Class of 2009: Will My College Degree Pay Off?

I am freaking out.

In just a few short weeks, I will be a college graduate. As a journalism major, my prospects for finding a job are slim. Since January 2007, at least 12,000 journalists have either been bought out or laid off, according to estimates from the Columbia Journalism Review. As I hunt for a job, I'll have to rely on a sad little savings account, equivalent to about two months' worth of paychecks from my two part-time jobs, one as an editor at my school newspaper and the other as a hotel room-service deliverer. But six months after graduation I will need to start paying off the student loans I took out for my first year of college at an expensive private school. Right now, the professional success I dreamed of before the recession seems completely out of reach.

I feel duped.

I grew up believing what my parents and teachers told me: that I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard and got good grades. And try I did. After graduating high school in the top 10 percent of my class in one of the worst high schools in the state of Tennessee, a state that is perpetually in the bottom of national education rankings, I was accepted to one of the best journalism schools in the country, Syracuse University.

It also happens to be one of the most expensive. Fortunately, I earned a merit scholarship that paid for more than 90 percent of what I needed for tuition, room and board just for the first year. But with annual tuition running at more than $30,000, it was not enough. I still needed money for books, class fees and everyday living expenses. I filled out 86 applications for additional scholarships. I even tried out for Native American Heritage scholarships because I'm a quarter Cherokee, only to find out that only enrolled tribal members are eligible. After winning two other scholarships, I still needed a personal loan for the remainder. I received it, but it's now swelled after five years of interest and will soon be a monthly monkey on my shoulder.

By the end of my first year, I had spent all of my savings on living expenses. I was unable to take out any more loans for my sophomore year, unless I had a cosigner, and I did not have one. I still had the merit scholarship because my grades remained high, but they were not enough to cover the little tuition that was left, plus books, fees and living expenses. I trudged back home and enrolled at East Tennessee State University. In spite of it all, I was not deterred. I still believed I could accomplish what I wanted to if I put my mind to it.

Now I am nearing the end of my fifth year and panic has risen to the top of my throat. Why? Among the many people I know who have graduated, most do not have the job they wanted. I am not talking about a dream job—even in good times, few find their ideal situation—but one that is in any way related to the field they spent years studying. A few of my friends went to graduate school, but most are working the same part-time jobs they had when they were students, making minimum wage and receiving no health insurance.

My roommate, Melanie, for example, has spent the past couple years working in the deli at Wal-Mart. She graduated last May with a degree in business. She's applied for 46 different jobs so far, from Knoxville, Tenn., to Atlanta. Now she is back in school again, getting a second degree in psychology, while still working at the deli. She graduates in August, and has no job prospects. She offered to put in a good word for me at Wal-Mart, just in case things don't work out as I hope.

Meanwhile, I've applied to nearly every newspaper and magazine in Tennessee and all the surrounding states. In January, a local magazine offered me a $7-an-hour internship for a year postgraduation, but now the magazine is really struggling and on the verge of going under, so the offer has been withdrawn. All of the publications here are laying people off, not hiring. Some have offered me unpaid internships, but do not promise that they will have a paid, full-time position available anytime soon. I'm now taking photography classes, hoping that added skills might improve my chances.

While I'm looking forward to graduation, I'm terrified by the days, weeks and months that follow. For now at least, I may be the person greeting you at Wal-Mart or bringing you room service at the Holiday Inn. On my days off I can hold up a sign on a corner downtown that reads WILL WRITE FOR FOOD.

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