Students plan to walk, not run, to their lifework

Whether eager for adventure or cautious about deciding, students take their time.

Deck shoes and sunglasses. That's the kind of work wardrobe Johannes Seywerd will need after he graduates this spring from the University of Vermont (UVM). Why chase a signing bonus when you can chase a wave instead, teaching sailing on Lake Champlain?

It doesn't mean this 20-something hasn't thought beyond the summer. After a season on the water, Mr. Seywerd hopes to teach at an international school somewhere in Europe. And he'll be studying for an entrance exam to dental school, an option for a few years down the road.

Even when the job market is sizzling, many new college grads want to let their career decisions percolate for a while before committing. Whether they're simply eager for adventure or concerned they'll make the wrong choice, their ranks appear to be growing.

"One of our most popular workshops is, basically, 'What can I do after college besides work full time or go to grad school?' " says Kathy Sims, director of the UCLA Career Center. Offered at least once per quarter, it's always full, she says. "There's a wealth of opportunities for graduates who just want a short-term experience.... Our job is to mine them and help students find them."

The range of one- or two-year alternatives is much broader than the well-known service- oriented programs such as the Peace Corps, Ms. Sims says. Graduates are often willing to volunteer or earn just a small stipend, but the pay is sometimes "comparable to first jobs."

A number of campus career centers have embraced this trend in recent years. The job landscape changes so fast that "there really are more decisions for these students to make than there were ... 20 years ago, so in some ways, it's very adaptive," says Pam Gardner, Career Services director at UVM.

The plethora of choices means many students approach post-grad decisions with trepidation.

"There are just so many options and it petrifies me," says Katie Carl, a political science major and biology minor who will be graduating from UVM in December. "Really soon, we're going to have to figure something out.... We're going to have a lot more financial burdens."

A networking event sponsored by UVM Career Services in Washington helped her calm down, Ms. Carl says. "The [alumni speaker] went through 10 job changes in his first couple of years.... He reassured us that it's OK if you don't know exactly right now what you want to do."

As she contemplates her next few years, a few factors are top of mind: "I think a lot about what would make me happy, what kind of job would challenge me, [and what] area of the country I want to be in for this part of my life," Carl says.

In a 2005 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, "enjoying what I do" ranked No. 1 on the list of college seniors' job-hunting criteria.

Gardner's office tries to reach out to students afraid of the "C" word. "When you say 'career,' sometimes it creates a picture of suit and tie, sitting at a desk ... every day for the rest of your life, and they think to themselves, 'Oh my gosh, I'm only 20, I'm not ready to make that decision,' " she says.

She replaced her office's beige furniture with rolling chairs in funky colors, and created more walk-in opportunities so students didn't need to set up an appointment to get advice. A recent panel - "Work for Social Change" - featured five people who had jobs in social work and advocacy. The word "career" was left out of the title on purpose, Gardner says.

In February, "Senior Orientation" included the usual information on résumé writing and interviewing. But it drew students in with a camping theme: They were given compasses and greeted with messages like "Hunting for some direction in your journey?"

"Words like 'adventure' ... 'exploration,' and 'opportunity,' all those words are less loaded and speak to students where they are," Gardner says.

The efforts are paying off, she adds. By mid-February, 4,000 students had visited Career Services this academic year; last year, they didn't reach that number until May.

It's good for 20-somethings to "try on different roles," says Barbara Moses, a career consultant and author in Toronto. Previous generations weren't sure what they wanted to do, either, but "it's a more acceptable part of the zeitgeist for this generation to talk about their anxieties."

The downside: parental stress. Some in their early 30s "are still involved in ... going to find themselves by trekking in Thailand or wherever," Ms. Moses says.

Seywerd, the student heading for the water this summer, says his parents would be happier if he'd march right into a traditional job. He sees their European background at play there (his father is from Germany and his mother from the Dutch West Indies). "A lot more focus is placed upon career aspiration rather than personal development," he says.

Having watched his father put in long hours as a surgeon without much "time to reflect on life," Seywerd wants a different path. In his search for one- or two-year jobs abroad, he's not ignoring the need to be self-sufficient.

But to not take advantage of the freedom to explore career options - that's what would be "irresponsible," he says. "I'm giving myself the opportunity to have a vague idea about what it is that I'm going to be doing in life. I understand there's uncertainty involved with that ... but that's a risk I'm willing to take."

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