Athina Prassa in Athens mastered English in four years studying at a private university. It’s a skill that may not help her much as she hunts for work while hard-right thugs roam her blighted neighborhood.
Lucy Nicholls in London graduated from fashion school brimming with optimism. It took just a week for real life to step in: She fell victim to a scam that left her broke and desperate for work.
Rafael Gonzalez del Castillo in Madrid has pulled countless all-nighters to win a degree in his passion, architecture, just as Spain’s building bust has littered the country with abandoned buildings.
Moira Koffi in Paris left her widowed mom in Normandy for «bohemian life» at the Sorbonne. Now the communications grad is heading into the real world.
Lutz Henschel in Berlin graduated near the top of his class with a degree in electrical engineering in Europe’s top economy. Since January he’s sent out nearly 40 applications, and is still chasing his dream of working in renewable energies.
Meet AP’s Class of 2012: five talented and vibrant university graduates who face a rocky future as they emerge from the cocoon of student life and head into the worst economic crisis Europe has seen since the end of World War II, one that threatens to engulf an entire generation.
They’re excited. They’re scared. They’re full of hope. And full of uncertainty.
The Associated Press will follow them over the next 12 months as their lives unfold in the crisis – through text, photo and video dispatches, as well as webcam diaries and tweets straight from the graduates themselves. The tapestry of their lives will help illuminate the story of Europe’s crisis itself, as their futures are shaped by the continent’s soaring youth unemployment, corrosive debt, migration trends and aging population.
Europe’s turmoil has profound implications for the future of young people everywhere. After all, the European Union is this interconnected world’s biggest economy, and it’s struggling badly.
Austerity is eroding an envied way of life. Long-cherished certainties about cradle-to-grave welfare are evaporating. As leaders scramble to extinguish one debt fire after another, the futures of ordinary people grow dimmer.
Europe’s rapidly graying societies are creating even more of a burden on this generation of young people who are finding it so hard to carve out a future.
Those twin crises will challenge Lutz as he leaves his studies in Europe’s strongest economy, even with its low youth unemployment rate of 8 percent.
They will haunt Lucy and Moira in Britain and France, where more than a fifth of all young people are unemployed.
Athina and Rafa worry they’ll have to move abroad to survive. In Greece and Spain, youth unemployment is above 50 percent.
“I don’t think this time is suitable for fulfilling your dreams,» Athina says. «That can happen later.”
This is the AP Class of 2012:
ATHINA PRASSA, 22
“Want to see my fridge?» Athina asks a visitor.
She’s a natural optimist but it’s hard to keep up the cheer as she gazes at the lonely milk carton and container of butter on empty shelves.
“There are days,» she says, «where I forget what it’s like to eat meat.”
Athina left her family home on the island of Lemnos four years ago to study at the private Hellenic-American University in Athens. Her parents were able to pay for her studies but not much more. It meant she ended up in a crime-ridden neighborhood notorious for its extreme-right thugs, where she lives rent-free in an apartment owned by her godmother.
Her parents sent her 100 euros ($120) a week at first, then cut it back to half that when they couldn’t afford more.
Now she’s on her own.
“My parents can’t send me money anymore to live here,» she says. «I’m really scared about the future.”
She longs to work in Athens but is worried the crisis will force her to leave Greece.
She says the hard times, brought on by years of profligate spending in Greece, have taught her some valuable lessons: «It’s funny, but I think the crisis has turned me into a better person, because I definitely hate money right now. … I see how people go crazy about money.”
She despises the anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party that roams her neighborhood.
Through all the turmoil, Athina still holds onto her dreams. She wants to work in fashion. She wants to backpack around Europe. She wants to visit America.
And she still manages to have fun with her friends in Athens – which she calls «a jungle» – by taking advantage of the beaches and free concerts and art exhibitions.
At a recent gallery event, Athina stood staring at a photograph of a demolition site. Spray-painted over it in red was one word: FUTURE.
LUCY NICHOLLS, 22
Lucy sits against a backdrop of rose-patterned wallpaper emblazoned with the word «Wish,» the name of the fashion magazine that’s her graduation project.
She’s presenting it at a London show called RAW to launch Middlesex University fashion grads like herself, exuding a mixture of confidence and jitters.
The fashionista with artsy glasses and bright red hair has paid a Lithuanian company 2,000 pounds ($3,100) to print 500 copies of WISH, which she’s planning to ship to customers.
She concedes her optimism verges on the «cocky.”
But she also has a dose of realism: «I’m going to need money very soon. Luckily the magazine is going to bring in a tiny, weeny little bit … But I’m going to need a job pretty soon, that’s for sure.”
A week later, disaster strikes: The printing company has gone bust and disappeared with her money.
Now she’s broke and needs a job fast: «I realize because of this catastrophe with the magazine I need work now. I really, really need to be making money.”
The setback doesn’t keep her down for long: She’s picked up some freelance photography work for a London PR agency that’s helping her pay the bills. Meanwhile, she has revamped her resume to wade into her first real job hunt.
Lucy says her teachers didn’t prepare her for life: «We don’t get told anything about industry or the real world. We didn’t ever get told about what jobs were really out there.”
Half-English, half-French, Lucy comes from a rural town in Surrey, south of London. She says her father warned her about how hard life can be: «You have to be prepared to be living off beans.”
Fluent in French, she says she could try Paris for a while – but things aren’t much better there, and in any case she sees her future in the British capital.
“I’ve been told by everybody London is where it’s at, London is where you’ve got to be.”
RAFAEL GONZALEZ DEL CASTILLO, 24
Rafael – or Rafa as everyone calls him – is a budding architect in a nation that’s gone through one of the worst building busts in modern times.
He loves his field. He loves Spain. But he fears his future lies abroad.
Like millions of other young Spaniards trapped in the nation’s devastating economic spiral, he says he’ll jump at any opportunity for rewarding work – be it in Sudan, Chile, Alaska or Mongolia.
He just presented his final project – a design for urban greenhouses and terraced farmland on the marshy banks of a river – at Madrid’s Polytechnic University. If it’s approved by a jury, he’ll officially be an architect in October.
Then what? A stroll through the wasteland.
The construction industry was crushed by the implosion of a real estate bubble in 2008. It’s ground zero of Spain’s economic crisis, with more than 1 million jobs lost in that industry alone.
Rafa, however, keeps on dreaming.
An actor in the university drama troupe, he talks a mile a minute with charm and eloquence, gushing enthusiasm for his chosen profession. He loves his studies so much he’d do it all over again – despite the doom that hangs over the industry.
Rafa refuses to believe that after a five-year journey through one of Spain’s most demanding schools, what awaits him is the edge of a cliff and a plunge into the dead-end jobs in bars or supermarkets that many of his fellow college grads are taking up to get by.
He breaks into this riff: «Since I was little, they told me, `when you get to middle school, you will fail some subjects.’ I did not fail. `When you get to high school, your grades will go down.’ They did not. `When you get to university, you will fail.’ OK, I have failed a few subjects, but I got by. So I do not want to be told again that there is not going to be any work. I simply do not believe it.
“It all depends on me.”
Gonzalez is not angry about his plight. He says everybody in Spain is to blame – consumers hooked on loans, banks that threw around the money, politicians who sat back and watched it all inflate dangerously.
“In the end,» he says, «it is all of us at least a little bit.”
MOIRA KOFFI, 22
Moira worries if she’ll have a job when she gets back from vacation in Greece.
She worries about how she’ll live in Paris once she has to leave student housing.
Above all – following big gains by far-right parties in France, Greece and elsewhere – the African-French communications grad worries about a racist wave engulfing Europe: «It’s like the 1930s again. I don’t get why people can recreate this atmosphere of hate and fear. It’s crazy.”
Moira just handed in her thesis at the Sorbonne, capping three years of study.
She started out as a journalism major, but switched to corporate communications when crisis hit in 2008.
“I wanted to be a journalist, but then I heard about everyone who couldn’t find jobs,» Moira says.
But by the time she graduated the downturn had expanded, and now half of France’s new graduates have no work.
“Can it get any worse?» she says with a wry laugh. «Well, maybe if the European Union explodes.”
Moira has had time to come to terms with the crisis. Its start coincided with her move to Paris four years ago. Leaving her widowed mother teaching school in a small town in Normandy, Moira made her way in the capital as countless young students have before her, counting her centimes and enjoying «la vie boheme» – bohemian life.
The Sorbonne helped her find a short-term apprenticeship at a public relations agency, where she handles social media campaigns.
The four-day-a-week job ends in September. She wants to stay on, but there are no guarantees.
Moira budgets carefully, keeping expenses to around 600 euros ($750) a month. She goes out less than she did when she first moved to Paris, taking up hobbies like dressmaking and baking muffins. Her most recent creation? A «beautiful and classy» black dress. It’s nearly finished after six months of work.
LUTZ HENSCHEL, 27
Lutz picks up his diploma in a soaring hall adorned with a sculpture of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. He savors a glass of champagne. Listens to the music.
With a masters in electrical engineering in Germany, Europe’s most successful economy, he knows his prospects are brighter than those of millions of other university graduates across the continent.
But since finishing his studies in January, Lutz has sent out nearly 40 applications and been through about 15 interviews, only to keep hitting a brick wall.
“At the beginning I felt disappointed because I believed that I was the reason for the rejections,» he says. «But now I think that a lot of companies have too high expectations.”
Even facing a shortage of skilled workers, elite German companies have been notoriously unwilling to hire students straight out of university. Lutz sees himself trapped in a Catch-22: «They expect a graduate to have specific knowledge and experiences which I think is impossible to have right after graduation.”
The Berlin native who teaches karate on the side dreams of a job in renewable energy.
This month he took a six-hour train journey south for an interview with German engineering giant Bosch.
Two days later, it was an hour-and-a-half train ride north for an interview with a German-Danish company that builds wind farms.
He’s confident that the latest interview went well: He got to talk to real engineers, not just HR reps.
“It’s a little bit discouraging at first, because everyone is saying, `you are sought so much, you’re an electrical engineer, everyone wants you,’» Lutz says. «But then you get out, and it’s not true.”
On the eve of the launch of Class of 2012, Lutz’s fortunes turn. He sends out this tweet:
“I got my first official job offer! I will stay in Berlin, building elevators.”
Developing electric circuits for elevators is a far cry from Lutz’s ambition of making the world a better place through green technologies, but it’s a start.
“How awesome,» he tweets.
This story was reported by Efty Katsareas, Theodora Tongas and Elena Becatoros in Athens; Cassandra Vinograd and Tom Rayner in London; Greg Keller in Paris; Daniel Woolls and Hernan Munoz Ratto in Madrid; Kerstin Sopke and David Rising in Berlin. It was written by Joji Sakurai in London.