Pop goes the bubble: Students get lesson in 'Life 101'

Randy Bartlett begins the session with a diagram.

He wants to show the details of the weekend's graduation ceremony, he says, and uncovers the blackboard to reveal a stick-figure drawing: A person walking across the stage, receiving a diploma, and shaking hands – then having her protective bubble punctured as she is pushed off the platform onto a crude drawing of the earth.

The sketch elicits laughs from the packed assembly hall of soon-to-be Smith College graduates, but they quickly buckle down and give Dr. Bartlett, an economics professor, rapt attention. Any teacher who's struggled before a sea of sleepy students would be envious of the spirited questions and assiduous notetaking that this discussion of IRAs, tax rates, and compounding interest is prompting.

This three-hour "financial boot camp," part of Smith's Women and Financial Independence Program, sheds light on just one aspect of something that reduces many college seniors to jello: life after college.

Faced with criticism that they send students out into the world fluent in Shakespeare but illiterate in practical matters, many colleges are starting to offer such classes, whether as afternoon sessions or full-fledged noncredit courses called something like "Life 101."

During a break, the Smith students are enthusiastic. Nellie Taylor, a computer-science major from Wakefield, Mass., says she just got a job teaching at a nearby prep school, and knows she'll have good benefits. "My concern is starting to set up everything," she says. "I want to have a secure financial future. I learned so much today." The lecture on compounding interest has already convinced her to put at least $100 a month into a retirement account.

Her friend Monica Van Buskirk, an athletic-looking woman in a cowboy hat and white tank top, agrees, but is less certain of her immediate plans. She wants to teach, or maybe to write, and thinks she'll stay in Northampton next year and eventually move out West.

"I'm worried about budgeting. I lived off campus this year – phone bills were always more than I thought, and I didn't realize I'd have to pay for Internet access," she says, ticking off a list of the items she'll have to cover next year: cable TV, groceries, Internet, utilities.

More than the budget, though, Ms. Van Buskirk is worried about finding the kind of community that's important to her. Perhaps she should look into writing clubs, she muses.

Already, she's wondering how adapting to a workplace might change her interactions: "If you say something that you'd say around here, like, 'This is obviously a social construct in a misogynistic situation,' you'd have no friends.... You have to learn how to talk like a real person."

During the session, the questions keep coming: Can I pay my college loans with a credit card? Let's say I have a "friend" who was bad about paying her phone bills on time – how long does the bad credit follow her? What's a Roth IRA?

Laura Castellano, from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., shakes her head in bewilderment. "I'm an American studies major. I didn't even have a math course [during college]. We don't know any of this."

Her friend Dana Yeakel, seated next to her, agrees. She's moving home to Seattle to look for a job in banking or investment management. "We come to this school, and they tell you that we'd get a job no matter what, as graduates of Smith." She sighs, thinking about what the next year will bring.

"Smith is a very thick bubble," she says.

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