They arrived at college campuses in the fall of 2001 ready for a life of independence. But this would be an extraordinary fall term for...

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DALLAS —

They arrived at college campuses in the fall of 2001 ready for a life of independence.

But this would be an extraordinary fall term for a freshman class expecting to be ensconced safely in college.

Before most completed their first set of final exams, a perfect storm of economically crippling events struck, starting with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

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Then unemployment hit a five-year high in October, and Enron’s bankruptcy kicked off a series of corporate scandals. Stocks sank deeper into a bear market.

What these students — now graduating seniors — experienced in their freshman year led to stark changes in schools of thought, classroom discussions and, in many cases, career choices.

Although the job outlook for graduates this year is considered the brightest in three years, the impact of that dark period persists.

“I should be going into the business world,” said John Goodrum, a Southern Methodist University senior who opted instead to pursue being a legislative aide on Capitol Hill.

“I think that 9/11, plus the war and the administration, invoked a passion about my going up to Washington to see how everything works, having a closer view of what other people who make a difference do.”

This isn’t the first time graduates entered the workforce after the nation spent years in tumult, as it did during the Vietnam War and Watergate.

But this period still stands out, says Carl Van Horn, director for Rutgers University’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development in New Brunswick, N.J.

“I can think of other periods equally charged, but the pillars of the economy seemed to be collapsing, so it’s probably been a more sobering and maturing experience for students,” he said.

“There’s always been a perception of happy days on college campuses, but this period they lived through would not allow indulgence of adolescence and fantasy like, say, the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s did.”

Some among this senior class opted to learn about Middle East history or upgraded a minor to a major course of study. Others made deeper changes as their college careers matured. They became fascinated with public policy; they envisioned careers in criminal justice or government work; they developed a tolerance for opposing views.

Undaunted by the attacks, many students fulfilled their original plans, and some pursued longtime wishes to study abroad at a time when international travel generated concerns.

They learned about other nations’ viewpoints, especially after the United States invaded Iraq, and were willing to listen to opposing political opinions.

“People two years younger, I think their view of 9-11 comes through a smaller lens,” says Gaines Greer, 21, a Southern Methodist University senior majoring in English and German.

Then came Enron

“As opposed to my friends who are seniors, conservative and here when it happened, you don’t see younger people thinking outside the box as much.”

As the fallout from Sept. 11 started to settle, more problems arrived. On Dec. 2, Enron filed for bankruptcy, a precursor to the exposure of corporate malfeasance at other companies.

The result: Lesson plans underwent some heavy rewriting, and students learned about current affairs, sometimes when the course description called for something else.

Many students say the lessons from Enron may be the most important they took from the fall of 2001.

“I’m taking a property and liability insurance class, but we are still focusing on business practices,” said Lauren Heger, a University of North Texas senior who landed a job with Hanover Insurance.

“Even the stuff that (New York Attorney General Eliot) Spitzer is doing today has been put into focus by my teachers.”

For three years, these students saw the graduates before them struggle to find work as layoffs mounted, doors closed and older workers took entry-level jobs to get by.

But enough time has passed for this year’s seniors to enjoy a recovering job market, says John Challenger, chief executive at Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Challenger says the job market for entry-level workers is expanding as employers “rebuild bench strength” depleted from record downsizing.

“Graduates should be emboldened by the fact that the unemployment rate among those holding a bachelor’s degree and higher fell to 2.4 percent in January, which is the lowest this figure has been since August 2001,” he said.

Lessons learned

In a recent report, Challenger projected the education and health-care fields to be among the biggest job gainers over the next seven years.

Some grads will not enter the workforce in their intended field of study, a move that Challenger says is safe.

“What is vital is getting into the workplace to start gaining general on-the-job experience,” he said. “Future employers want to know that you are able to meet deadlines, work within a team and that you understand how business works.”

Even as the job market recovers, Challenger says the fall of 2001 won’t soon be forgotten by the Class of 2005.

“First they saw their older brothers and sisters go through the whole dot-com exuberance thing,” Challenger said. “Then they saw the emptiness of that, especially in light of what it exposed about that era through Enron and WorldCom and others. That’s hard to forget.”

Sept. 11, 2001

Enron

corporate scandals

layoffs

war

higher unemployment

Welcome to the workforce …