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Struggles but no regrets: They graduated during, and survived, the Great Recession

Ashley Ross crossed the graduation stage at Johnson C. Smith University 10 years ago with a smile, a degree and big dreams. But what awaited the first-generation college student was anything but hopeful.

Like the rest of the country then, Charlotte’s economy was in the middle of the Great Recession and Mecklenburg County’s unemployment rate was 10.4% — a 20-year high. The picture was even worse for new college graduates.

Ross finished school just as the national unemployment rate soared to 15% for people ages 20 to 24.

The Charlotte Observer recently spoke with four people who graduated from local universities in 2009. They shared stories of personal struggles and job insecurity at the height of the recession. They recalled taking low-wage jobs while wondering how they would repay tens of thousands of dollars of student debt.

Ten years in, they’re all employed. But economists are warning of another economic downturn as soon as 2020 or 2021, and a new generation of college graduates could soon face the same challenges.

Students graduating during a recession are hit especially hard, said Kenny Colbert, president of human resources consulting company The Employers Association. In an economic downturn, graduates may not find jobs in their industry of choice, if at all, and often take low-paying jobs out of necessity, Colbert said.

It’s the kind of compromise that can affect a young person’s career trajectory and earning potential in the long-term, Colbert said.

“Everybody was kind of hurt by the recession,” he said. “But some are always hurt more than others.”

Ashley Ross

Ross experienced this hurt first-hand. Even after earning an undergraduate degree in criminology and a Master’s in Public Administration, she had to work in a Kohl’s stockroom.

“As a millennial we always want to put on a brave face,” she said. “No matter what the situation is, even if we are dead broke, we’re still at Starbucks.”

Ross said she was not ashamed about working at Kohl’s. She hopes young people, and especially people of color like herself, will be inspired by her non-traditional career path.

As the first in her family to go to college, Ross had a lot to prove. She was raised by her mother, who was the director of a Boys and Girls Club in Ross’ hometown of Atlantic City, N.J. Her mother worked tirelessly, but couldn’t afford to buy her own home or pay her daughter’s college tuition.

ASHLEY_ROSS_MILLENNIAL_03.jpg
From left, Justin Ross, his wife Ashley Ross, and their 1-year-old daughter Naomi in their Gastonia home. Ashley is still grappling with the effects on her career and earnings caused in part by the recession. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Ross took out close to $100,000 in student loans for her undergraduate degree, a master’s degree from the University of Illinois, Springfield, and an online PhD program she did not complete. She is still paying them off.

After graduating with her master’s in 2011, the market was still in recovery.

Ross wanted to work in the nonprofit sector and after getting her graduate degree she found a job as assistant director of grants and contracts at the same Boys and Girls Club where her mom had worked when Ross was growing up. She was happy to find a job in her field, but was only making $25,000 a year.

Now, Ross is area director of the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina in Charlotte, a nonprofit that works to find permanent homes for children in foster homes. She enjoys her job, but she is also a part-time entrepreneur.

To protect against another recession, Ross said she and her husband run several side businesses. The couple own an interior design firm, Muse Noire, manage an Airbnb behind their Gastonia home and run a child sunglasses business, Nomi Noire, that benefits their 1-year-old daughter Naomi’s college fund.

Ross said her daughter will be raised in a two-parent household, in a family that owns their own home and has friends with successful professional careers.

For her part, Ross said she always tries to stay positive.

“All of my life experiences I’m so excited to now give to our daughter,” she said. “This 1-year-old has no idea the stuff that we have in store for her to show her.”

Casey Ferri

When Casey Ferri imagined law school, her vision did not include working more than 35 hours a week in a law office while also a full-time student.

After starting at Winthrop University with the goal of being a teacher, she decided to attend law school for a chance to make more money.

Ferri graduated from Winthrop and enrolled at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., in 2009, but quickly realized that the Great Recession killed any chance of getting a cushy job and six-figure salary right out of law school.

So she worked full-time at a law office while getting her law degree, even though her professors advised against it. Even then, she still took out loans.

But the work was worth it. Two years after graduation, Ferri and her husband paid off the $70,000 they had collectively taken out for their graduate degrees.

Casey Ferri
When she started at Winthrop University as an undergraduate, Casey thought she would become a teacher. Instead she worked more than 35 hours a week while in law school to earn more money. Courtesy of Casey Ferri

Entry-level jobs in the law profession were scarce at the time, Ferri said, and she could not find a job practicing elder law, which she had specialized in at Stetson. So, she started her own practice.

“I never would have done that otherwise,” she said.

Ferri said she came out stronger because of it. Today, Ferri practices elder law and estate planning at a Charlotte firm.

If there’s another recession, Ferri said she and her husband would not suffer as much because they live below their means and have money saved.

Her advice for students graduating during a recession: be the best at what you do. “There’s always room for the best at the top,” she said.

Julieta Cunningham

Julieta Cunningham’s dream was to design offices as an interior designer. Yet when she graduated from Winthrop University in 2009, she couldn’t find a job in her field.

Even two years earlier, Cunningham said she had seen her classmates get jobs in interior design. But she had taken out over $100,000 in student loans and needed work.

She ended up in a commission-based job selling carpets in Asheville. When she sold carpet to a customer, she often pitched her interior design services, but with little success.

“There wasn’t a lot of talk about doing extra at the time,” she said.

Julieta Cunningham
Although Julieta Cunningham wanted to be an interior designer after graduating from Winthrop in 2009, she ended up selling carpet. Today, she uses her interior design knowledge to advise her friends and family. Courtesy of Julieta Cunningham

After several years, she gave up the search for interior design jobs and took out more loans to get a master’s degree in arts administration.

Cunningham is now the production manager of licensed products at Springs Creative Products Group, a textile company in Rock Hill. She said she’s disappointed to have had to give up interior design as a career. Still, she uses what she learned to give her friends and family interior design advice on the side.

She has not finished paying off her loans.

“I don’t regret anything that I did because all of it was an experience,” she said.

Elisabeth Blum

When Elisabeth Blum graduated from Queens University of Charlotte in 2009 with a degree in corporate communication, she saw her classmates taking unpaid internships or going to grad school to defer their job search.

So her friends could not believe it when she landed a job at a nonprofit doing work related to her degree — even if it was a temporary position that paid by the hour.

“People were impressed that I had landed my tiddly little nonprofit job and they said, ‘Oh you’re set,’ ” Blum said with a laugh. “At least you have a place to go to every day.”

But it took her almost eight years to reach the salary she thinks she could have made if she had graduated in a different year.

Elisabeth Blum
Elisabeth Blum graduated from Queens University in 2009 with a degree in corporate communication. She was able to land a job right out of college, which surprised many of her friends and classmates who had not found work because of the recession. Courtesy of Elisabeth Blum

The effect on her pay was so stark that years later, when she was negotiating a raise with her boss he told her she was not asking for enough. He thought she had been making more money.

Blum, now the marketing communications manager at HVAC company, Carrier Corp. in Charlotte, said graduates from the class of 2009 need to work toward better salaries by asking for raises.

“Most of the time you have all the cards,” she said. “They’re not going to fire you for saying you had an amazing year.”

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