It's a time when hope collides with economic reality, when the relief of that last class and the thrill of holding that diploma give way to the next big step — finding a job.
For the Class of 2012, the optimism of graduation is clouded by the uncertain aftermath of the worst economic slide since the Depression.
Last year, graduates 24 and younger posted a 9.3 percent jobless rate; since then, there have been signs of progress. Unemployment averaged 7.2 percent during the first third of this year, compared with 9.1 percent in the same period in 2011. And one survey estimates that about 7 percent more new college grads will find work this year than a year ago.
But the job market is still tight, millions of people remain unemployed and graduates — whether they're embarking on a career from high school, college or in mid-life — are entering a work world where salaries have not rebounded since falling during the recession.
The outlook is especially grim for high school graduates: Unemployment has topped 20 percent in all but four months since the start of 2009.
For thousands of new graduates making the big transition this spring, there are pressures to find jobs quickly, pay off loans and, in some cases, start a second career, all against the backdrop of the slow-healing economy.
The speed and strength of the recovery — a topic at the heart of the presidential race — will help shape their future in different ways. For an aspiring teacher, for instance, it may determine how fast he gets out of debt. For a budding entrepreneur, how much money investors pour into his startup. And for an autoworker-turned-cook, how smoothly he reinvents himself.
LEAVING THE ASSEMBLY LINE
In 15 years on the Chrysler line, Mike Szlamczynski never had reason to ponder a future with succotash, lobster bisque and fava beans.
Autos were his career, autos paid his bills. Then came the near collapse of Chrysler, the looming bankruptcy and a veteran assembly line worker facing middle age, anxiety and unnerving questions: "What happens if they close the doors? What will I do?"
Szlamczynski didn't wait for an answer. He took a buyout, returned to college at age 41 and studied to be a chef. He wanted financial security, no more layoffs, no more fears of losing it all
"I was tired of worrying," he says. "I had nothing to fall back on. If you have an education, that's something they can't take away from you. You have options. Before, I didn't have any options."
On May 12, Szlamczynski officially changed that. The man who dropped out of school 20 years ago after concentrating on fun more than work graduated from Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville, Wis., with an associate's degree in culinary arts and a 3.8 average — "a huge accomplishment," he says.
Most importantly, he left with a coveted commodity: a job as a cook at a casino-resort in New York state.
He's returning to the state where he started as an autoworker in 1994, thrilled then by what his job offered: Profit-sharing. Three-week vacations. Bonuses. "It was like winning the lottery," he recalls.
Little more than a decade later, it was a different story. The American auto industry was in a downward spiral. In 2006, Szlamczysnki accepted a transfer to Belvidere, Ill., as his plant was being sold, only to face the possible demise of Chrysler soon after. With politicians debating a government rescue, a nervous Szlamczynski decided to cash in, get out and enroll in a retraining program that paid for college.
He chose cooking because it was appealing — he'd worked at a country club as a young man — and reliable. "You can't pack up my job and move it China," he says. "They're always hiring. They're not high-paying jobs, but they're very competitive."
Still, he had reservations about returning to the classroom.
"It was probably the scariest thing I ever had to do — to drive to the school the first day," he says. "I'd been out of school for 20-something years. I didn't know if I could do it. I thought there were going to be a lot of younger people out there, I'm going to feel way out of place. ... But I said, 'This is my last chance. This is my one shot. It's do or die.'"
As it turned out, there were plenty of second-career students in their 40s and 50s. Szlamczynski found school transforming. "I talk more intelligently," he says. "I think more intelligently. You just look at things differently. You just really appreciate things you didn't know about before."
He traded painting cars and assembling doors for designing menus, sculpting ice sea horses and whipping up lobster bisque and pan-seared fish during an internship at a Las Vegas casino restaurant.
Ad much as he enjoyed school, Chrysler's comeback has given him pause. "Man, I kick myself sometimes," he says. "Some part of me says, 'Hey, did you do the right thing?'"
He reassures himself by remembering there are more opportunities in food than there are in building cars. But at 43, he's naturally apprehensive.
"Of course," he says, "there's that fear. Can I do this? Am I cut out for this? ... I'm really happy I do have a job and I don't have to go searching. That's a huge relief. It's a whole new life. And I'm following my dream."