The Class of 2009
The Class of 2009 gets ready to march in their commencement ceremony.

The classes of 2008 and 2009 faced one of the most challenging job markets in decades, as the U.S. reeled from the impacts of the Great Recession.

The Class of 2020 faces an equally uncertain job market, with hiring slowing and the unemployment rate rising in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To help these students navigate this stressful time, the Student Engagement Center turned to Whitman College alumni who graduated during the recession years to share their wisdom and encouragement with this year’s class.

Below is their advice:

Use Your Existing Connections

Andrew Johnson ’09, philosophy, Associate Director, Residence Life & Housing, Whitman College: 

“When I graduated in 2009, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of options open to me at the time. There was a lot of uncertainty both about what I wanted and what was available. I used a connection I had made from a job on campus, and through that I was able to get my first job after college. I wasn’t sure it was an area I wanted to work in, but it surprised me in meaningful and positive ways. Look for ways to make connections through experiences you had through Whitman, and don’t be afraid to try out a new kind of work or move to a new city. It’s a good time to take chances and try something new. And just because the job market might be bad now doesn’t mean that it won’t be really good in a couple years when you’re looking to transition to a new position or pursue a graduate degree.”   

Put Yourself Out There

Justin Daigneault ’09, biology, clinical supervisor, Youth Eastside Services:

“Figure out connections and networking opportunities you already have access to, and those that you may not have used yet, but could. Think of friends, family, online connections and attending networking events to meet new people. Examine your strengths and what you’re good at and what transferable skills you have that could be leveraged. Figure out ideal job options that you could explore and what secondary options might not be ideal, but are still a reasonable or realistic option for you or could be a stepping stone to a more ideal career path later on to build from. Don’t be afraid to apply to many different positions and put yourself out there for opportunities, even the ones you think you might not be qualified for or even be considered for. Going through that process will still help you build skills and practice for when the right opportunity comes along.

After graduation, I ended up using my strengths and connections already in place and applied to a job on campus. I also applied to some graduate school programs and opportunities abroad to cast a wide net, but ultimately chose to start making some money before accruing more debt. This helped me to pause after graduation to try something else out before getting into my future career, and I was able to practice and hone skills I could use later on.”

Be Willing to Imagine Outside the Box

Aisha Fukushima '09, rhetoric and film studies, RAPtivism founder:

Create Your Own Success

Leslie Beach ’08, English, Interim Director of Outings, Marin Academy:

“I think the brilliance of the Class of ’08 has been to build a strong sense of our own goalposts. The things many of us were told meant success — annual salaries, promotions, a linear rise of accomplishment and security — were never really on the table for us, so we found other ways to hold each other up. We have strong ties with our friends. We value scrappiness and resourcefulness. On our best days, we remember that we are not our productivity, that our contributions to our community can be measured in many ways. And we’re willing to settle and then build — take something humble and make it more.

I would say to hold long term goals lightly, to do work that you find interesting enough and meaningful enough even if it’s far from perfect, and to build strong relationships, because you never know where they’ll take you. Also, precarity and resiliency are two sides of the same coin. I wish it were otherwise — for my class and yours — but I think we’re in a place to build a better world, to let go of the structures that no longer serve us and build up the ones that do. Let Whitties be part of this important work!”

Befriend the Uncertainty

Katie Price ’09, sociology, social worker, Harborview Center for Sexual Assault & Traumatic Stress: 

“Something I learned from graduating into an unstable economy is that uncertainty, scary as it may be, is something to befriend. We live in a culture that clings to the idea of security and attributes success to hard work. Times like this can remind us that we’re all vulnerable and to realize that while hard work is important, there may be other values to prioritize. Graduating right after the financial collapse, I learned to be flexible when applying for jobs, to adjust my expectations, take things less personally and appreciate the opportunities that did arise. 

I ended up spending more time in nature and less time focusing on building a career my first year out of college. Over a decade later, I look back at that first year out of college with fondness and nostalgia. I wish I’d been more gentle with myself about taking time for the economy to recover some and for me to figure things out and realized that, while it may be a setback professionally, I had a long time to cultivate professional skills and build a career. Today, I have a career I love, have had a few setbacks and have learned that failure is a part of growth. 

I know this is a really hard time for so many of us. I’m so sorry this is happening and I hope you’re able to find some gifts during this time. You’ll certainly have some incredible perspective to share with generations to come!”

There are Different Ways to Get a Job

Lisa Taylor '08, piano performance, vice president of marketing, Redfin

You Will Get Through This

Jens-Erik Lund Snee ’09, geology, research geologist, US. Geological Survey 

“This probably isn’t the way that you thought your out-of-college career launch would go. Many people who graduated between 2009–2010 were set back a few years in their careers and earnings, including my wife and many friends. I spent nine months living somewhere I hated because I found an internship (which became a job) roughly in my field. Despite the first few years of setbacks, many of my Whitman friends and acquaintances have become quite successful in the last few years. 

  • You will get through this. Remember that as a college graduate you will be among the best placed to weather this storm. 
  • Be prepared: the job market will be discouraging and leaving college can be a shock even in good times. I remember submitting endless job applications that I never heard back from. Older people had plenty of outdated advice (“Just walk into their office and tell them you want the job, and they’ll reward you for your determination.” I’ve never heard of anyone my generation or younger getting a job that way). It was especially frustrating to see so many jobs advertised that required a few years of experience — how does someone get experience if they can’t get a job in the first place? 
  • Try to gain useful experience whatever way you can. What I found is that relevant experience can come from somewhere other than a good first job. This is an excellent time to apply for graduate school, fellowships, etc. Graduate school was my savior. I applied for graduate school and a Fulbright Fellowship in the summer and fall after I graduated and was lucky enough to get both. Just one would have been enough to let me sit out that terrible job market while building skills.
    • If you are considering graduate school, especially in the sciences, try to get as much research experience as you possibly can while still at Whitman and/or in the time after you graduate. Research experience is one of the keys to being admitted to a top-notch graduate program. If you don’t have it, don’t despair — you might be able to gain it by working for pay (hopefully) or at least volunteering part-time somewhere like a university. 
    • Volunteer work related to your career interests is also valuable, if you can set aside time to do that. I still list volunteering I was involved with in the U.S. Geological Survey during that dark time on my CV, and it’s helped me in tangible and intangible ways (my future graduate advisor definitely noticed it). My wife couldn’t find paid employment in the field she wanted to go into (public health), so she sat on a public health granting committee and volunteered at meal programs. That commitment to her interests helped her get into graduate school eventually.
  • Use every opportunity and connection you can think of. I relied on Whitman’s wonderful Fellowships Office and the professors in my department (geology), who provided critical help formulating and improving my application statements. 
  • Don’t be embarrassed or discouraged if you have to move back home. So many people who graduated during the Great Recession did that. It can be emotionally challenging but it will be over eventually. 
  • Try to have perspective. During my first year after college, I lived in a place I hated, far from my friends, with no prospects for other jobs and no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I remember worrying intensely that I was wasting my life away. I wasn’t — I got to visit my grandparents a lot (who lived a couple of hours away), I grew personally, I got emotionally stronger and I spent time reflecting. I was in an enormous hurry and felt miserable watching friends from Whitman and high school living much more exciting lives. However, with luck, work, and simply time, I was able to advance to increasingly better places in life. On the other hand, my urgency to escape that situation motivated me to go to graduate school, and I’m glad that it did. 
  • Tight finances and a lack of professional options, not to mention sheltering in place away from your friends, can exacerbate existing depression and anxiety. Don’t be afraid to reach out to professionals for help.
  • In a few years, when you are in a position of power, remember the next generation. Going through a recession at this stage will likely make you much more empathetic than those who were fortunate to live during mostly prosperous times. Always try to stand for greater equity, sounder economic practices, and environmental protection so that the next generation might be better off. Use your learnings from this time to make wiser political decisions than previous generations did.

Good luck — you’ll get through it! This is not forever.”

Do Not Blame Yourself

Jesus Vasquez '09, music theory/composition, kindergarten teacher, Mid-Del Public Schools

Keeping Breathing

The Rev. Joseph Farnes ’08, religion, All Saint’s Episcopal Church:

“First of all, take a breath. And another. And keep breathing after that. It is OK to feel all your emotions right now, but it’s also important not to get lost thinking about the uncertain future (Pro tip: the future’s ALWAYS uncertain).

Second, this is a time to treasure and lean into the creative thinking that comes from a Whitman education. Sometimes we are offered opportunities to use our skills and knowledge in surprising ways after graduation. A Whitman education helps us to THINK more clearly, carefully and creatively. Don’t put yourself in a box, thinking there are only a handful of career options open to you. 

Third, this is the second financial crisis my generation has weathered. The second! Keep this in mind. Keep pushing for structural change to our economy. Always, always remember that the economy is best when the whole community is strengthened. It isn’t about cultivating an uppermiddle-class lifestyle or having a prestigious career; it’s about doing what is good and right for the whole world."

Build Your Tribe

Amy Kesler ’08, theater, bookseller, Third Place Books

“Find yourself a family of friends. That’s the one thing I got out of my expensive Whitman education, a lifelong group of friends that I cherish and who I know cherish me. With that anything is possible.” 

Use Whitman’s Career Resources

Alex Robinson ’09, economics-mathematics, manager, Analysis Group:

“I graduated in 2009 and — with the help of the Whitman career center, an alum and a professor — was lucky to find a job in Seattle with a Whitman alum as my boss and another alum as a coworker on my team. I started the process in the spring just before graduating, and everything worked out extremely well and smoothly for me, but I think I got a bit lucky, so if I could go back, I probably would have started this process sooner!

My advice to new graduates during this time would be to start taking advantage of the Career Center resources now (if you haven’t already) and learn how you can leverage the Whitman alumni network. One of the benefits of going to Whitman is a really tight-knit community–the alumni network may be smaller than other universities, but Whitties are so happy to help other Whitties! Don’t be shy about reaching out to alumni working in fields that you are interested in for informational interviews. You are most likely to get responses, have helpful conversations, and make valuable connections if you do some work to research different industries/positions and develop some understanding of your own strengths and interests before reaching out to alumni."

The Student Engagement Center has put together resources designed to assist current students and the Class of 2020 with finding careers, internships and other opportunities.