Taking the Plunge

Saad Mahmoud is a Rice engineering grad. Instead of fielding $60,000-a-year job offers, he's been trading manual-labor skills for rent-free living -- while waiting out one of the worst job markets in two decades.

"I feel like now it's killing my spirit," she says.

It's also killing her wallet. Kit budgets her salary very carefully, but she has about $14,000 in student loans that she is determined to pay off on her own. Her mother has urged her to move back in with her to save money, but Kit says it's important to her to make it by herself, although she acknowledges raiding her mother's refrigerator occasionally to cut back on food costs. She also took a second job at Crate and Barrel for three months over the holidays to pay for new furniture, which meant leaving her day job at 5:30 to work from 6 p.m. to sometimes as late as 11 p.m. at her second one.

"I never realized how difficult it is to have two jobs, and I'm single," she says. "I work with one woman who's 34 with two kids working three jobs. I have a new respect for people with more than one job."

Rice graduate Rob Gaddi finally got a job at Baylor after a year of searching -- paying almost $30,000 less than he was expecting.
Daniel Kramer
Rice graduate Rob Gaddi finally got a job at Baylor after a year of searching -- paying almost $30,000 less than he was expecting.
UH's David Small says graduates must lower expectations in a rough job market.
Daniel Kramer
UH's David Small says graduates must lower expectations in a rough job market.

But Kit admits what bothers her the most is not her money problems but the emotional stress of a job she never thought she'd have to take for this long.

"There were times when I pulled into the parking garage and just started crying," she says. She would pull herself out of her depression by reminding herself that there were people who were completely unemployed and without any resources at all. And by admitting to herself that she was going to have to be a grown-up eventually.

"I'm realizing so many things," she says. "It's true when they say, 'Stay a kid for as long as you can.' At home, going to football games and parties, when my biggest problem was what was I going to wear the next day…but you can't go home."

That's what Rob Gaddi and Saad Mahmoud keep reminding themselves. Anything is worth not going home. For Saad, that means sleeping at friends' houses because the garage apartment he's working on doesn't have a functioning AC unit yet. For Rob, that means taking on an extra research job at Rice and volunteer bartending at the Rice pub so he can be eligible for 50-cent beers.

"The beer is cheap, and it's somewhere that's not staring at the walls," he says.

Both grads cook at home to save money on food, although Saad jokes rice is cheap but it's the cost of the soy sauce that gets him. Rob prefers spaghetti. And although he would love to live closer to work, Rob wisely chose an apartment near U.S. 59 South and Buffalo Speedway. That was one of his many money-saving decisions.

"I rebelled against the cable man," says Rob. Then he admits, "But I splurged. I got the expensive rabbit ears."

While Rob spent his senior year agonizing over finding a job, his fellow Rice classmate Maryann Bylander didn't send out one résumé, proving that not every recent college graduate is worrying about how to make ends meet or how to find that perfect job.

"I didn't look for a job at all," says Maryann nonchalantly. "The fact that jobs are so hard to come by and I don't know what I really want to do had something to do with it."

The 22-year-old political science major had always had vague plans to apply to law school, and despite a surge in law school applications she was accepted at the University of Texas at Austin early in her senior year. But instead of feeling relief that her postgraduation plans were set, she instead felt tempted to try something completely different.

"There's so much emphasis on getting a job, getting on the fast track," says Maryann. "It's hard for me to envision myself getting a job that I know I'll want for the rest of my life right now."

She had spent part of her junior year studying in France and Switzerland, and she had always enjoyed learning languages and exploring other cultures. Before she even applied to law school she had discovered the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) on the Internet and had sent in an application. The 16-year-old program sends Americans to Japan to work for one year as assistant teachers in English language classes. To Maryann it sounded like an adventure.

"It was a pretty difficult application process," she remembers. In addition to a written application, she had an interview at the Houston office of the consulate-general of Japan. When she discovered she'd been accepted to teach at a school an hour south of Tokyo, she decided to go for it.

"There are no ties right now," she reasons. "There is never going to be another time like this. There's nothing holding you back."

Maryann leaves at the end of July. In Japan, she'll be paid the equivalent of about $30,000 for her year of work. Like most JET members, she speaks no Japanese at all, although she hopes to take an intensive class in the language before she goes. She acknowledges there will be culture shock, but she sounds like she's almost looking forward to it. As for when she gets back, Maryann says she thinks she'll start at UT law -- the school agreed to defer her acceptance for a year. Still, Maryann says that step in her life isn't definite. And she doesn't sound worried about that at all.

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