In terms of life's stages, the years spent in college are mapped out pretty well.

College experiences are so common, they have been condensed to just a few orange blocks on the game of LIFE - earn a scholarship, make new friends, study abroad, take a spring break trip, write a term paper (next turn) then graduate.

And then what? The game lets players choose a career card; some of Grand Valley's newest graduates wish it were that easy.

"It's hard," Grand Rapids native Emily Sellers said. "I'm a person who needs structure and things planned out. This is what I don't know."

Sellers' choice is becoming increasingly popular. She'll spend a year working in the southeast United States for AmeriCorps. It's Generation Y's Peace Corps -- participants are helping, gaining experience, yet living relatively comfortably.

Although sociologists would argue that in today's world college graduates are not yet considered adults, Sellers and her peers are facing adult situations: work, marriage, debt. Representatives from the Counseling and Career Development Center call the period after graduation a year of transition. And they say many new alumni aren't ready for the change.

Barbara Palombi, counseling center director, said so much time in college is spent on securing a career but so little time is spent on all that goes with it. She would like to require that graduating students attend a seminar on managing finances and coping with work and life pressures.

"Some students have no idea what it means to work," she said. "So much is expended on getting a career. Now they have a job and find that the freedom they are used to is not there. They may have had responsibility, but it was spread over many things, not focused on one thing."

Securing a job is one anxiety of a host of pressures that welcome students after they receive a diploma. Topping the list for many is repaying student loans, followed by relocating, marrying or finding new friends and/or a partner. Of course, generations of adults have felt the same pressures when they graduated, but the current 20-somethings are different.

Don Williams, longtime professor of sociology, said the age people are considered adults by today's standards keeps moving up. "We have a term, 'youth,' and we keep tapping the lower end down and moving the upper end up, so this group of college kids becomes the post-high school youth group," he said.

Williams, who joined Grand Valley's faculty in 1969, said society's conveniences and the influence of parents are partially to blame for keeping college students youthful. Not that it's a bad thing, he added.

"In the 1960s it was the norm to graduate and then get married," he said. "These folks are going to grad school; getting married is the exception. When you look at the engagements and marriages in the Grand Rapids Press, most are nearing 30. So that's five-plus years out of college."

"It's exciting for them," he continued. "These folks have got a window and they're making the bridge into adulthood last longer."

Students said their peers who will leave Michigan for a job are those not in serious relationships. Matt Hendricks and Kalie Johnson each found teaching jobs in Florida. (Grand Valley has partnerships with several Florida school districts.)

Hendricks said his decision to move was aided by Michigan's struggling economy. "If I were staying in Michigan, I would be one of 900 applicants for one job in Saugatuck, Allendale, anywhere in West Michigan," he said. "This is an opportunity for experience."

His thoughts about marriage, Hendricks said, are tainted by the country's divorce statistics. "The divorce rates are scary. It's scary enough to support yourself," he said.

Johnson said she was happy to follow her mother's advice of first landing a career then a relationship. "It's definitely easier to move without being in a relationship; otherwise, you'd be having fights," she said.

Although he's not currently with a girlfriend, Kevin Timmer will stay in Grand Rapids and continue working at Grand Valley as interim director of the Language Resource Center. While he's happy to have a full-time job that interests him, Timmer said it leaves him feeling a little like George Bailey, the character Jimmy Stewart played in It's a Wonderful Life.

"I've been pretty much wrapped up in the language lab all throughout college," said Timmer, a French language graduate. "It's kind of been a blessing and a curse." Bailey never left Bedford Falls, but Timmer plans to leave Grand Rapids. He wants to move to France next year to teach English classes.

While certainly not unusual, administrators and faculty members said Grand Valley students who leave West Michigan -- with or without partners -- are somewhat bucking the trend. Kathleen Underwood, associate professor of history and coordinator of the Women and Gender Studies Program, said the area's social climate and conservative base have a strong pull on students.

Before moving to Grand Rapids, Underwood taught at universities in Southern California and Texas. She said more Grand Valley students remain close to home after graduation than students at her other universities. "It's the path of least resistance," Underwood said. "There are so few times in life that you make real decisions. Very seldom does anyone do something out of a path that's set.

Think about what they would be trading," she said. "Many have loving, caring families here."

When making post-graduate plans, Joy (Wu) Barsaleau considered not just proximity to her family but to her new husband's family. Joy married Joshua Barsaleau in 2003, when both were still undergraduates. They lived in Campus View Apartments for a year before finding a rent-to-own home in Wyoming last year.

Barsaleau laughed when she recalled her freshmen year vow to herself. "I came to college with a general mindset of being there not to date," she said.

She met Joshua, a nursing major who graduated in August, shortly after enrolling at Grand Valley in 2000. They married, she said, "because we are both strong Christians and wanted to stick to our Christian beliefs."

Barsaleau graduated in April with a physical education degree and a plan to teach PE and health education classes. She knew the local market would offer few teaching opportunities, so she began working in sales at a furniture store in Grandville. She has had an offer to move into a management position.

"We could have moved and I could have found a teaching job elsewhere, but Joshua wants to work at DeVos Children's Hospital," she said. "So, yes, our choices have caused us to be where we are. But if I hadn't met him, I wouldn't have enjoyed my college experience that much."

A student community of like-minded people creates a tremendous dating pool. Some soon-to-be graduates grow tired of swimming in the pool and are ready to find a potential mate. Artina Drake, a finance graduate, said it was hard not to notice the growing number of women in her classes wearing diamond rings.

"It seemed everyone had an engagement ring," said Drake, who is in a serious relationship and said she expects to be married within two years. "It was better for me not to be engaged during school. It's very time consuming and you would have a lot to daydream about.

"I think it's better to be married once you finish school," she said. "But you can't wait too long to have kids, so it's good to be married for a time with no kids."

Others, too, have a timeline in mind. Janae Currington, who earned a communications degree and is now pursuing a master's degree, said she would like to be married before she turns 30 but that it's more important to first get her finances in order.

Barsaleau added that it's common for women to compare themselves to other women. "When you're seeing everyone around you with an engagement ring and you're not engaged, you begin to ask, 'What's wrong with me?,'" she said.

Many men, apparently, aren't asking themselves that question. At the counseling center, Palombi said the majority of appointments made by women involve relationship issues. "Women have a harder time than men with relationships," Palombi said. "Women are self-sacrificing, and more often find themselves putting others first and not necessarily taking care of themselves. And that can become exhausting."

While graduating from college caused Timmer's dating pool to "dry up," he said he's enjoying his freedom. And, well, not having a car causes problems when you have to pick up your date. He had planned to buy a car over the summer, but Timmer said he wants to concentrate on getting a good start on student loan payments.

As a graduate who owes $20,000 in student loans, Timmer joins a large club. More than 40 percent of U.S. college students owe more than $20,000 in student loans, according to the New York Public Interest Group's Higher Education Project.

To save money, Timmer lives with friends in a downtown Grand Rapids apartment. Drake lives alone and is a few months into a new job at an American Express branch office. Because her salary is based on commissions, she worked a lot of overtime hours in the summer. She owes about $23,000 in student loans; consolidating her loans gave her a 2 percent interest rate but no grace period before repayment began.

"I'm pretty good about budgeting and I know what I have to do," she said. "Now if I do it is another story, but I do know how to budget. One good thing is that I've been in business since high school, so I didn't have to grow a wardrobe." These students have likely heard many pieces of advice since graduating. Palombi offered one more:

"Students need to slow down. You can have a five-year plan, but you need to realize that you have to focus on the here and now," she said. "They need to know it's going to take a year to make friends, find a job, get organized. For one year, it will be chaotic."

Drake said she's enthusiastic and ready to welcome the chaos. "I have a lot of faith that I'll be successful," she said.

Ah, life.

Page last modified March 17, 2014