The irresistible aroma of popcorn mingled with tangible end-of-the-year tension in Cornell Cinema’s Willard Straight Theatre during the annual screenings of the 1967 classic The Graduate. An e-mail sent to the Class of 2009 described it as “the quintessential graduation movie,” and just two weeks before Commencement the theater was packed. Many, like myself, were not first-time viewers of the Academy Award-winning film, quoting the lines of a young Dustin Hoffman and singing along to Simon and Garfunkel’s catchy soundtrack. Walking back to Collegetown in the light rain, we discussed its genius camera angles and debated the famous ending, when Hoffman and Katharine Ross escape her wedding and ride off into ambiguity.
Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a recent grad from an anonymous Northeast school who returns home restless and gets entangled in an affair with Mrs. Robinson, his neighbor and the wife of his father’s business partner—then falls in love with her daughter. Plot aside, the theater was packed for the same reason I paid my $4 admission two nights in a row: the depiction of a disillusioned college graduate from four decades ago still speaks to us.
The film is particularly poignant to the Class of 2009, facing a daunting job market in a depressed economy. Cornell grads who’d planned to go straight from the Hill to Wall Street might instead find themselves staring at the ceiling to “The Sounds of Silence” in their childhood bedrooms. In a famous scene, a family friend takes Benjamin aside during his graduation party and offers one word of career advice: “plastics.” Because, of course, graduating from college gives the world permission to ask us the age-old question of what we’re going to do with our lives.
Many of us have long been given two pieces of advice: get ahead and do what you love. Graduating from an Ivy League school, it’s easy to have the false impression that getting in and out of Cornell was the hard part, and it’s all downhill from here. But success seems awfully hard to come by these days; the economy is beeping an alarm, but we can no longer hit the snooze button.
As President Skorton noted in his Commencement address, this year less than 20 percent of graduating seniors nationwide who applied for a job have one—a drop of more than 30 percent since 2007. Many have sought shelter in graduate or professional school or in public service programs. Thirty-two members of the Class of 2009 are going into the Peace Corps, forty-one into Teach for America, and 390 into AmeriCorps. Teach for America alone has seen a 42 percent increase in applications—more than 35,000, including 11 percent of all Ivy League seniors. According to the group’s founder, this year it had to reject candidates who would previously have been accepted. Qualified and dedicated people are being turned away—though in these tough times, the need for them has only increased.
For me, a new cum laude graduate? Of all things, I want to be a journalist. In my four years on the Daily Sun, my colleagues and I toiled to put out a newspaper every morning while the industry we were training for crumbled around us. Major publications are falling even faster than U.S. auto giants. The Hearst Corporation threatens to close the 144-year-old San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe projects losses of $85 million this year, and even the venerable New York Times has resorted to layoffs and cutbacks.
I will briefly weather the crisis in a master’s program in journalism and international relations at NYU, but I’m not giving up. In uncertain times pragmatism often trumps passion, and I fear that my generation will see our dreams stifled by jobs they dislike but had to take. I don’t want to settle for a career I don’t love; the world has enough plastics already.
—Molly O’Toole ’09