After 4 years of college, now what?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After four years of college, a $40,000 tuition bill and a B.A. in psychology, Lauren Hider can answer a lot of questions about Carl Jung's theory of the personality. But nobody is asking her about that.

"They all ask me, 'What are you going to do now?' " said the 22-year-old from Severna Park, now a hostess at Buddy's Crabs and Ribs Restaurant in Annapolis. "There's so much pressure. I don't know what I want to do right now."

Two months have passed since the most recent batch of college graduates tossed their caps into the air and said goodbye to undergraduate schooling. The thrill of commencement is gone. Now they have to find jobs.

For some, it's not so easy. While they do not face a depressed economy as some of their predecessors did, and recruitment is improving at many area colleges, they are having a hard time figuring out what to do.

"I have no idea," said Josh Bell, 22, a recent Anne Arundel College graduate who loads beer at Fish Paw's Liquors on Ritchie Highway. "I worked at a sports medicine center and I thought I might want to be a trainer, but I don't know what happened to that idea."

Mr. Bell is not alone.

There are no figures for how many college students graduate without plans, but college counselors say their busiest week starts the morning after graduation. Hundreds of the work force's newest members flood their offices, suddenly realizing they should find an internship, a company name, a connection, an inkling of their real career interests.

"It is very stressful," said Barbara Murry, a counselor at the University of Maryland College Park's career center. "They might say, 'I'm frightened about it.' More often they say, 'I have no idea where to begin.' It's a sense of being lost and that is very scary."

Graduates adrift is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it's practically an annual occurrence. The big difference between this generation and their parents is that the economy is much less forgiving.

"The job market is much more problematic," Ms. Murry said. "There was a time when it was a lot easier to ease into the job market, to get a first job, to get a toehold.

"There's so many more people with master's degrees than 20 years ago," she said. "Students with bachelor's degrees feel more competition."

Now, confused graduates are enviously watching their not-so-confused friends pick up and start careers. Their parents, many of whom just spent up to $100,000 on tuition, books, apartments and weekend fun, are edgy.

And there is peer pressure. As on the night Ms. Hider and her girlfriends went to the Water Street Exchange, a restaurant and bar in Baltimore. She could not escape that nagging, probing question, "So, what are you doing now?"

"I go out and meet men out of college, and when they ask me what I'm doing, I'm embarrassed to say I'm a nanny and a waitress," she said. "They are all in business suits, but they're my age, too."

Career counselors at Anne Arundel Community College say there is hope. Graduates can take half-hour psychology tests, based on the philosophy of Carl Jung -- though Ms. Hider said Jung never helped her find a job.

With pencils in hand, they fill in the dots and make their choices: Do you enjoy taking risks or following orders, sharing ideas or playing solo, making money or changing the world, reading a book or going to a concert?

Once their focus is narrowed, there are videotapes on how to interview well, craft a resume, keep a job once you have it. Guide books, such as "What Color Is Your Parachute" and "Great Jobs for English Majors," line the shelves. Directories published by Standard & Poor's list hundreds of companies by subject.

"We are like a free employment center," said Debbie Shaughney, spokeswoman for Anne Arundel Community College.

The school's counselors also have free information about internships and volunteer opportunities for county residents. Counselors are available for one-on-one sessions from 8:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. at the student center building, Room 122. Appointments are recommended and can be made by calling 541-2307.

Students who wait until after graduation to start the job hunt are really doing things the hard way, college counselors said. Ms. Hider can vouch for that.

Hoping to get started, Ms. Hider, who graduated a semester late in December from West Virginia University, took a temporary job at Three Springs, an outdoor residential treatment center in Pittsboro, N.C., where she helped teen-age girls suffering from manic depression and behavioral disorders.

It wasn't what she expected. The first week she learned how to wrestle patients to the ground. The second week she woke up one night with ticks crawling all over her leg. By the third week, she was ready to leave.

"It's pretty violent," she said. "There was one girl, she was hitting her head against the ground and they had to put Thorazine in her leg. She had grown up in a satanic cult and had been physically and sexually abused," she said. "That was when I decided it wasn't for me."

In a panic, Ms. Hider drove all the way to Florida, alone, to stay with her grandparents and think. "Right after I quit, I didn't lose it, but I was like, 'Oh, what am I going to do now? This is my field and I don't like it.' "

Ms. Hider started work at Buddy's Crabs and Ribs, where she makes $5.50 an hour. Six months after she graduated, she still lives with her parents and works as a secretary for her father. But not for long, she says.

She wants a career, and she wants to move into her own apartment. She is watching for opportunities, possibly in business. Since she does not have substantial business experience on her resume, she is trying a different tack -- connections.

"My dad keeps telling me, 'I know people who send out 500 resumes and only get 10 interviews,' " said Ms. Hider, who has a long list in her computer of neighbors, friends' parents, business associates of her father, professors, even people who come into Buddy's.

"It's all networking," she said.

In the meantime, Ms. Hider just has to put up with that perennial question.

She recalls a graduation dinner with her grandfather, who served as a doctor in World War II and later was a physician for more than 30 years. When he asked her, "What are you doing now?" she cringed.

"I just said, 'You know grandpa, I don't know what I want to do right now.' I was like, 'Maybe this, maybe that,' " she said, sighing.

"He just said, 'I know it's tough. I just hope you figure it out soon.' "

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