Young College Grads, Doing It Their Way

April 3, 2014


Kyle WeeksSince earning his biology degree from Stonehill College last spring, 22-year-old Kyle Weeks has been volunteering at a school in Brockton, where he’s found his true calling: teaching.

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts Lowell with a degree in history, Jonathan D. Zlotnik hit the campaign trail. The 23-year-old from Gardner is now the youngest member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Another young UMass Lowell alum, Samantha Cresta, opened a dance studio in her hometown of Wakefield.

In today’s tough job market, these three recently minted college graduates, like many of their peers, have eschewed typical entry-level jobs and are choosing less traditional career paths.

Cresta, for example, majored in marketing and management and had several job interviews before graduating in May 2012. But marketing jobs were few and far between, she said. She recalls the disappointment that she and other job hunters experienced, and is happy with her decision.

“I know people that still haven’t found jobs in their majors,” said Cresta, who knows many other college grads who returned to jobs they had in school or settled on part-time work.

A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has found that today’s recent college graduates are having a harder time landing good jobs. Compared with 20 years ago, more of them are taking part-time jobs or positions that typically do not require a bachelor’s degree.

College career advisers say the job market is getting better, and they’re doing everything they can to help their youngest alumni enter the job market. Some grads, like those featured here, are determined to forge their own way.

 

THE STARTUP

James Hilton was born in England, grew up in Holliston, and launched two startups as an undergrad at Babson College in Wellesley. He recalls the decisions he had to make before his graduation in 2012.

“It was an interesting time, where you’re getting closer toward graduation, and you’re thinking about what you’re going to do,” said the 26-year-old Hilton. “Do I apply for jobs? Do I focus on this after college?”

Ultimately, Hilton decided to stick with Simplus Group, a company he founded in 2012. Today, his official title is “president and founder” of the company, which is headquartered in a third-floor suite in a handsome Victorian mill building at 320 Nevada St. in the Nonantum section of Newton.

“We work with other startups developing Web and mobile technologies,” he said.

Looking back on his decision, Hilton said he has no regrets. He knows other twenty-somethings who he said “struggled to find work when they graduated.”

“It was a risky move,” he said about what he did. But “it was definitely the right decision.”

 

THE STATE REP

What’s a typical day like for the youngest legislator in the House?

“In this job, there is no typical anything,” said the 23-year-old Zlotnik, a Democrat who represents the Second Worcester District.

Zlotnik decided to run for the seat in his senior year, and launched his campaign from his dorm room at Sheehy Hall at UMass Lowell. After graduating with a degree in history in May 2012, he spent the summer campaigning and won the election in November, narrowly defeating the incumbent, 8,528 to 8,194.

He splits his time working in his hometown of Gardner (he has an office in Gardner City Hall) and meeting with constituents around his district, which covers Ashburnham, Gardner, Winchendon, and part of Westminster. Several days a week, he drives more than an hour to attend hearings and meetings at the State House.

Zlotnik said his first job out of college is vastly different from those of his friends, some of whom are in graduate school, some working at think-tanks.

“I know mechanical engineers who’ve had no trouble finding work,” he said, noting that the job market is better for some majors than others.

“Some people have a tough time out of the gate,” he said.

 

THE RESTAURATEUR

Dan Ustayev was still a college student when he told his father that he wanted to open a burrito shop. “He told me, ‘No, you’re crazy, you can’t do this now,’ ” Ustayev recalled. But he continued to flesh out his idea, developed a detailed business plan, and eventually persuaded his father to invest in it. In February 2012, during his senior year at Babson College, he opened Los Amigos at 1743 Centre St. in West Roxbury.

The Newton South High School alum managed to juggle his new business and his courses, and earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration in May 2012.

“I’ve always had a passion for burritos — I love Mexican food,” he said. Ustayev said his goal is to open more locations in the suburbs, where tacquerias are few and far between.

Last December, the 24-year-old opened a Los Amigos at 324 Walnut St. in Newtonville. He now shuttles between West Roxbury and Newton, overseeing 15 employees.

 

THE ENTREPRENEUR

“My ultimate goal was to always open a dance studio,” said the 25-year-old Cresta. It was a dream she had in high school. Before graduating from UMass Lowell, she thought, “I’m young, maybe I’m not ready to start” a business, and so she focused on finding a job in her field.

Cresta spent a couple of months looking for marketing jobs. But most of her interviews were for sales positions — not really what she wanted.

Then one day, she noticed a “for lease” sign in an empty storefront on Princess Street in Wakefield. She decided to go for it and signed a lease. That summer, she had to gut the 1,400-square-foot interior and put in hardwood floors. Her father installed the lighting and electrical work, her brother did the carpentry, and she and her mother painted the walls.

“Luckily I have a big family,” she said. “There were a lot of hands on deck.”

Synergy Dance Studio officially opened in the fall of 2012. To make ends meet at first, she kept her longtime gig as a unit coordinator in a hospital emergency room. She also walked dogs, worked part-time as a cashier in a liquor store, and taught dance classes at the Boys & Girls Club.

In her second year of running the dance studio, she has doubled her enrollment, and doesn’t have to work at the hospital anymore.

“It’s really starting to take off,” she said. “I do my other jobs for fun at this point.”

 

THE VOLUNTEERS

“In senior year, I was kind of all over the place, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” said Weeks.

The native of Falmouth, Maine, had applied to nursing schools and thought about teaching, but wasn’t sure where to start. Then he looked into the Stonehill Service Corps, and fell in love with the idea of dedicating himself to 11 months of volunteer service.

Stonehill College in Easton started the program in 2009 to provide volunteering opportunities for alums who had graduated within the last two years. From mid-August through June, corps members live together and volunteer full time in Brockton, India, or the Dominican Republic in return for a $500 monthly stipend. The program covers their rent, utilities, and use of a shared vehicle.

Weeks is one of the youngest teachers at Trinity Catholic Academy, a private elementary school in Brockton. Every weekday, he arrives at 7:10 a.m. and teaches science and religion classes to seventh- and eighth-graders.

He said he was “one of the first few to have something secured” before graduation, though “most of my friends have jobs now.”

“This year has been an awesome experience for me,” said Weeks, who says he “definitely” plans to pursue teaching as a career.

He lives with three other service corps members in a house in Easton. One of them is Jessica Mardo, a 23-year-old native of Cumberland, R.I.

Mardo studied English and political science at Stonehill, where she did volunteer work and took “alternative spring break” trips to New Orleans, West Virginia, and the Bronx to serve communities in need. At the end of her senior year, she began applying for nonprofit jobs and eventually she chose Stonehill’s program.

Now she is communications coordinator for Brockton Interfaith Community, preparing newsletters, sending e-mails, maintaining its social media presence, and updating the website. She has even started doing some grant writing.

“I truly believe if I were anywhere else, I would not have had the opportunities or exposure or responsibility I’ve had” at Brockton Interfaith Community, she said. “It’s been an incredible way to gain skills and experience.”

The Rev. Jim Lies, a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross and Stonehill’s vice president for mission, said the service corps program has the potential to grow — a great thing.

“I think it has been a universally positive experience,” Lies said.