graduate of the spring of 2012, said it wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be. “It took me a couple of months before I actually looked seriously for job. I got pretty lucky, I got hired on my second interview.”

Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned from these experiences. Jordan Bennett and Alex Schneider graduated only a semester apart from one another and nearly a year before Arber Doci and Pat O’Neil.

Unemployment rates have gone down in the last few months and the atmosphere is a little less grim and a lot more optimistic. Jordan mentioned that the difficulty for recent graduates and upcoming graduates is that “they lack experience and most jobs are looking for experience.”

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