From house to homelessness

In the recession, all roads lead to home

Missoula native Melissa Meyer never expected that she would return home to Montana to rethink her future plans. After graduating Summa Cum Laude from George Washington University, moving home has become an unexpected time out to rethink future plans and the various roads she could take in the coming year.
By Eli Saslow
Friday, November 20, 2009; 6:36 PM

MISSOULA, MONT. -- Her parents redecorated her bedroom soon after she left for college, as sure as everyone else in this town that Melissa Meyer would not be moving back. They took down the photos of Melissa meeting the Dalai Lama and laughing alongside Joe Biden, placing them in the closet. They packed away dozens of high school honor certificates -- valedictorian, class president, outstanding chemistry student -- and stored them in plastic boxes under the bed.

Melissa had always been too big for this town, her father liked to say. She was editor of the school newspaper, an intern in the U.S. Senate and the only student from Sentinel High School's class of 2005 to attend college on the East Coast. On her rare visits home from George Washington University, longtime friends liked to tease her: "Hey, Melissa, are you president yet?"

So, how to explain this? Each morning, Melissa wakes up in her old bedroom, scans the foreign decor and thinks: This is the guest room now. I am the guest. I am not supposed to be here.

She graduated magna cum laude from the GW Business School in May, applied for 30 jobs at some of the nation's best-known companies, and it went nowhere. After visiting the campus career center and redesigning her résumé, she applied for 10 more. Still nothing. The lease expired on her Foggy Bottom apartment in June. There was no place to go but home, with a collection of rejection letters and a haunting sense of betrayal. For 23 years, she had advanced down America's path to success -- perfect grades, a $200,000 college degree, a folder overstuffed with business cards -- only to have it dead-end back where she started.

"What was the point?" she asks.

For Melissa, that question is the legacy of the recession as she rises one Tuesday morning in early fall and begins her day with the same routine that defined her adolescence. She rummages through the refrigerator, eats leftovers from a dinner party her parents threw the night before and then retreats upstairs to prepare for a fill-in shift at the same job she held throughout high school. After changing into cowboy boots and a skirt, she borrows her parents' car and drives three minutes to work at Rockin Rudy's, a record store with a peace sign hanging at the entrance.

The shop smells of incense. Classic rock plays through speakers. Customers come and go in tie-dyed T-shirts as Melissa stands behind a register and rings up CDs, bandanas and a gigantic bronze frog.

Midway through her shift, a man approaches the counter ready to buy three necklaces. He introduces himself as a palm reader. Melissa sticks out her hand.

"I know nothing about my future," she says.

* * *

Once, she thought she knew exactly what to expect. She would follow the same direct path to achievement as her father, a partner in his own accounting firm; as her mother, a public health nurse; as her sister, a Truman scholar pursuing a doctorate; as her brother, a pioneering accountant in Australia. For the Meyer family, success had always been defined as a straight line: education, career, hard work and a salary big enough to provide the next generation with a head start toward the same goals.

With that tradition in mind, Melissa applied for a handful of positions during the first semester of her senior year at GW and earned interviews with Procter & Gamble, Deloitte and General Electric. After a few hopeful weeks, she received similar e-mails from all three companies explaining that they were no longer hiring.

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