Beach balls drifted atop a blue sea of caps and gowns.

Newly minted foresters, farmers and teachers seated on the floor of UMaine’s Alfond Arena waved to families between fist bumps and goodbye hugs. Civil engineering graduates — wearing blue helmets instead of caps — pelted classmates with paper airplanes.

Brian Erickson sat quietly in his row, listened for familiar names and smiled at the empty case he was handed on stage.

His diploma will arrive in the coming weeks at his parents’ home in Auburn. By then, the 22-year-old hopes to have a plan.

He may return to school to follow up his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with a graduate specialty. Or he may find regular work, despite an economy that’s bleeding jobs.

“I’m on the cusp of the unknown,” Erickson said.

He’s not alone.

Worth it

In 2005, 15 area high school seniors agreed to let the Sun Journal follow them through their college years. Now four years later, most of those college freshmen are graduating — many in limbo thanks in large part to an economy in recession.

As the project concludes, the newspaper reconnected with 14 of them (one declined to be part of the project after the second year).

Today, one has married. Two are engaged.
Eleven are graduating. Two are enrolled in graduate school.

Two left college and are working.
Seven of the graduates don’t know quite what the future holds.

Their routes differed, but all of the students say it is worth the struggle. (You can read about the others here.)

“I can’t imagine not going to college,” said Bowdoin College graduate Alison Coleman of Lewiston, who has begun her search for a career with a history degree in hand.

Val Staples of Lewiston (then Val Elie), who left Central Maine Community College after her first year, is even more forceful about the need for college.

When she left school, she married and went to work, first for Verizon and then AT&T. She currently works as a cell phone sales consultant. But she plans to return to school in the fall and study nursing.

“I think that with the economy like this, it’s more important than ever that people go to college,” Staples said. “If you have a college degree and you have a safe position somewhere, then you’re all set, no matter what situation the economy is in.”

In the workplace

By the end of April, only one of the former Sun Journal freshman has landed a full-time job in her field. Another has a job in her field, but waitresses and bartends to pay her bills.

Nationally, about one in five 2009 graduates who applied for a job actually had one,
according to the survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Between February and April, the organization surveyed 35,000 students at 840 schools.

Danielle Sicotte of Lewiston, who earned a bachelor’s degree in advertising from Boston’s Suffolk University, has already begun work at Argo Marketing Group in Auburn.

Like Sicotte, Sasha Campbell of Paris found work after her Long Island University degree in dance. After graduating in December, she met with Norway dancer Debi Irons and went to work at Irons’ Art Moves Dance Studio.

“I came back and it was automatically (Irons’ saying), ‘OK, I can give you this and this and this’ (for work,)” Campbell said.

But the classes at Irons’ studio and two local schools are part-time. She bartends and serves at Ruby Tuesday in Auburn to get by.

For many of the new graduates, getting by may be their first priority.

Erickson at Orono and Coleman at Bowdoin both spent their last weeks as college students trying to find work for the summer, let alone finding a permanent job.

A tough job market

It may be especially tough back home.
When the class of 2009 entered college, Lewiston-Auburn’s unemployment rate was at a stable 4.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In March of 2009, the most recent month available, the rate surged to 9.5 percent.

For some, the enormity of the situation is only beginning to sink in.

When Erickson began his studies at UMaine, engineering graduates were a hot commodity among employers, who routinely recruited from the senior class.

This spring, he saw none of that. Few of his fellow engineering students had jobs lined up after graduation. Most put off their job search, he said.

Erickson searched a little.

“Mostly, I’ve been going about my business, honestly,” he said.

He polished the resume he created for his first internship in the summer of 2006. He went to UMaine’s career center and searched out Maine companies that sounded interesting. Some had employment information on their Web sites and Erickson wrote them.

“I haven’t really gotten a lot of calls back,” he said. “It’s hard not to take it personally.”

He tells himself it’s bad all over.

“When I look at the big picture, I see what’s happening in the economy,” he said. “It’s not really a reflection on me.”

For Erickson, there’s some hope in the national numbers.

Engineering graduates are still more likely to find a job than many other degree holders, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. On average, new engineers earn about $62,000 per year, the organization said.

Decisions to make

The Sun Journal’s former freshmen have some advice for new college students: find balance between work and play.

“You need to experience everything, and understand that you can’t let one thing get in the way of the other,” said Ryan Reed of Lewiston, who graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington. “That is the biggest hurdle college presents — being able to manage your time, balance your schedule and get the job done.”
It’s a lesson that ought to help anyone, particularly as decisions loom for the former freshmen.

Their once-clear path — school to degree to job — seems far more crooked than it did in the fall of 2005.

For Coleman, the decision on a career is still out there. She has $17,000 of school debt and is still looking for a job choice that grabs her.

Staples hopes to follow her mom into nursing, eventually leaving her AT&T sales rep job.

“She graduated in ‘04, a year before I graduated high school,” she said. “And she loves her job. And I see flexible hours and you get to work with people, and I like working with people. I don’t like sitting behind a desk or anything like that.”

Campbell wants to make her living in dance.
“I have way too many goals and plans I want to accomplish,” she said. She wants to choreograph for professionals and amateurs. “I want to put together a show where I feature my own choreography.”

Erickson will decide between more school and the workplace.

School means safety. Erickson imagines staying on for graduate work at UMaine.

“The TV ads are right,” he said, apologizing for repeating the school’s slogan. “Here, you’re in a great place.”

College also did its work, he said. He found faith in his own talents.

“I feel like if someone would offer me a job, I could do it,” he said.

Staff Writers Lindsay Tice and Kathryn Skelton contributed to this report.
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This is one of a several part series. To read the rest of the stories, click here.

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