This year's graduates blend realism, ideals

A class that entered college before 9/11 and the Iraq war brings pragmatism to uncertain future.

Like many students in the class of 2004, Julien Raffinot began college four years ago believing that American life was on automatic pilot.

The tech bubble hadn't burst. The stock market was a global wonder. Even after the attack of the USS Cole that fall, the name Osama bin Laden registered only as a minor blip on the national psyche.

Mr. Raffinot, who graduates this summer from The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a bit jaded about the US and its role in the world.

"My awareness of injustice has been heightened," says Raffinot, "but so has my skepticism about whether I can change anything."

Raffinot is emblematic of his generation. He saw America's economic colossus stumble under the weight of false dotcom expectations and corporate corruption.

He winced as commercialism pervaded popular culture. Sept. 11 jolted his sense of place in the world, and ensuing wars and occupations have prompted him to rethink what he once took for granted, including his career.

The students who enter the "real world" this summer have, in part, been made more cynical by these seismic events. But many of them who studied in the Boston area, the de facto capital of collegiate America, admit to a new way of looking at the world.

Of course, they are most concerned with finding a job, a place to live, and establishing a social life. But their awareness of their country and world are uniquely deep. From budding jazz musicians to mechanical engineers, their overall posture might best be described as wary idealism.

"It might mean taking a few years and doing some nonprofit work somewhere in the world," says Raffinot. "But I'm not sure I'll be tempted to go see the worst of it firsthand."

Generations of Americans have often been defined by traumatic world events. What many viewed as a meaningless world war alienated the "lost generation" of the 1920s. War in Vietnam had a similar effect in the '60s.

The national introspection resulting from Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq are the context from which the class of 2004 is rethinking its role in the world.

Katusha Galitzine began to pursue what she calls her "radical agenda" shortly after Sept. 11.

By the fall of 2002, the Emerson College graduate began protesting the build-up for war in Iraq. New friends taught her about labor issues. She soon began advocating for higher faculty salaries.

"My reaction to [Sept. 11] was to learn as much as I could about international relations and politics in general," says Ms. Galitzine, who plans to go to law school and become active in politics. "You began to feel guilty if you didn't have a hold of what was going on."

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where future chemical engineers outnumber would-be diplomats 10 to one, world events influenced students' course selections.

Computer science major Elizabeth Boyle took a class in the technology of weapons systems, primarily because of the media's focus on the military. Yet world events didn't shake her career focus. "I think a lot of us weren't going to give up a lot in order to do activism," says Ms. Boyle.

Many MIT seniors went into college hearing of the riches awarded grads from the class of 2000, from six-figure salaries to rent-free condos.

"I was caught up in the start-up business early," says Lux Lou Chen, who worked for a new Internet company during the summer after his second year.

The computer science major says his fellow classmates are now accepting just about any reasonable job offer that comes their way.

Prospects have picked up, says Mr. Chen, who will work at the Seattle-based Internet retailer Amazon.com later this year. But students are concerned about economic trends - notably outsourcing.

"Our professors would constantly remind us that high-level management skills won't be outsourced," says Chen.

Despite their seriousness, these students say pop culture played a greater role in their lives during their four years. For some, keeping up with TV and music trends was as important as following the class syllabus. MIT senior Maria Stiteler points to reality-based TV as a fundamental part of her college experience.

"We eventually had a 'trashy TV night' every Tuesday," says Stiteler, an engineering student.

Ms. Boyle - who owns a cellphone, Palm Pilot, digital camera, and laptop computer - says music file sharing became ubiquitous at MIT. "I don't know anyone who doesn't do it," says Boyle.

Yet it was also the music industry's push to shut down the file-sharing website Napster that gave many in this generation a more balanced view of corporate America and pop culture.

Eric André changed his major to music business from song writing shortly after the Napster conflict. The recent graduate of the Berklee College of Music found a need to arm himself in a line of work that turned out to be more profit driven than he imagined.

"I figured I wanted to learn as much about the business side so I wouldn't be screwed as an artist," says Mr. André.

Overall, many of these graduates believe their institutions became more conservative while they went through school. They credit the shift to the nation's changing political climate, and the "corporatization" of American life, including academia.

It's this culture shift that could take Raffinot overseas for several years. After vacationing in Europe this summer, he will consider staying indefinitely if Bush wins reelection. (He is among the many students here who utter the name "Bush" as though he is the root of all social ills.)

Regardless of whether he comes back home, Raffinot knows that the past four years have provoked questions with which he'll be wrestling for a lifetime. They hinge on balancing self-expression with doing good in the world.

"To find any opportunity to make my artistic interest and political interests converge - that might be a lifelong struggle," says Raffinot.

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