Graduation day at Brooklyn College in New York City was marked by confetti guns blasting thousands of scraps of yellow paper over the heads of the 4,000 graduates, symbolically transforming them from students into alumni.

"We go to the real world now," said Benash Khanu, a psychology major who is looking to land her first job. "It's scary, but it's life."

The commencement speaker was a man whom many Brooklyn students had championed in his quest to become president -- Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In his address to the students, Sanders imparted what he called a "simple" message: "Think big, not small, and help us create the nation we all know we can become.”

Entering a "hot mess"

Students graduating across the United States this spring entered secondary school at the beginning of the eight-year presidency of Barack Obama, a relatively youthful figure at the time whose rhetoric about tolerance, equality and money for the nation's needy was popular on most college campuses. They are concluding their formal education as a very different president – Donald Trump – begins his first term with a determined effort to reverse many of Obama's policy achievements.

"Our nation right now is a hot mess,” said Brooklyn graduate Alexandria Dass, who is entering the job market as an accounting major. “But I feel like our generation -- Millennials and Generation Z -- we're going to make things better."

'Modern day Reagan'

Nearly eight hours away, at the world's largest Christian college, Liberty University, students see their future differently.  Kimberly Burgess, who will go on to law school, credits the Trump administration for the best U.S. job market in a decade. Burgess and her millennial friends see Trump as a modern-day version of former Republican president Ronald Reagan and say he is "focusing on things that really matter."

The nearly 3 million college graduates entering the work force this year have the best chance in the past 10 years of getting a job.  A survey found that three out of four employers are hiring the new graduates and nearly 40 percent will offer beginning salaries of $50,000 a year or higher.

Political tips & snips

In his freshman year, Liberty University student Dan Carr picked up a pair of scissors, thinking he could save his friends some money by cutting their hair.  By senior year, the government major had become a student barber with 300 customers.

On graduation morning, Josh Close sat in the chair with a plastic cape draped over his shoulders, in the makeshift barbershop in Carr's tiny apartment bathroom. Friend Sam Stone watched as he awaited his turn. The three discussed politics under a series of Trump campaign posters. 

Liberty University graduates Dan Carr and Josh Clo
Liberty University graduates Dan Carr and Josh Close talk politics during a trim prior to commencement. (C. Presutti/VOA)

Stone, who will continue his studies as he works at the university, pointed to the robust economy, which has only recently bounced back completely from the 2008 collapse. "I feel people are a lot more confident that they can get a job immediately after college," Stone said.

But Close, who has an insurance job waiting for him, worries about a nation led by President Trump. "He is not exactly the mender of wounds, and tends to inflame them." 

Guess who's coming to dinner

At a graduation ceremony at the University of Texas at Austin, fireworks lit the sky as students held up their hands with the index and little fingers raised to symbolize the horns of their mascot, a longhorn steer. The commencement speaker, retired Dallas police chief David Brown, urged the graduates to mend America's racial divides.  "Invite someone home to dinner who doesn't look like you," he said.

Two commencement traditions at the University of T
Two commencement traditions at the University of Texas at Austin: lighting up the top of the campus landmark tower in orange - the official color of the university - and fireworks at the end of the ceremony. (C. Presutti/VOA)

The message hit home for advertising major Erasto Renteria, an ethnic Mexican who grew up along the Texas-Mexico border.  He hopes the class of 2017 has the skills to change the country. "A lot of people are divided. I think we need to get back to caring about one another," he said.

'It's our time'

The message was also welcomed by Saha Jamshed, a Muslim who was born in Afghanistan. She's been in the U.S. for 35 years and considers herself an American, yet fears discrimination. She wants others to know that she will use her masters degree to "devote my career to benefiting the country."

A similar idealism animated students at the University of Southern California, where Jay Woo has just graduated with a degree in cinema. Woo recalled numerous classroom conversations about diversity and unity at the Los Angeles institution, and said that is what all graduates should contribute to the world.

"It's our time as young leaders to show the way of what the future is holding," he said.

Michael O'Sullivan, Ramon Taylor and Tina Trinh contributed to this report.