ST. PETERSBURG — In her speech to students graduating Sunday from Eckerd College, oceanographer and aquanaut Sylvia Earle sounded a wish of exploration.
"I'd love to know what you're thinking," she said. "What's going on under those funny little hats you're wearing?"
So we asked.
Turns out, they're thinking about where to find a job, how they'll pay off student loans, and what they'll do after commencement — basically, the rest of their lives.
Take Allison Baskin, 23, one of more than 500 students who graduated from this small, private liberal-arts school in St. Petersburg.
Baskin moved to Eckerd from Rockville, Md., about five years ago, and Sunday morning, beneath a white circus tent on Boca Ciega Bay, she bounced across the stage to receive her degree in human development.
After two weeks of sending resumes, she had landed a job with Eckerd Youth Alternatives, as a camp counselor for troubled teenagers in the woods of Floral City. She starts in July.
She's one of the lucky ones: Youth unemployment, while dipping, remains high. But as with other twentysomethings, her timing could hurt her wages for a lifetime. A 21-year-old starting a job in today's economy will face much lower wages that could remain depressed even years after graduation, a Yale School of Management study shows.
Baskin is graduating with a lot of student-loan debt, which she has deferred for six months as she starts her new job. She had considered not walking during the ceremony, but her father, Mark, insisted: "I've got a small mortgage based on this thing."
Baskin is not alone: Her sister, Ellen, graduated from the University of Maryland with $50,000 in debt. (Their father, again: "I will not be retiring anytime soon.")
Half of Florida college students graduate with debt averaging just over $20,000; many pay much more. In 2010, two out of three Eckerd students graduated with an average of $30,000 in debt — three times as much debt as Eckerd's Class of 2005, according to the national nonprofit Project on Student Debt.
It may not be any easier for these young graduates' older classmates. Osvaldo Cuevas, 32, earned his degree in business management while working as an analyst with TECO Energy Corp. and raising two children.
For six years, Cuevas attended classes a few times a week while working full time. After Isabella, 7, and Alexander, 5, fell asleep, he stayed up until 1 a.m., doing homework.
Next he'll work toward a master's degree in business administration from Saint Leo University. Thankfully, he'll be doing so without debt: His company is paying tuition.
Swarmed for pictures after the ceremony by 18 of his closest relatives, Cuevas said he might like to own a business some day. But for the moment, he wanted to relish a job well done.
"It's amazing, this sense of accomplishment," Cuevas said. "All that hard work, and it's finally paying off."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]