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Graduation, and beyond

coverAlumni Tower is enjoying a late-semester afternoon on the Western Carolina University campus. Its clock keeps watch over students as they hustle between exams or toss a Frisbee on the grass.

A short walk from the tower, a fountain has attracted two sophomores and a puppy named Emma. 

The girls skip around the fountain, laughing at their dog and themselves and seemingly nothing in particular. Their carefree smiles are still a couple of years away from graduation and post-academia realities. 

But even so, they’re acutely aware that the day is approaching. A time will come when they wrap up with the classes and the tests, and venture into everything that comes next.

“I’m already looking at internships,” said Gabby Berrios. “I’ve been looking at internships this summer just to kind of get my name out there.”

On the other side of Alumni Tower, on the patio of the A.K. Hinds student center, another WCU student is much closer to graduation. He’s closing the book on his college career this month.

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WCU Student Government Association President Ryan Hermance will join the school’s spring graduating class of 2014 as they wade into off-campus waters. His class enters a job market that can still be formidable, but is much more inviting than the barren wasteland of a few years ago. 

“A lot of my friends have been pretty successful,” Hermance says of his friends’ job-hunting. “Not their dream job, but a job that interests them.”


Figuring it out

Relaxing on the back patio of the student center, a few steps from his SGA offices, Hermance doesn’t appear stressed at all about the future, about his plans following graduation. He’s had it figured out for a while. 

“A long, long time ago,” Hermance said. “I was a little kid. I knew when I got older I wanted to be a Marine. I decided I would go to college and go the officer route.”

WCU’s student body president isn’t sweating the traditional biggie: landing a job. He’s getting married in July, then it’s off to Quantico, Va. 

“I’ve already finished officer training,” Hermance said. “So, I already have a little bit of job security after graduation.”

There will be an interim between graduation and Quantico, however, so Hermance is hunting for a job. But that’s only temporary, so it doesn’t carry the weight of a task directly tethered to a student’s professional future.

“It makes applying for the temp jobs a little easier,” Hermance said, “because if I get rejected it’s not as big of a deal.”

Fellow WCU senior Krystal Cole has not had a plan hatched since she was a child. She figured it out much more recent.

“So, this was spring break,” Cole set the scene. “This was the middle of March.”

Like many students, the public history major wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. Graduation was approaching, but what lay beyond remained a mystery.

“I really didn’t know what I was going to do,” Cole said. “I was actually really bogged down with ‘I’m going to graduate and I’m going to live at home.’ I was really stressed out about it.”

During spring break Cole took a trip to New Orleans with a service group from school. That’s where she figured it out.

“I believe things happen for a reason,” Cole recalled, making an argument for fate. “If I wouldn’t have been placed in that van I would never have met that guy with AmeriCorps.”

After meeting an AmeriCorps worker, Cole was sold. She could pursue her passion — teaching — while continuing to consider her long-term options. She starts her new adventure a few days after graduation. 

“Now, how crazy is that?” Cole said. 


Guiding them out the door

Cole is by no means alone in her last-minute decision about her post-graduation plans. It’s a pretty big decision, and not one that’s always easy or obvious. 

Mardy Ashe, director of WCU’s Career Services and Cooperative Education department, sees a lot of students who aren’t quite sure what’s happening after graduation. 

“Typically, if they’ve already been accepted to a job, we don’t see them,” she explained. 

Ashe’s office helps students pursue internships and job opportunities. They get seniors seeking assistance with the hunt. 

“Doing resumes, cover letters, practicing interviewing,” Ashe said. 

For a few years there, the job market tended to be a nightmare. The economic recession resulted in fewer jobs across the board, including for recent grads. Ashe recalls job recruitment of college graduates dropping off by about half in 2008.

But the economy has improved a bit, and with it comes a healthier job market. In 2011, recruitment jumped by 40 percent. 

“I think the economy was on an upward trajectory, it was starting to recover for college graduates,” Ashe said.

Recruitment activity on college campuses has continued to increase each year, with the seniors that Ashe’s department helps this year facing better prospects than their immediate predecessors. 

“They say the recruitment activity is up by 8.6 percent this year,” Ashe said, sighting numbers from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. 

As always, some students in some fields face better odds than those in others. Liberal arts majors, for example, traditionally face a iffy market, while students graduating in the sciences tend to fare better.

“Healthcare — it’s a win-win,” Ashe began to tick off positive-outlook fields. “Nursing, certainly. Physical therapy. Engineering. IT, any kind of computer technology-related stuff. Anything coupled with language is good. Criminal justice in Spanish is very good, anything medical in Spanish is good, business in Spanish is good.”

Ashe has advised college students for a long time. She earned her counseling degree from WCU more than 30 years ago. 

“So, I’ve seen some big changes,” Ashe said. 

There have obviously been technological changes over the course of the counselor’s career. But while such changes have evolved the ways in which people search for a job, the technological advances in society haven’t necessarily resulted in a generation more adept at the hunt. 

“As technically savvy as they appear to be, many have no concept about how to job search online,” Ashe said. “They know Facebook and MySpace and their iPhones frontwards and backwards.”

But the changes go beyond technology. Ashe has noticed a difference in the students themselves graduating over the years. 

“I think 25 years ago students were a lot more mature,” she said. “They recognized they were going for a college degree and a job.”


Extra value

Charles Turner has a pretty good gig lined up after graduation. The WCU biology major will be going to work for the National Institute of Health in Montana’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories. 

“It’s all going to be very useful and helpful,” Turner said. 

The senior made his post-graduation plans following an NIH conference he attended in February. He made connections and decided to take a chance. 

“Based on that conference I got a position in a lab doing genome research,” Turner said. 

The NIH job may not be a long-term plan for Turner. Right now, it’s something to do before heading back to school. He intends to begin medical school in the fall of 2015. 

“I wanted to do something to make a little money before I start medical school,” he said. 

Patrick O’Neal has also secured a job prior to graduating. The communications major will be going to work for the Black Mountain YMCA. He starts his job as a communications coordinator a few days after graduation. 

“It’s a brand new position,” O’Neal said, “so I’ll be the first one stepping into that role.”

While at WCU, O’Neal handled public relations for the school’s cycling team. He established a website for the group and worked on the Airport Assault racing event. 

“That was a ton of work,” O’Neal said. 

Neither O’Neal nor Turner believe they lucked into their futures. The plans were laid purposefully and through sustained effort.

“People are getting out what they put in,” Turner said.

Turner stressed the importance of consciously mapping out one’s destiny. He began loosely charting his own course long ago. The 29-year-old has already lived life as an Army special operations combat medic in preparation for what was to come next. 

“I picked medic because I was interested in it, but also because it’d give me options once I got out,” Turner explained. 

In addition to planning, O’Neal stressed the value of experience — not just professional or academic experience, but experience in general. He suggested that students consider taking full advantage of the world of extra-curricular activities available to them during their college years. The senior has found that employers tend to be just as interested in the extras as a student’s academic record. 

“It definitely helps a lot,” O’Neal said. “When I went into that interview, they were really interested in the extra things I had done.”

The communications major suspects that students having trouble lining up a job for after graduation may have found more favorable prospects had they engaged more during their time at college.

“If you’re simply just getting your degree and wondering why you’re not getting a job handed to you on a silver platter, it’s probably because you didn’t do anything,” O’Neal said. “Take advantage of any opportunity that is presented to you.”

Looking back on his own few years of college, O’Neal appears satisfied. Satisfied, and ready to begin life’s next phase.

“I’ve enjoyed my time here,” he said, “and I’m ready to head out into the real world.”

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