First of three parts
The graduates stood on the marble steps of College Hall, looking across the lawn where their professors and proud parents were waiting to applaud.
A balmy breeze was blowing from the gulf across the campus of New College. The students hugged and laughed and snapped photos on their cellphones. Under a pink sunset, with Pomp and Circumstance playing, everything seemed possible.
"We did it!" a young woman in a white sundress kept saying.
Her name was Liz Usherwood and she was determined to become an anthropologist. Soon, she was sure, she would be excavating some site far away.
Martin Steele, in a rumpled beige blazer, already was a poet, a journalist, a writer. He just had to find a way to get paid for his words.
Rachel Barnard, who wore black suspenders, had hoped to win a Fulbright so she could use her Spanish degree in Spain. When that didn't work out, she made a cardboard sign.
She waved it now from the front row: "Have bachelor's degree. Need job."
Getting one wasn't going to be easy.
The 179 students knew they were diving into the worst job market for college graduates in more than a decade. They knew that in six months — when they would have to start paying back their student loans — half of all recent college graduates might still be living with their parents, searching for work. Or working at some job that wasn't worthy of their education.
"One in two new college graduates are jobless or underemployed," the Associated Press reported.
Students who majored in anthropology, philosophy and humanities — exactly the kind of creative thinkers New College prided itself on producing — were among the least likely to find jobs suited to their education.
President Gordon "Mike" Michaelson Jr. was undaunted when he addressed the graduates.
"You will succeed," he said, "precisely because we did not train you to do just one thing."
Florida's $27,000-a-year honors college is no vocational school. Students don't have to choose career paths. They don't even get grades. Instead of "manufacturing human widgets to stick into occupational cubby holes," the president said, "we take the ideal of educating the whole student."
If any liberal arts school was supposed to prepare students for success, it was New College.
In 2012, U.S. News & World Report ranked it No. 6 on the list of the best national liberal arts colleges. The state school enrolls 850 students from 40 states and 25 countries, some of this generation's brightest minds.
Eighty percent go on to graduate school. This year, four won Fulbright scholarships.
The rest hoped to find work.
The Tampa Bay Times met three of them — Liz, Martin and Rachel — on graduation day. We followed them for six months to see whether they got jobs, and if so, what kind.
Their stories don't settle the argument about the long-term value of a college education because they just graduated in May. Besides, you can't reach solid conclusions based on a sample size of three.
But the new graduates' experiences say a lot about what it's like to look for work in a tough economy when you have a nimble mind but few specific skills and little experience.
It turns out that many factors influence a graduate's ability to get hired:
Ambition. Contacts. Charisma. Chance.
The desire for a certain lifestyle or location.
After the ceremony, after shaking hands with the president and getting their diplomas, the graduates fanned out across the lawn. Long tables were filled with plastic glasses of champagne.
Liz picked up her 3-year-old nephew. "I'll be able to spend a lot more time with you now," she told him. "That's the best thing about moving home."
She packed slowly that Sunday, emptying her dorm room of books and clothes, photos of friends. Her bulletin board looked naked without all her to-do notes.
It looked like her future: Blank.
She wished she had somewhere to go.
For four years, Liz had lived on the shady campus of New College. She had always believed that if she worked hard and made the right connections, then when she got out, she could do anything.
She was supposed to have a job by now, digging at an archaeological site or working in a museum. She was supposed to have her own apartment. A new life.
Instead here she was, two days after graduation, stuffing everything she owned into her Nissan hatchback, getting ready to drive to Tampa, to move back in with her mom and dad.
"I always said I'd never do that," said Liz, 22, carrying the last load. "It's almost shameful, having to go home."
She had worked all through college: waiting tables, bartending, running the register at Target. She had spent summers interning at an archaeological field school in Illinois and excavating in Bradenton. She thought she had laid a foundation.
She had been accepted into the University of Florida's historical archaeology graduate program, but the school hadn't offered her any money. She just couldn't take on seven years of debt.
So in March, Liz had started searching for work. She had sent out 20 resumes, applying to be an assistant curator at the Florida Maritime Museum, a counselor at Eckerd Outdoor, a personal assistant for a working mom in South Tampa. She had landed two interviews. No job.
"Even a week ago, I was still hoping I might find something," Liz said. "So many of my friends are in the same situation."
She turned off the lights, closed her dorm room door.
In the parking lot, a friend waved, "Have a good summer! Or life, since you've graduated!"
Liz stopped to hug him, and started to cry.
She was destined to be a success.
At King High in Temple Terrace, Liz excelled in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program. She won a Bright Futures scholarship and got into her first-choice school: New College. Her parents paid a total of $20,000.
Dad Charlie works from home, helping run a family office-supply business. Mom Karen retired from a police department.
They had never worried about Liz finding a job; she could do whatever she set her mind to.
They had planned to turn her bedroom into a home gym.
But that weekend, they remade the single bed she had slept in since elementary school, dusted the shelves lined with Harry Potter books, and hauled their kayaks out of the garage to make space for all of Liz's stuff.
"Glad to have you home," said her dad, hugging her. She wished she could say the same.
Between income from her jobs at school, the $75 weekly stipend for being a resident assistant, and graduation gifts, Liz had almost $10,000 in the bank.
She gave herself a deadline: August. By the time she should have been heading to graduate school, she would be on her own.
Giggly and gregarious, with a round face, brown hair bobbed to her chin and an easy smile, Liz is naturally optimistic. But sometimes she would lie awake worrying: What if all her hard work, even her college degree, didn't really matter?
"I'm up for anything," she told her dad. "I can go anywhere." He helped her with her resume, leaving the objective open-ended. "Seeking a career as a . . ."
She added responsibilities for each job she'd done. "Responsible for maintaining a clean work environment," she wrote under Target cashier. She included volunteer hours from Habitat for Humanity. Under "skills" she listed "MS Office proficient."
She made a spreadsheet to keep track of her applications, with columns called: Company, Job title, Website, Date submitted, Phone interview? Live interview? Did ya get it?!
On the right side of the page she left room for notes:
Shapiro, Fishman & Gache, legal assistant, no response.
Home Shopping Network, administrative assistant, immediate no.
Every morning, she got up with the sun to scan Craigslist. She posted her resume on Monster.com, applied to work in human resources at Disney, to process mortgages at USAA, to be a receptionist at Lokey Nissan, to serve burgers at Applebee's.
In the month after she moved home, Liz sent out 48 resumes and got five interviews — two over the phone.
Her mom kept pushing her, suggesting new approaches. To her dad, it was a numbers game: Every night he would ask, "How many did you do today, Lizzie? Three? Okay, then tomorrow you can pick it up to five."
Discouraged and tired of arguing with her parents, Liz changed her strategy. Instead of trying to find full-time work, she would sacrifice some of her savings but save her sanity by getting her own place, then "take any job to help cover the rent." She loved her parents, knew they were trying to help. She just had to get out.
The call came on a Friday, while she was touring an apartment in St. Petersburg. Could she fly to Seattle? Would she be willing to pay her own way?
On a whim, she had applied online to Alaska Airlines, as far away as she could think of from Florida. At the end of June, the company would be holding a group interview to hire flight attendants. Job requirements: a bubbly personality and a bachelor's degree.
"I might freeze my butt off," Liz said. "But it'll be an adventure."
She spent $665 from her savings for a plane ticket, $240 on two nights at a Holiday Inn, $50 on a blue sweater set. She borrowed stockings from her mom.
On a steamy Friday, Liz flew to Seattle, studying the flight attendants as they poured coffee and passed out packages of peanuts. She called her mom from the motel room. "I can do this."
Why do I want this job? She asked herself the next morning, in the shower. To travel and meet all sorts of people. What skills do I bring? She rehearsed while blow-drying her hair. I'm outgoing, conscientious and polite.
At 7:10 a.m., Liz packed her purse with paperwork the airline had sent, plus her passport. She was too nauseated to eat. So she drank a cup of water and walked into the windy morning.
When she arrived at the interview, she learned most of the applicants fell into two groups: Middle-aged moms and young women like her. The 20-somethings were svelte and sexy, dressed in tight blazers, short pencil skirts and stilettos. Liz felt frumpy; she was the only one wearing a sweater set.
"Good luck today," her dad texted. "I love you, Lizzy!"
First, airline executives sold themselves: The starting salary was $25,000, which included health care and flying privileges. The company had earned the on-time airline award and been named the most pet-friendly. Liz pictured herself in the crisp uniform, serving sodas with a smile.
When the applicants broke into groups, Liz talked about counseling students in her dorm, about serving Christopher Plummer drinks at the Sarasota Opera.
"I got them laughing," she told her mom later.
Just before noon, an airline executive led everyone into an upstairs room and thanked them for coming. If we call your name, said the man, you're hired.
He read the names in alphabetical order. Call me, Liz kept saying, call me, call me.
She texted her parents. "I didn't get it."
"That's okay," her dad texted back. "Alaska is too cold."
She had invested four days and $1,000 on another dead-end interview. That afternoon she visited the world's first Starbucks. "I bought a magnet. Isn't that ironic?" Liz texted her mom. "I don't even have my own fridge."
Another month, 20 more applications. By the end of July her persistence filled three pages:
Gulf Animal Hospital, receptionist, interview canceled.
La Mansion Salon Spa, front desk coordinator, immediate no.
It was hard being rejected for jobs she really wanted. But it was downright demoralizing to be turned down for jobs that didn't even demand a college degree.
Checking dogs into a clinic? Making hair appointments? Please.
"I don't know if my resume doesn't match their keywords or what," Liz told her dad.
She spent weekends with her nephew, chasing him in her parents' pool. She helped her sister paint her kitchen. Weekdays, she glued herself to her laptop, surfing job boards, sending resumes.
The TradeWinds Resort needed a bartender, but didn't want her. Bright House Networks had openings in its call center, but no one ever called her back. The Tampa Bay Times Forum wouldn't even hire Liz Usherwood as an usher.
A couple of friends had found jobs as nannies, so she posted her profile on Greataupair.com.
"I'm getting desperate," she told her sister.
Her bank account was down to $7,000; her confidence had been crushed. Her self-imposed deadline was two weeks away.
Babysitting had provided Liz steady income throughout school. She had watched professors' kids, 9-year-old twins.
Now, it seemed, that experience was paying off more than all of those hours studying ancient cultures and digging up artifacts.
In the week after she signed up on the au pair site, eight families contacted her. A couple from Jacksonville. Who wants to live in Jacksonville? A family in China. Like she could speak Chinese. Philadelphia? New Jersey? She talked to them all.
No one cared about her major. They just wanted a college graduate. And someone who could drive and cook and do laundry.
A dad in New Zealand asked to Skype with Liz about his sons, ages 2 and 4. She would have to stay up late to talk to him across the 17-hour time difference.
"New Zealand?" gasped her dad. "That's farther than Alaska."
Her mom took out a globe, stretched a string from Tampa to Auckland. "It's exactly halfway around the world," she said. "As far as you can get."
Liz looked it up, learned that New Zealand has 4 million people and 10 times that number of sheep. She told her parents, "It's where they filmed The Lord of the Rings."
She Skyped with the couple for almost an hour. They needed someone to drive their older son to school, to look after their toddler, to take the boys to soccer and swim lessons and the beach.
"The older boy was so sweet," Liz told her parents. He asked, since she was American, did she know how to make tea? The mother said she would call, but didn't seem enthusiastic. "I don't think I got the job," Liz said.
On the last day of July, her phone rang: The couple from New Zealand.
Squealing, Liz bolted into the kitchen and squeezed her dad. "They want me!" she kept saying. "Me, me! They want me!"
She would earn $200 a week, live in the family's house, eat their food, drive one of their cars. She would get weekends off.
She committed to a year.
Her dad tried to sound excited. Congratulating her, he held her tight. In two weeks, he knew he would lose her.
Liz started making lists: Email the New Zealand embassy about work permits, bank accounts and cellphones. Buy a winter coat.
She downloaded an app that counted down the days, hours and minutes until her departure. At 12:17:12, she showed her mom, who blinked back tears.
She tried to buy the plane ticket, but it cost $1,118 and she had an $800 limit on her Visa. So her parents paid for it, and she paid them back. Which left her with about $5,000.
The New Zealand work permit required her to show that she had enough money to live and get home — a minimum of $4,500. She had barely enough savings to take the $10,000-a-year job halfway across the world.
She packed quickly that week, clearing out her childhood room: boots and jackets, a family photo, a new camera her parents bought so they could see her new life.
She didn't pack her diploma.
Her parents drove her to the airport and her sister joined them there. "I'll call you from Chicago, and again from LA," Liz said. "I love you."
"Good luck in your new job!" said her sister, Carolyne.
Her dad, who had been quiet all morning, laughed. "It's kind of hard to call that a job," he said. "More like an interlude. Enjoy it."
In two months since becoming a nanny, Liz has learned to make scones and play rugby and drive on the left side of the road. In October, she posted photos of mountains on Facebook and wrote, "Things I have signed up for in the last week: a beach trip, pub lunch, surf lessons."
Another post said simply, "So cold. Still so cold."
She loves the boys she is watching, and her new, craggy country. Her new home sits on a hill, overlooking the sea. When the weather warms up, she is going to take the boys to that beach, show them how to set up a dig site and sift the sand, just like real archaeologists.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.