“The continuing job crisis is hitting young people especially hard – damaging both their future and the economy,” reports the October 8, 2009 Business Week Cover Story. Is that accurate? What about Hunter students? This is the sixth of several about what Hunter students are saying about their hopes and dreams and struggles.

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The value of an undergraduate degree has been declining for years, according to academic pundits and sages and soothsayers and news articles. The descent reflects, according to the opinionated, what happened to the value of high school diplomas even more years ago when families were being exhorted to prepare their children to go to college years and years before this greatest of recessions has made bleak the finding of a decent job.

Several Hunter students weighed in on their own situations as well as about what they believed their options were. This is the sixth in a series of articles addressing issues raised in a Business Week cover story about the lost generation.

Judging by the tone of his voice over the phone, he had a very long night OF studying and partying, the usual culprits all too familiar for many college students. Work was starting soon. Nick Chamberlain, 22, of Battery Park, Manhattan, said he had no intention of applying for graduate school. “With the economy being as bad as it is, I still shouldn’t have trouble, but I might,” he said about being employed after he graduates.

He said he had a series of internships already lined up. He admitted that not attending graduate school immediately could put him at a disadvantage. “They’re stressing for the best, more education equals better candidate for the job,” he said. A senior majoring in media studies with a minor in sociology, Chamberlain was hoping to pursue a career in online journalism, public relations or broadcast.

“It’s frustrating, most of my friends have been able to secure jobs through who-they-know networking,” said Elizabeth Mary, 28, of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Most of her friends have degrees, though some are self-taught programmers. On the fifth floor of the Hunter West building, Mary spent a moment of her time after leaving her final class of the night. Tall and slender, she was dressed in black boots, worn-out and patched black skinny jeans, and a very abstract sweater, which she jokingly described as child-interactive; her humor was infectious. Due to her stature, sharp chin, and free flowing locks, it was safe to imagine that she was a model, which she described as a career she could fall back on if school doesn’t work out.

Chamberlain said he also has witnessed how powerful networking can be. “If you don’t go to college, you have no chance of getting a job, unless you know someone, which 90 percent of the time accounts to what gets you a job,” he said. Chamberlain was quick to contradict himself. “If you are someone smart, a degree doesn’t matter unless you are doing law or medical, it’s about knowing how to work with people,” he said.

While Mary may envy her friends’ job finding abilities, she realized that networking can only go so far. “It depends, you can’t network to become a lawyer,” she said. At the same time she doubted the value of a diploma. “A diploma is irrelevant, it can be powerful depending on the situation,” she said, when exemplifying a student going from Brooklyn College’s Law School to Columbia Law. “It’s very classist/repellent; it favors rich to become richer,” she said, suggesting that it carries a certain pedigree regarding prestigious Ivy League schools.

A sophomore, currently undeclared as far as a majors was concerned, Mary expressed a concrete idea of what she wanted to pursue. “I will need to go to graduate school, preferably something to do with psychology and writing. I’m very academic, very slanted towards that direction,” she said. She made it very clear she didn’t want to be placed in entry level work, which she described as being stuck in a cubicle, that is, a nonspecific office job.

Last August, New Yorker Trina Thompson sued Bronx’s Monroe College for $70,000, the cost of her college tuition (and other alleged minor expenses), because she couldn’t find employment several months after graduating with a degree in information technology. Mary was baffled when the story was brought to her attention. “It’s amazing, it’s the epitome of what happens in this country: Business first, health care second,” she said. While she didn’t agree with the scenario, she could see how something like that could happen. “A product is promised to make you viable. I see the flaw in logic, but I’m not advocating it,” she said.

According to the New York State Department of Labor, workers with high school diplomas lag behind by over 50 percent in their annual earnings as opposed to those who have obtained bachelor degrees.

“Adults that talk to me compare an undergraduate degree to a high school diploma, it’s required for anything I want to do, you want to go that extra mile,” said Venita Johnson, 21, of the Upper West Side. She was very calm, concise, and often blunt, more often than not, her body language expressing that she was busy and had things to do.

Johnson knelt down in the Hunter North building’s hallways outside of a classroom, despite the black fitted dress she was wearing. Her position looked uncomfortable, but judging from the very large loopy earrings that tugged at her earlobes and her medium length black jacket that kept her warm amidst the brisk and cool hallway, she impressed this writer that nothing would prevent her from reaching her goal. She had a strong demeanor based on the way she carried herself.

“I expect to be interning, doing freelance at radio stations, building contacts. I have to do a lot of free work, you can’t just get a job like that,” she said. Grad school, she said, was not in her plans. A senior, she was majoring in media studies with a minor in theatre. Planning to pursue a career in broadcast journalism, she’s had her fair share of minor hindrances. “My (African-American) professor told me that ‘There is no room for black women in broadcast,’” she said. Despite that caveat, she remained unfazed by the warnings.

Based on surveys done by the Radio Television Digital News Association, in 2007, African Americans represented 10.1 percent of workers in broadcast television.

Anna Schoenenberger, 22, a junior, uses her spare time in between classes to get reading done. Her last name proved to be quite a tongue-twister. It’s German origin couldn’t be anymore obvious. She was seated on the Hunter West building seventh floor with several friends; they were studying. While conversing, she often apologized as her attention zigzagged between the interviewer and her friends. Dressed very obscurely, she sported a knee length gray min-skirt, long purple jacket, black fishnet stockings, and platinum blonde hair that made her all the more mysterious.

“I think it’s important as a stepping stone, more important than a masters degree, more qualified,” she said. Even so, Schoenenberger said she wanted a master’s sometime down the line; she didn’t want her career opportunities to be pigeon-holed. Though German, French culture truly interested her. A Bushwick, Brooklyn, resident, Schoenenberger said she wanted to settle in France and work for the French embassy in either tourism or as a historian. “Becoming a teacher is not an option,” she said.

“I plan on staying in school until my ideas are clear. People are majoring in degrees but end up in a different area of study,” she said. She disagreed with the popular notion that an undergraduate degree was equivalent to a high school diploma. “If you have the heart for it, you don’t need the title,” she said, implying that one can find a way to manage. Startled about the possible aftermath of her college experience, she expressed a strong belief that everything would fall into place. In the worst case scenario, she would fall back on her waitress job, at least until the recession dissipates.

[Editor’s Note: Readers may be interested in the January 10 New York Times article, Recession Spurs Interest in Grad School, Law Schools]


Joseph Gjelaj can be reached at Chichiri702@hotmail.com