Apodaca: There is still hope for college graduates

With one son just graduated from college and the other a rising high school senior, my boys represent opposite bookends of the college experience.

Education is one of the things — perhaps the only thing — that keeps humanity moving forward, and forestalls the forces of darkness and defeatism.

I've always believed that.

So you'd think that after a whirlwind of commencement ceremonies, graduation parties and college tours over the past several weeks I'd be energized and encouraged about the future. Instead, my head is spinning and I'm a bit dazed from the mash-up of platitudes and hype that are the hallmarks of these occasions.

There was a certain sameness to all the commencement speeches, a repetitious drone of words and phrases — "find your passion," "chase your dream," "give back to your community" — that had the effect of putting audiences in a somnolent state.

I also observed a stunning similarity among all the college information sessions and tours we attended for my younger son — I lost count after about the sixth campus — that tended to result in the opposite effect to what was intended.

Rather than setting themselves apart, every college promised the same wonderful experience in diversity, dynamism and world-class education. They all invariably trotted out a selection of chirpy students who testified with unwavering enthusiasm about why their school is the coolest place on earth.

Not surprisingly, the admissions representatives were careful to focus on the many attributes of their institutions before lowering the boom as to the price tag for all that awesomeness.

"It would be great if someone said, 'Eh, we're really just average,'" my son quipped at one point.

Punctuating all these events were nervous conversations among parents who inevitably asked each other some variation of the same question: What is your kid going to do with his life?

Good question. As much as I value learning for learning's sake, it's tough not to wonder if my hard-earned money and my kids' academic achievements will buy them the bright futures we'd all bargained for.

The strange zeitgeist of our age was perhaps best captured by the now-famous commencement address delivered this spring by David McCullough Jr., son of the esteemed historian, at a Massachusetts high school.

"None of you is special," McCullough declared repeatedly, while lamenting our society's penchant for valuing "accolades more than genuine achievement."

As much as his stinging remarks were aimed at the kids, they also seemed intended to bring parents down a notch.

These would be the parents who put their infants on waiting lists for the best preschools; the ones who applauded a bit too loudly when their kids received "participation awards," and fought with coaches over their children's playing time.

McCullough needn't worry. Our notions regarding our kids' specialness tend to come to a screeching halt when faced with today's job market.

More than half of America's recent college graduates are either unemployed or working in menial jobs, the Associated Press recently reported. Good luck using waitress tips to pay off a loan for that fancy degree from one of those "world-class" $50,000-a-year schools.

The issue was brought home when I ran into a friend just after my return to Newport Beach. Her daughter graduated more than a year ago from one of the world's most prestigious universities, yet she was still struggling even to begin a path toward a successful career.

Indeed, most of the new college graduates I know are accepting — no, competing for — unpaid internships as a means of bulking up their resumes, or simply because they don't know what else to do.

Working for nothing is the new normal.

Is it really as depressing as all that? After all our teeth-gnashing anxiety about our kids' schooling, is it all just a joke?

Surprisingly, McCullough, the guy who scolded graduates that they weren't special, also struck a heartening note, a call to arms if you will.

"The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement," he said, urging students to "carpe the heck out of the diem."

"Get busy, have at it," McCullough counseled. "Don't wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands."

Granted, it's another variation of the hackneyed "follow your passion" speech. Yet such advice carries a certain relevant urgency today that can't be dismissed.

I thought about that on the plane flight home, while reading the best-selling biography of the late, great Steve Jobs, who certainly carped the heck out of his diems.

He also gave a famous commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, in which he used his life lessons to put his own spin on the "passion" message. He told graduates to trust that the dots would connect — i.e., all that learning would eventually pay off — that setbacks can provide clarity and purpose, and that they must summon courage to become the people they truly want to be.

Jobs succeeded in inventing a future that we didn't even know we needed. We must take heart and trust that among today's youth are the thinkers and innovators who will take on the problems we've willed to them and create new worlds from their imaginations.

In other words, things might be a bit tough right now, but they'll figure it out.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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