Trying to Move Beyond the 'Reality Bites' View of Job Prospects

What do you want to be when you grow up?" At the age of 6, the question seemed simple enough and, for the most part, others grinned when I answered, "Batman or Spiderman."

Fifteen years later, as I prepare for my final year in college, I answer that question with a little more hesitation. Cruise-ship cabana boy and professional wrestler now top the list - answers that either evoke an understanding nod from peers or a look of disgust for having trivialized an otherwise serious question.

My seemingly carefree approach to this topic stems not from a rosy outlook on life but instead from true insecurity and indecision about my future.

In the early half of this decade, Gen-X horror stories (see Winona Ryder's movie "Reality Bites") painted a shocking picture for the next wave of college students - the prospect of unemployment despite four years and thousands of dollars for a college degree.

With mounting loan debts, many Gen-Xers needed to quickly jump on the career track. Employers, however, sought "experience," the insurmountable paradox that my generation heard about time and again from older siblings and acquaintances who moved back home to assess their options.

Indeed, a recent study at Florida State University indicates that 88 percent of employers believe previous related work experience is key in hiring new staff.

Understanding that a college degree does not entitle graduates to the good life, millions of students now spend their summers gaining the valuable experience needed through internships to help them avoid that Catch-22.

Because of heightened competition, the internship process has evolved into a time-consuming search for the ideal situation - a fascinating city and interesting work.

The summer internship search is now an annual ritual throughout college campuses across the nation. Usually beginning around winter break, potential interns scour guides, talk with friends who have interned, and, as a final alternative, make the rounds at all the retail stores and restaurants at the mall.

Back on campus, a "running of the undergrads" ensues as students rush to meet application deadlines only to run into an even longer waiting period. Most coast through the semester if they secure a job by March.

The rest brush off the monkey suits for another summer of waiting tables. A typical conversation during spring finals begins, "So, what are you up to this summer?" I've recently used "Rodeo Clown" to fend off the inevitable discussion about "life."

Although an arduous task, finding and participating in a summer internship provides students with a sense of their professional skills and exposes them to career tracks never before considered.

My first internship, a newspaper job in Washington, paved the way for my next summer on Capitol Hill. While there, I learned about public relations and the duties of the press secretary. skills which I am building on this summer at a PR firm in New York.

For me, an ideal career would be a hybrid of all those jobs. Each has provided me with valuable insight toward on goals for post-college life and put me in touch with professionals who have provided influential advice. My summer work has also convinced me of one thing: We've got it easy in college.

America's job market welcomed the class of 1998 with open arms. If all goes well, the annual intern frenzy will have been worthwhile. Otherwise, I'll be heading out to sea wearing an orange wig and oversized shoes.

* Phil A. Olaya will be a senior at Tulane University in New Orleans. He is majoring in international relations and English and can be e-mailed at: polaya@mailhost.tcs.

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