Imagine holding a picture — a vision of things to come — and then poof, it’s gone. That’s what the promise of financial progress looked like to college graduates in 2009, and does once again in 2020. I know because I’ve been through that disappearing act. I graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2009 during the Great Recession.

In my last year at UMass, I don’t remember anyone warning me about the shrinking job market I was walking into. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have relatives to turn to for career advice, and at the time, career advising at UMass was not the best. Or maybe it was, and I just didn’t know where to go.

The world in 2009 was changing, but in less obvious ways than it is today. Home foreclosures and unemployment rose. Social media expanded. Ways to make money were more traditional and less web-based. There was no Uber or Lyft. Instagram didn’t exist to the public, and YouTube hadn’t yet become a viable source of income for some creatives.

When you’re in the moment, you think that years later, you’ll remember every feeling, every detail, but that’s not the case. As human beings, we’re not equipped to remember that much, for that long.

2020 graduates, my first piece of advice to you is to keep a journal of this time.

In writing this essay, I returned to my journals to recall specific days and thoughts. I’d be lying if I said you’re not walking into a mess. Not only are you walking into what appears will be an even worse economy than I did at your age, but also the post-pandemic world is surely going to look and feel different. There’s a certain optimism and flexibility, though, that comes with being young and allows for career exploration.

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Evelyn Martinez graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2009.
Courtesy of Evelyn Martinez

After graduation, upon my return home, I was anxious and felt like a failure. My first post-college job came through an employment agency. I sat in a windowless room, with at least a dozen others, removing staples from stacks of papers, decades old, so those files could be more easily digitized. I worked there for a short period of time. I decided to quit after the supervisor, a man who often walked around the room, asked me if I needed help with anything. As if I needed help with staple removers.

The families of first-generation college students think a college degree is this magical piece of paper that will suddenly open doors and will fertilize money trees. Yet I was living through a period of drought. After quitting my staple-removing job, I did random jobs. I home-schooled for a few months, cat sat and worked at a children’s clothing store in Downtown Crossing.

Luckily, I didn’t have any real responsibilities because I lived in Jamaica Plain with my mom, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who was making roughly $25,000 a year cooking at a women’s shelter. The only bill I had was my credit card debt, which, thanks to my low earnings and lack of financial literacy, had ballooned out of control. The calls from collection agencies grew incessant and, although banks got bailed out by the federal government, I did not. It was a good thing that payments on my $18,000 in students loans had been deferred.

Most of my evenings in 2009 and 2010 were spent with friends who were still undergraduates at Boston University. Hanging out with them cured my loneliness and made me forget about the job applications that went unanswered. With my friends, I didn’t feel pressure to be an adult. Most of my friends who had graduated in 2008 or 2009 were also being tossed around in the unemployment wave. I never really was actually unemployed. I just wasn’t working in a job that a college graduate should be working in. Some of my friends joked that I was a hustler, because no job was beneath me.

Transitioning back home without any prospect of gainful employment made me depressed. I recall days of lying in bed, moping and worrying about my uncertain future. Insomnia and being smothered by mom became too much to bear. I decided to seek therapy.

My therapist was a young man who was working on his PhD. Coincidentally, some of his research dealt with post-graduation depression. He helped me overcome the embarrassment and shame I felt. In one of my journal entries I credit him with saying, “There is more to life than mainstream success.”

I still believe that to this day.

My second piece of advice to you, 2020 grads, is to keep an open mind when it comes to jobs.

From March until August 2010, I worked as a field operations clerk for the Census Bureau in Boston. That was a nice gig that paid well, but it didn’t last long. I recall having looked into more permanent jobs with the Census Bureau, but reaching dead ends.

In September of that year, a friend suggested I go work with her at a costume shop that was hiring in the runup to Halloween. Working there was my favorite job, to this day. I somehow managed to extend a seasonal job to a full year. My coworkers were fun and the clientele was incredible. It was at that boutique that I realized I loved talking to people, all sorts of people. I learned that everyone is relatable. Speaking to hundreds, if not thousands, of people that year made me appreciate the art of conversation. Nine dollars an hour made me so happy. But I knew I couldn’t stay there forever. I decided to apply to law school. The idea didn’t come out of thin air: I had family in the prison system and felt a passion for learning more about the law. I applied to six schools and was waitlisted at New England School of Law. Ultimately, I didn’t get accepted.

Third piece of advice: It’s okay to fail again and again.

During my stint as a census worker, I was plotting my next move. I created a list of major cities I’d be happy to move to. New York City was at the top of my list. I applied for a job at Univision, the Spanish-language television network. A friend who worked there recommended me, and the person who interviewed me was the brother of someone I knew in passing. I was convinced that I’d have the job, even though they asked to run my credit. In fact, I just knew the position was mine. I began looking for apartments and preparing myself for my big move to New York. Of course, I got the call in the middle of a shift at my census job: I didn’t get it.

My heart was crushed. I called my mom on the phone to sob in her ear. I couldn’t believe the job that had surely been mine was passing on me.

With each law school rejection letter, I became less passionate about that route, but I knew I wanted to do more meaningful work. In 2010, I left the costume boutique because I didn't feel I was contributing much to society. After all, when I graduated from college, all I knew was that I wanted to help people.

So off I went to help folks. I became a case manager at a Cambridge nonprofit, where I was earning $33,000 a year. Keep in mind that I was still dizzy by the colorful people at the boutique, but at my new job, I had to deal with those kept in the shadows. Their reality is too often ignored: poverty, hunger and homelessness in the United States. A year later, in 2011, I made a lateral move to a similar nonprofit where I was making almost $40,000.

Through my work at the costume shop and the two nonprofits, I discovered my love for people and their stories. With two friends, I co-created a YouTube web show called, “I’ll Meet You There.” We interviewed people who were passionate about their careers and hobbies. Somehow, I got the idea that if I became a journalist, I could help more people through my stories. In 2013, I decided to apply to Emerson College to study journalism. I quit my full-time job and accepted a part-time one at another nonprofit.

Fourth piece of advice: Follow your heart, but be frugal. Graduate school is expensive.

I made the decision to change “careers.” A lot of people wondered why I decided to go to graduate school for journalism instead of social work. I did it because I wanted to learn how to become a better storyteller. I thought that I’d surely graduate with my master’s and find a decent paying job in journalism. For someone making what I was at the time, $17,500 (an extra $500 because I am bilingual) at yet another nonprofit, just about anything would’ve been decent.

While in graduate school, I did what I was supposed to do. I had multiple internships, joined national professional organizations of Hispanic and black journalists to network. Although I would’ve liked to work in journalism full-time while a graduate student, the opportunity never presented itself. I had to work in order to survive because becoming financially dependent on my aunt, who I was living with at the time, was not an option.

Upon graduation in 2015, journalism job prospects were scant, and I once again ended up unemployed with a degree — two degrees. At the same time, I was laid off because the part-time position was eliminated due to budget shortfalls.

I thought that because I had already been on the hamster wheel of unemployment that I would be better equipped to handle it a second time. In a lot of ways, I was; in others, I was not. This time, I knew that I had to get a job — any job — to get me by, until I found something in journalism.

For a year I worked as a cashier at a liquor store in Roxbury. In that time, I interviewed with news organizations that ranged from print, broadcast television, radio and new media. I had two job offers that I distinctly remember. One was with a publication in New York that offered me $40,000 a year to write reviews about cars that I’d never test drive. I declined. The other was with a news television station in Tennessee for $24,000 a year. I declined. At 28, I finally began thinking about how I was going to tackle my graduate school loans.

Social justice and writing stories about inequity was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a journalist who wrote fair, objective and balanced stories. But when job leads dried up, I began looking into public relations jobs. Again, I got nothing.

A teacher friend who I met while working at the liquor store suggested that I become a teacher. My mom and aunt had pushed that idea for years, but I didn’t think I was patient enough to work with children. One day, while my friend was lesson planning, he outlined the pathways for me to become a teacher. “You can teach and use the money to start your own blog,” he said. At first, I was hesitant about teaching, but then I started to think about it more deeply. The transferable skills were there. As a classics major at UMass Amherst, I had the analytical, communication and intellectual skills; as a trained journalist, I knew how to listen to people and, through my many other jobs, I had acquired emotional intelligence. I knew how to talk to people and convey information to just about anyone. I had even homeschooled in the past.

I decided to give it a try, although I knew it would be difficult. Four years later, and I’m still teaching. I’ve released a few episodes of my news commentary show — a new YouTube venture — and continue to grow and reinvent myself when needed. Instant gratification has never been what I’ve sought, and neither should you. Most undergraduates don’t graduate and land an $80,000-a-year job. It takes hard work, determination and lots of failure to succeed. But people hardly ever talk about failing.

Fifth piece of advice: Don’t give up.

One of my favorite quotes comes from "The Last Lecture" by Randy Pausch. I now use it often because it sums up my life experience thus far. Perhaps it could help you. “Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

Evelyn V. Martínez, a Boston native, is an educator and aspiring columnist/commentator.