The Class of 2007 was the last to finish college before the recession hit. Five years later, those graduates are returning to alma maters for their first milestone reunion — and reflecting on cruel economic times.
Here at Dickinson College in south-central Pennsylvania, at open bars and formal dinners, they swapped stories about the challenge of establishing careers and lives when great jobs are so hard to find.
“When we graduated, we were all chomping at the bit to get out of here and change the world,” said Katie Fox, 27, who took out loans to pay for Dickinson, where her fields were sociology and environmental studies, and is borrowing more for a graduate degree in regional planning from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “We’re still trying to figure that out.”
At a reunion in early June at this private liberal arts college, the young alumni slept in dorms, hit up older alumni for career advice and stayed out until the bars closed.
This class first met in fall 2003, when jobs seemed plentiful, if you had a degree. George W. Bush was president, and Sept. 11 was a horrible Tuesday morning in their junior year of high school. Dorms had land lines, and cellphones were for making calls, not text messaging or checking e-mail. Their college days were marked by Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, the television finale of “Sex and the City,” the debut of Facebook.
In some ways, the Class of 2007 was the last one to have it easy. It graduated into a workforce with an unemployment rate below 5 percent. For the Class of 2009, the rate was at 9.5 percent. Now, it is just above 8 percent.
Still, many ’07 grads have been unemployed or underemployed. Some move on to graduate school, others move back into their childhood bedrooms. They have perfected the art of writing LinkedIn résumés, Craigslist roommate ads and online dating profiles. Their professional buzzwords include furlough, freeze, internship, layoff, entrepreneurship and social-media consultant.
Dickinson President William G. Durden said the graduates are striving to make their mark.
“There’s an efficiency to them, and that should be praised,” Durden said. “There’s not a sense that everything will work out” on its own.
Of Dickinson’s 562 graduates that year, 183 attended the reunion. Some have settled 100 miles south of the campus, in the Washington region, including an art history major who only recently started a real job, a policy-management major who hasn’t changed jobs in five years and the former student body president, who surprisingly fell out of love with politics.
Five years ago, Stephanie Shapiro had no idea what to do with her life, or her art history and art degrees. She wasn’t ready for a PhD program, but she didn’t have enough experience to get a decent job. She moved home to Baltimore and worked in retail.
“I just didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Shapiro, 26, said. “For me, it was such a hard adjustment being out of college.”
Eventually she decided, like many friends, on graduate school. Shapiro enrolled in George Washington University’s museum studies program and got a full-time job at the university to cover her tuition. That slowed her down by a year, but she wasn’t in a rush.
Shapiro researched museum sustainability practices, worked in internships and explored possible careers in a field hurt by the down economy.
“They want practicality, for you to say you’ve interned here and here and that you can wear 20 different hats,” she said. “But how long do you intern? And how long do you wait to get a job? There’s no simple formula.”
Last fall, Shapiro finished school and started work in the Smithsonian’s office of advancement, where she tracks information about donors. She has her own place, without any roommates. She suddenly feels like an adult.
“I’m still in shock that it has been five years,” Shapiro said, sitting on the porch of a Dickinson coffee shop. “There have been some days that haven’t been easy, but I can’t complain.”
A few months before graduation, Rachel Sondag had a job lined up at an information-technology company in McLean — prompting envy from her sorority sisters.
“No one liked me. I couldn’t talk about it,” Sondag, 26, said. “But it wasn’t like it is now. . . . I don’t know of anybody who didn’t have a job by September.”
With each class that followed, Sondag heard of fewer students with job offers. She heard more about internships and temp work. And the younger students became more aggressive in contacting their networks for tips on openings.
Five years later, Sondag is still working for the same company. Along the way, she earned a graduate degree, got married and bought a house — making her an outlier in a group of friends who are mostly single as they focus on their careers.
So what comes in the next five years?
“Who knows!” Sondag said, sitting at a picnic with a handful of friends. “I’ll probably have a kid. . . . More weddings . . .”
A friend jumped in: “Most people still don’t know what they are doing right now.”
Mike Bilder left Dickinson knowing exactly what he wanted to do. The former student-body president planned to work in politics for a few years, go to law school and someday run for office.
“I’m part of the ‘West Wing’ generation,” said Bilder, 27, referring to the television series about a fictional presidency. “We grew up with Jed Bartlet and thinking that’s how politics worked.”
Seven days after graduation, he had a job in Pennsylvania state politics. A few months later, he was working on a presidential campaign. By 2008, he was working in a congressman’s office on Capitol Hill. The job paid barely $30,000 a year, so Bilder also worked at a hardware store and did handyman jobs.
He quickly became disenchanted with politics.
“I felt like some of us were doing public service and some of us were just trying to get the member reelected,” Bilder said. “I realized that there’s a lot more out there than politics. There’s a lot more out there than just elections.”
In 2010, Bilder enrolled in Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute. With the help of a Dickinson alum, Bilder set up an unpaid internship at the National Weather Service last summer, which eventually turned into a full-time job with a paycheck.
“A year ago — well, a year and a few months ago — if you told me I would be doing this, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Bilder said. “That’s how dynamic the last five years have been.”