A step forward ... a glance back

As graduates leave the ivory tower, several reflect on how the past

For most members of the class of 1999, the college years were not about sitting under a tree with a book. Their ethos was forged in the fires of campus turmoil over alcohol abuse and cheating, affirmative action, and mountainous student debt.

As they sweat in cap and gown, waiting for inspiring words, a handshake, and a laser-printed diploma, the approximately 1.2 million students who will earn bachelor's degrees this spring are pondering ways to lasso a career that satisfies humanitarian ideals yet repays huge loans.

It wasn't always this way. At the turn of the last century, college just wasn't a big issue for most Americans. The model then was the self-made man, not the college-educated man. Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller - none of whom had attended college - were icons of the age.

"Hardly anybody went to college" at the turn of the century, says Frederick Rudolph, professor of history at Williams College, Williamstown, Mass., and author of "American College and University: A History."

But the 20th century has changed all that. To ever-greater numbers of people, a college degree is a crucial if expensive ticket to economic success.

But even those footing the bill still hold a certain reverence for the college experience as a time to dream a little, explore a lot, and ponder big questions that for a time seem solvable.

And indeed, many of those that are graduating are reviewing sharpened goals and ideals, and reflecting on perspectives that often differ significantly from those they walked onto campus with as a freshman.

No more 'New York in black'

"I still want to be a writer," declares Shannon Wright, who graduates Friday from Wellesley College in the Massachusetts town of the same name, and Hillary Rodham Clinton's alma mater. "But I want to work for a newspaper back home and bring more texture to stories about race and poverty. There's a lot of that to write about in Texas."

And that's a big change, she explains.

"When I came here from high school I thought I would be high profile as a writer," Ms. Wright says. "I was going to be very witty and sophisticated and go to New York and wear all black. But now my sense is more that I want to serve other people and if people never know my name, that's OK."

Her outlook began to change shortly after she arrived. A religion major and devout Southern Baptist, Ms. Wright says she began to see the value of shedding stereotypes of intolerance and investigating others' beliefs. She joined the school's multifaith council and now counts close friends from many religions. Her values remained strong, but her outlook shifted.

"I found my own thinking tremendously challenged by people who had tremendous integrity in their own faith," she says. "I was forced to reevaluate what it means to be a Christian. Is it really just a matter of belief? How much is action? And how do you synthesize those things?"

For her, synthesis means working in a Houston homeless shelter this summer. And shortly after, she will hunt for a job in journalism. And as for so many in the Class of 1999, the real challenge is not simply getting a job with the right pay - but finding one with the right values.

Wright will have no college debt. That's why she's hunting for a job to "repay the debt" of being born into a privileged family.

Paying his way

Jeremy Hoffman knows all about debt, too - the other kind.

When he graduates in August from the University of Colorado at Boulder he will be lugging along $14,000 in college loans - not that bad by today's standards. He has friends, he says, who are graduating $40,000 in the hole - some of them paying for college with cash advances from credit cards.

"I always had an intellectual appreciation for the financial pressure a lot of people face when they go to college," he says. "I had friends who had been living that life. Then I began paying for school and experienced it myself, what it's like to be on campus juggling so many things and to go home and be so tired you're too exhausted to study."

Of course, he could have been mired just as deeply as his friends, he figures. Tuition, room, board, fees, and other costs after he transferred in his third year to Colorado totalled about $100,000 for five years. And he paid the last two years of school himself.

The reason his debts are low, he says, is that he made a conscious choice to work 35 hours a week while taking a full course load. He did it despite the negative impact on his grades.

"There's no question it affected my academic performance," he says. "After a while, it was no longer my aspiration to achieve pretty-looking grades. The focus became graduation. I could have gotten higher grades if I wanted to take out more debt."

But his major was ethnic studies and he wanted to go into "nonprofit, social-change, or activism work - community-based work," he says.

With these career goals, he reasoned, he might never make enough money to pay off big loans. He dreaded the thought of a big-pay career he hated. So, the lower-level of debt gives him the freedom to choose a lower-paying career.

"It's not like I'm going to look down on my friends who may work for Ernst & Young," he says. "I just wanted to be able to make my own decision not limited by debt. I wanted to be able to take a job that pays $24,000 and not be forced to take something that paid more. I want to do community-based work. A lot of people can't afford that."

Ideals clashing with reality

Matthew Cole just graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a degree in environmental studies. He recalls arriving with big hopes and expectation at a big school. And quickly having a reality check.

"Your freshman year you come in with an idealized view of yourself and college that rapidly deteriorates under the pressure of real life," he says. "I saw lots of people cheating and binge drinking. It bugged me."

His own internal compass kept him from cheating. But he admits that he still managed to get sucked into heavy drinking on occasion. After becoming ill once too often, he decided to quit bingeing. That was two years ago.

"There are people wrapped up in the drinking culture, it becomes a default setting for what you do," he says. "For me, it just got extremely boring."

His goals: "I'm involved with environmental conservation. We have sprawling cities all over this country and there's a lot of confusion over how to deal with it. I'm going to Seattle to get involved with a social forestry program and learn about land-use planning."

The key lesson he learned?

"The school part of college is easy," he says. "The hard part is learning the social lessons and integrating them, dealing with professors and friends, enemies, different perspectives - it's the Internet of life."

A focus on intellectual challenges

For Luba Waszczur, who graduated last week from the University of Chicago, the last four years have been an exploration of her innate love for the French language - as well as challenging new friendships, volunteer work, and reveling in intellectual freedom.

"When you're in high school you think of college as a place where you're going to meet so many people, find an apartment, attend parties, and be independent," she says. "But what happened to me here is so different."

Instead of an apartment, she enjoyed her years making close friends in a dormitory. Instead of blowing off time, Ms. Waszczur and her friends found themselves volunteering, helping inner-city school children with homework. Instead of wild beer bashes, her friends enjoyed more cerebral entertainment - playing board games, for instance.

"The University of Chicago is unique, I think," she says. "To us, a party might be sitting around wondering whether the fourth-year students or the first-years will win at Trivial Pursuit. I know drinking goes on. But I found that everything from fun to our studies is much more focused around the individual and making our own discoveries."

One discovery she made early on was that she was not interested in pursuing public policy as a major, as she thought she might. Instead, she shifted to studying French.

"My parents emigrated from Ukraine when I was an infant," she says. "While they knew English very well, the focus at home was to speak Ukrainian. Somehow, though, the language I fell in love with was French."

Now that she has graduated, she is often ribbed by friends and relatives who want to know just what she is going to do with a degree in Romance languages and literature. Yet the fierce independence she has picked up at the University of Chicago has made her certain she will inevitably find a job using her French every day.

She could teach. But she likes to think there may be something else waiting for her.

"Whatever I do with the language, I want to do it on a day-to-day basis," she says. "Whether that means working in the United States, or Canada, or France - I'll just have to see how things go. I'm not anxious.... I can make a decision in five minutes. I'll know it when I see it."

One of her lasting impressions of college life will be its diversity.

"There's no pressure to be one thing or another. I grew up Eastern Orthodox - still am - but I can't tell you the world of good it has done to have heated discussions with one friend who is [Roman] Catholic. We like to challenge each other, and like to know it's all to the same purpose - there's just different ways of going about it. I think you develop a better understanding of people by ... living next door to someone who is Muslim or Catholic."

*E-mail comments to claytonm@csps.com

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