Into the (New) Real World
Graduates of the Recession Open Up
By Geneva Hooten ’11
Our twenties are the years of big decisions: decisions about where to live, who to spend time with, where to work, what to care about and how to care about it. These are the years of self-discovery, of trial and error, and of experiencing a new independence. It’s adulthood.
And while entering adulthood is an experience shared across time and geography, I will dare to summarize that the Willamette College of Liberal Arts class of 2011, alongside our peers from 2008–2012, is in an unusual position compared to many other years of CLA graduates. We are not only experiencing the growing pains of adult life — car buying, leases, salary negotiations, online dating, making new friends, moving cross-country or internationally, health insurance, graduate school — but we are doing this at a time when the country is slowly climbing out of a deep recession.
This is the crux of being a recent Willamette graduate: we are at once privileged and burdened.
For example, having accessed the resources that a private liberal arts university like Willamette provides, my peers and I also feel the tug of today’s economic reality and the weight of student loans we are expected to repay. While we are grateful for these opportunities, it is noteworthy that a Willamette education, like most others around the country, is now coupled with debt that slowly erodes at financial stability while hindering long-term saving and investment. This is the harsh truth of post-secondary private education: It is a worthwhile but costly endeavor.
My friend and fellow economics major Mary Masla ’11 reminded me recently that “the traditions and structures of the last decades aren’t working, so how lucky are we that our generation could make great change?” And she’s right. This might be one of our charges as Willamette graduates: Knowing first-hand our privileges and burdens, can we bring about the changes we want to see in the world? Can we afford it?
The Willamette Project
I wanted to understand how my peers were doing a year after graduating, so I created the Willamette Project, a forum for highlighting my class’s commonalities and differences as we have spread out around the world and settled into new cities and new routines. I remain interested in documenting shared attitudes, struggles and triumphs, and I plan to continue the project into the future. It will culminate in a 10-year retrospective following repeat surveys at the five- and 10-year marks.
This kernel of an idea has turned into something much bigger and more meaningful than I had imagined. More than 110 of my classmates responded to a 25-question survey during the summer, based loosely on the Marcel Proust Questionnaire, as made popular on the last page of Vanity Fair magazines. Questions covered basic updates (Where are you now? What are you doing with yourself these days?), as well as people’s experiences at Willamette (Your favorite class? What did Willamette teach you?). A third set targeted people’s visions of happiness and fulfillment (Your dream job? Your goal for the next year?). It was this third set that shed light on the most interesting aspects of my peers’ lives.
Since walking across the stage at graduation, we have experienced, in general, a whirl of international travel, working, volunteering, attending graduate school, dating, falling in love, moving and much more than can, or should, be captured in a questionnaire. In reading my peers’ responses, I was struck by the diversity of their experiences.
I have friends studying law and medicine, friends at the front lines of political movements, friends leading campaigns, friends pursuing advanced degrees, friends leading entrepreneurial efforts, friends traveling outside the U.S., and friends struggling to find work that challenges them.
We are thankful for a Willamette education that fortified our resolution to succeed. Willamette taught us to be lifelong learners, to realize our goals through hard work, to build community, to promote change, and to surround ourselves with people from whom we can continue to learn and be challenged. Willamette taught us how to care about something bigger than ourselves and to deeply understand the motto.
In the end, what stands out are the resilience and headstrong confidence of my classmates, despite a poor economy and low employment. We believe, collectively, that a positive future is possible for us, but we also know that finding it takes more than a degree and a good resume. It takes finesse, creativity, and good connections — and the ability to see the value in doing something we believe in, not just producing income.
We are now applying the lessons of the last four years. The 400-plus graduates of 2011 have spiraled out along different paths but seem to be linked together by several common themes: creativity, community and resilience.
The following nine graduates help articulate these themes:
Kaeley Pruitt-Hamm ’11 embodies creativity. While at Willamette she created her own major — international conflict and communications — while also co-founding a female a cappella group, Up Top, and doing research in Rwanda through Lilly Foundation and College Colloquium grants. She now uses her education and enthusiasm to train high school students in nonviolent direct action as the assistant director of the Peace Activist Trainee Program with the Western Washington Fellowship of Reconciliation in Seattle. She also has worked as the outreach coordinator for the Bring Our Billions Home Campaign, which has involved collaborating with groups of veterans, student-debt activists and Occupy activists to protest in “flash mob” fashion around the state.
“People at Willamette, like our late professor Nacho Cordova, taught me how to search for the root of a problem,” she says. “Now I have that habit as I try to make a career out of being an activist and community organizer.”
Making a career out of activism has meant working three paid jobs at a time — from restaurant work to phone banking to nannying — to help pay off student loans and medical bills. It’s a creative approach to the perennial challenge of finding meaningful work that pays well enough.
Willamette taught Steven Morrison ’11 “how to deal with administrations.” At Willamette, Morrison was the general manager of the Bistro and has since worked at TriMet as a bus operator while auditing history classes at Portland State University. Most recently, he and another recent graduate, Joseph Provencher ’11, started Rose City Coffee Company. Using bureaucratic and entrepreneurial finesse, the two have turned a small personal investment into a specialty coffee roasting company.
“We continue to network with other roasters and potential clients,” Morrison says. “We are perfecting our own packaging, doing all the accounting, and exploring new avenues for sales.”
The pair have used their creativity and dedication to transform a vision into a reality.
Leaving the “Willamette bubble” has meant going without the constant opportunities for socialization on the way to class or to the library. We now must actively kindle new relationships while making concerted efforts to see friends outside of work. It is, after all, the people in our lives who are most important and deserving of our time.
Meryl Hulse ’11, an anthropology major interning with HealthRight International in New York City, appreciates that her “closest friends are all extremely gifted listeners. They’re insightful. They’re inspired in ways that I often wish I could be.” Out of Willamette she has to work a lot harder to foster and maintain relationships.
Natalia Povelite ’11, another anthropology major, wrote that “Willamette taught me the importance of being part of a community, and of serving that community to the best of my ability.” During the summer, Natalia worked as an intern for the Sitka Conservation Society. She is serving her community through a writing project focused on how people in Southeast Alaska live with the land and protect the Tongass National Forest. For her, community goes deeper than an immediate circle of friends: It is about the people and the land.
Dave Reid ’11 graduated with a major in history and has been working for Teach for America in rural Mississippi since June 2011. I met him through our work as resident assistants our sophomore year. He writes, “Willamette taught me a lot about community. When I look back at my time there, what I remember is a series of micro-communities. They may have been based on academic or social interests, and students may have been a part of many of them, but those communities strongly shaped our experience.” He now finds that building new communities is necessary to effectively do his job and be happy.
Similar to Natalia, Colin Wilson ’11, a biology major, has found that his interactions with the people he works and learns with “are in many ways just as important as what you’re working on and learning — if not more.” He works as a “part-time researcher, part-time adventurer,” studying plant molecular biology with Willamette professor Gary Tallman and collecting data for his own animal behavior research project with professor Emma Coddington. Along the way he has found that his environment, and his community, impact his learning and success.
Today, resilience seems as important as anything else. Kevin Burfeind ’11 writes that at Willamette he learned that “anything is possible, but you have to pursue it and put in hard work.” Kevin studied exercise science and was also involved in orthopedic and biomedical technology research at Legacy Hospital. He now works at a neurologic physical therapy clinic and is applying to medical school.
Hannah Harper ’11, a Truman Scholar and researcher with professor Joyce Millen on a National Science Foundation-funded project, learned that “you can find a way to make almost anything happen as long as you have determination and perseverance.” Hannah is an incredible role model — she is turning her passion for medical anthropology into new research opportunities and hands-on medical work, effectively creating a place and a role for herself.
And about me: I’m interested in making it possible for people to lead full lives without cars; this broad idea turned first into an internship at C-TRAN and then into a transit analyst position at the Oregon Department of Transportation. I now work as a transportation planner at a multidisciplinary consulting firm, David Evans and Associates, Inc., where I develop transit and mobility strategies. Had I not been exposed to the enormously diverse body of research and interests across campus and seen for myself the types of interesting work Willamette alumni have turned into careers, I would not have thought planning work to be a realistic possibility for myself, especially right out of college.
We recent graduates see that there are endless possibilities to make constructive changes — whether through a rural teaching position, or community organizing, or simply being an active part of a community. Although debt payments loom and the future is unpredictable, we understand that our successes are made, not guaranteed.
When it comes down to it, our degrees are as strong as our personal resilience and willingness to work, create and adapt. This is what I find so exciting and hopeful: we have the reservoir of skills and curiosities to propel us forward to find meaning for ourselves and ignite positive change.
The conversation about cost and student debt is ongoing. One resource from our past coverage is this article, written by Arnie Yasinski, vice president of financial affairs and treasurer, which explains a few of the considerations that go into cost and pricing in higher education today. Among his useful observations is the fact that college, to put it simply, "is a very different thing than it was 50 years ago."
Also, consider a note penned by our partners in the Office of Admission, meant for incoming families, explaining some of the cost challenges every school faces today, and what Willamette has done to stand out of the pack.