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Graduating College Students Eye Troubled Economy

It's May, and at colleges and universities all across America, graduation season is in full swing.

When this spring's graduating seniors entered college, many were looking forward to lucrative careers in business and others fields in an economy that showed no signs of slowing down. But today, with the U.S. economy in deep recession, many of those students are having to rethink their career strategies and prospects in creative ways.

For Jamie Obletz and his classmates at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business, this is a time for concern.

"A lot of people graduating this weekend still don't have jobs, which is disheartening," says Obletz, "and you know they are qualified."

This is a direct result of the weakened economy, he believes, "where many companies, from Wall Street to Main Street, are no longer recruiting."

"It's not what we signed up for," he says.

Many of 2009's graduating students are taking their skills to the non-profit sector, and a larger-than-usual percentage of this year's MBAs are looking for government jobs. They tell Michael Malone, who directs the school's office of career education and advising, that they hope to make an impact on business and economic policy.

"It's been really fascinating to see the interest our students are having in becoming part of the solution, in fixing the system and addressing new problems," says Malone.

Many business students who had planned on corporate or banking careers are becoming entrepreneurs instead.

"They've read all of the media pieces about how great companies were born of really down markets in the past, and they see themselves as potentially that next winner and are really eager and excited by that prospect," says Malone.

In contrast, Columbia MBA candidate Arlyn Davich always wanted to be an entrepreneur. She planned to start a luxury excursion business, but the recession inspired her to start a marketing firm that will distribute discount coupons online instead.

"In the entrepreneurship program, they like to highlight [the idea] that somebody is going to benefit from the recession, and it's just a matter of positioning yourself," says Davich, "so I feel very optimistic, actually."

Changing economic conditions have inspired many other creative readjustments. First-generation immigrant Grilselys Nunez began her two-year stint at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, or BMCC, as a business management major. She soon decided to switch to economics and politics.

"I want to be a leader in my country, the Dominican Republic," she says excitedly. "I think the whole world is changing right now, and it's just a perfect time to introduce different things to my country."

The recession led to a new career path for 48-year-old John Ortiz. He was a personal exercise trainer, but his client base dropped off due to the economic slowdown. So he enrolled in classes at BMCC and kept an open mind.

"While I was here, I found my love for writing, and I switched to writing and literature," he says.

Ortiz, who volunteers regularly with teenagers, is planning to take the psychology training necessary to become a high school counselor.

"I turned an obstacle into an opportunity," he says.

No one can deny that with a graduating class in the thousands, BMCC career development director Melba Olmeda-Amaro has her hands full. Despite the economy, she is encouraging students to enter the job market with a positive outlook. She tells them that a good attitude can be almost as important to potential employers as academic skills.

"Employers are looking for interpersonal skills. They're looking for the ability to communicate. They are looking for students that show ambition," says Olmeda-Amaro.

She acknowledges that in previous years, graduating students would have had a "straighter" career path.

"So what we tell our students is, 'Practice, practice, practice! Prepare, prepare, prepare!'"

No one has to convince 50-year-old MaryAnn Lorick, a graduating BMCC business major who enrolled once her own daughters left to college.

"For myself, there really is no fear," she says with a smile. "I'm out there, and I'm going do something."

Whatever the nation's economic prospects may be for the short term, one thing seems clear: Americans' energy and "can do" attitude will always remain an abundant national resource.