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Uncertain futures bring anxiety, excitement to MU graduates

Thursday, May 15, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:10 a.m. CDT, Thursday, May 15, 2014
Soon-to-be MU alumni worry about their futures as Friday's graduation approaches. Whether they are bound for jobs, research abroad or more schooling, facing change is a challenge across the board.

COLUMBIA — Peyton Higgins, who is graduating from MU on Saturday, has been offered a job as a respiratory therapist at a Kansas City hospital. But first, he has to pass the National Board exams.

Leah Sandler, graduating with a master's degree in plant sciences, is anxious about leaving her family and friends to head to Liberia for a year to teach and help farmers find solutions to their problems.

Rob King, graduating with a bachelor's degree in information technology, isn't sure where his freelance work as a mobile app designer will come from, and he's worried about paying off student loans.

Ben Simon, graduating with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, wonders how he'll fill his hours after he gets off work at Monsanto's headquarters in St. Louis.

Up until this point, things have been fairly structured for the more than 5,300 students participating in commencement ceremonies this weekend. A good 16 or more years of their lives have been focused on investing in their human capital — studying at one educational institution or another, usually with the end goal of finding a career and a job.

Graduating senior Phillip Simpkins said he didn't have a choice about going to college.

"It wasn't like it was anything that was discussed," he said. "I was told as soon as I was a junior in high school, 'Oh, by the way, you're going to college.'"

Now, though, his destination isn't so certain and gray haze clouds his future.

"If I'm sitting in class and I'm bored, all I can think about is what lies ahead for me," Simpkins said. "A lot of people are real nervous because they don't know where their lives are headed. I know what I want to do, and I know the different avenues I'm going to use to possibly make my dreams come true, so that's all I got."

In December 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, the unemployment rate for 20 to 29-year-olds who earned a bachelor’s degree in May 2011 was 13.5 percent. The unemployment rate for those who earned an advanced degree that same year was 8.6 percent. Women who earned a a bachelor’s degree in May 2011 had a slightly lower unemployment rate than that year’s male graduates.

First steps

As a communications and English major and a host of KCOU's "Damn Good Jams" at 10 p.m. every Thursday, Simpkins wants to leave his mark on the world through radio.

On "Damn Good Jams," he said, he tries to get listeners to drop their preconceptions about hip-hop and understand how he sees it, as a means of expression.

Off the air, Simpkins reaches out to the community by participating in mentorship programs in Columbia schools and talking to high school students, some of whom he has had as guests on his show.

"I've seen some of the things that go on in Columbia in terms of some of the areas people consider impoverished," Simpkins said. "They just really need someone to like, encourage them and spawn their interest and creativity instead of doing stuff ... that can get them locked up. I feel that if I could pretty much break in here, I could implement programs that will keep those kids on the right path."

Simpkins dreams of taking the community-centered program worldwide and having a nationally syndicated show like on-air talents Tom Joyner and Rickey Smiley, whose shows he listened to back home on Chicago's south side.

But with no job lined up, these first few steps after graduation are uncertain. He is considering two job offers, though.

"It does make you a little nervous because the real world is waiting outside those doors as soon as I'm done," he said. "But at the same time, that fear is what gives me confidence. ... As much as I'm sitting here on pins and needles and trying to keep my cool, I'm actually very giddy to see what life has in store for me."

Simpkins said he finds confidence through his religious faith and by being a rock for his girlfriend and an example for his little brothers.

"There were a lot of times, especially growing up where I grew up, where it just — I guess I just wasn't supposed to make it this far," he said. "And to think I actually got here, I'm like, if I could do this, everything else after the fact will be doable.

"I'm just going to tell my story, and the rest is going to be beautiful, for real."

Collective worrying

Regardless of what they will do or whether their plan is more or less certain, everyone seems to be worrying. Connor Wangler, graduating with a bachelor's degree in international studies and geography, bemoans this collective worrying.

"I think it's bad," he said. "It was a few weeks ago that I finally had everything done and I was like, 'All right, I'm good,' and all my other friends were worrying about health plans and 401(k)s. And I was like, 'Maybe I need to worry about more things.'"

Wangler is among those extending his formal education by pursuing a master's degree in public and international affairs in security and intelligence studies, so his worries are different.

"I think the end of your senior year is marked by just always worrying about something," he said. "It's a big transition in life from school to a career, but it's how you approach that transition that's kind of different."

'Life happens'

Keisha Greene, a health sciences graduate who has been accepted into MU's nursing program, admits she doesn't handle the uncertainty well. She hates not knowing what will happen, as her plans for graduate school are contingent on whether she passes her pharmacology course.

"I plan my life out — like, every step," Greene said. "I have friends who don't know what they want to do when they graduate — that would freak me out. I have to have some idea of where I'm going. I couldn't not."

Greene said in that sense, she takes after father, who always told her she needed to have a plan. Her mother and little brother, on the other hand, are more carefree. They all bump heads as a result, she said, but they're the reason she wants to be successful.

"I feel like I've been motivated because I want to do well for other people, not necessarily always for myself," Greene said. "I feel like I'm kind of living for my little brother, doing things he won't get to do because of his mental disability. ... I want to break stereotypes of being a black female in college ... not only for my brother, but also for me and the people that don't have the same opportunity."

Until she finds out her pharmacology grade, Greene is trying to keep these motivating factors in mind so she won't freak out. She said she's learning to adopt her mother and brother's "life happens" philosophy.

"It's hard to think like that," she said. "Once I'm thrown into the real world, I feel like the only option I have is to have that mentality. Because if not, I'm going to basically be miserable when life hits me, so I'm trying to work on that now."

Forward movements

Greene said her older friends who have gone through the transition out of undergraduate schooling share this "life happens" outlook.

Chima Nwora, who studied biology as an undergraduate at MU and is graduating with a master's degree in public health, said he has always thought like that. When he reflects on his transition from undergraduate to graduate, though, he understands the worrying.

"It is kind of crazy to think about," Nwora said. "You go through high school, college, and then you are expected once you leave college to have enough of an education to go do something with your life. You have a life now that you must live. ... When you think about that, it is kind of daunting."

Nwora said he can't have a worry-filled mindset. His path to medical school is still unclear, but he finds solace in moving toward his end goals.

"Complaining isn't conducive to figuring it out," Nwora said. "The world is an uncertain place, and there are legitimate worries you should have. But if you want to become something outside of college, you'll figure it out as long as you take the necessary steps to get there."

"If that's called worrying, thinking about the future, however you want to describe that thought, then do that," he said. "But you'll cross that bridge when you get to that bridge. You'll figure it out."

Missourian reporters Laura Cole, Christa Corrigan, Thomas Dixon, Kylee Gregg and Makenzie Koch contributed to this story.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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Comments

Ellis Smith May 15, 2014 | 8:03 a.m.

What makes this article particularly interesting is the students you've chosen and photographed. Based solely on their career choices (obviously, I don't know them personally and can't comment upon their personalities or capabilities) they have chosen career paths such that they WILL CONTINUE TO BE EMPLOYABLE IN THE FUTURE, and will be better equipped to weather what is going to be a rough road ahead for our country than many of this year's college graduates.

BTW, since one photo shows a model airplane, MS&T has "cleaned up" in both Eastern and Western division competitions for model aircraft, offsetting their sinking performance with solar-powered racing cars (main problem with the latter being the present ridiculous cost just to remain competitive).

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