Big City, Kenyon Comfort
In cities around the country, young Kenyon graduates find their footing by finding one another
It's happy hour at the Beauty Bar on 14th Street in New York's East Village. Vinyl-covered seats with bulbous dome hair dryers dating back to the sixties line the walls. Everything is painted the glittery pink of a seventh grader's lip gloss. The music? Indie rock, of course.
The club has been an informal meeting place for Kenyon grads in their twenties for about a year, ever since Brendan Sullivan '04 landed a Tuesday night DJ gig here. And whenever Sullivan spins (or punches buttons--his records seem more like props, because the music actually comes from his laptop, hidden below the turntables in the DJ booth), his buddy Peter Horan '04 is never far away.
If you can imagine Rimbaud and Bob Vila out for a night on the town, you can picture these two. Sullivan is a classic New York hipster: tall and waifish, dark hair, thick-rimmed glasses, a too-small blazer and ironic tie. He's working on his second novel and also bartends at the Museum of Modern Art.
Horan is, well, not that. Straight out of Kenyon he got a good job at St. Martin's Press, before moving on to the public relations department of Harcourt Press. He even carries a bag with the Harcourt logo on it. He sports a neatly trimmed beard, short hair, and a young professional look--nice slacks and a pressed shirt--which is something of a rarity in an East Village bar.
Horan arrived in New York first. He spent two nights at the 66th-Street YMCA, then crashed at a friend's apartment until he and a coworker got a place in Hoboken. Then he moved uptown to Harlem. He didn't have much of a social network. No one he knew from Kenyon had moved to New York yet. He was on his own.
Sullivan started out in Chicago, where he began DJing while picking up a string of random jobs--he's had twenty-three since he left Kenyon, but who's counting? He claims that he once got a job at a French restaurant because the chef saw him reading Proust. When he moved to New York, he managed to land a gig at Supreme Trading, a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Horan found out Sullivan was in town, so he swung by Supreme Trading to see him DJ. And even though it was more than an hour on the subway each way, Horan starting making his way to Williamsburg every Sunday.
"I went to every one of his gigs," says Horan. "He was my only friend."
The two became inseparable, crashing at each other's places when they needed to. When Horan got paid or when Sullivan found a paying DJ gig, they would take each other out to celebrate. They usually went to The Cottage, a Chinese place on the Upper West Side that offered free all-you-can-drink box wine, or hit bars in Brooklyn that served free food at happy hour, and tried to meet girls.
Now firmly settled in New York, Horan fondly remembers taking an economics course from Assistant Professor of Economics Jay Corrigan at Kenyon. He was the lone English major in the class, and Corrigan always joked that Horan would end up being the only one without a job after graduation. In their classroom exercises, the professor would playfully invent examples featuring economists who earned $80,000 and English majors who made $35,000.
"When I got a job," Horan says, "I sent him my first business card."
Successful or struggling, new graduates find that life after college can be a lot like moving to a foreign country. It's filled with new experiences and exciting possibilities, but it can also be disorienting and lonely. When you stumble across fellow expatriates, you instantly bond, relieved to find people who speak your native language and share your frame of reference, and who are contending with the same sense of dislocation.
That, in effect, is what happened to Sullivan and Horan, who were really just acquaintances in Gambier but who became boon companions in New York. And they are not alone. In cities across the country, young Kenyon graduates discover that they can ease the existential culture shock of adulthood by making the most of Kenyon connections. Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., all have thriving Kenyon subcultures in which twentysomethings who recently lived in the "Gambier bubble" turn to each other--and to their shared college experience--for social support.
They help one another find jobs and apartments. They form kickball and soccer teams. They commiserate, they celebrate. They hit the bars, go on dates, and throw parties. And at the parties, they revert to Kenyonspeak, anchoring themselves temporarily in the not-so-bygone time when work and play overlapped, angst receded once the term paper was done, and most hungers could be treated with a Market dog.
"Negotiating life in the real world after leaving the comfortable confines of college isn't easy, and it's understandable why many recent grads get stressed out about all the big decisions and chores," says Rebecca Knight, the Boston correspondent for the Financial Times of London and the author of A Car, Some Cash and a Place to Crash: The Only Post-College Survival Guide You'll Ever Need. "College was a ready-made party and all your best friends were there, so it's only natural to feel socially adrift after graduation."
Kenyon-based social networks spring up naturally. Consider Sullivan and Horan. Horan had heard about Sullivan through friends of friends. That was the start. Then, not long after he had started working at St. Martin's Press, he met Kerri Buckley '03, another Kenyon grad. She works on the editorial side at Bantam Dell. Suddenly, he had a new connection in the publishing industry.
As for Sullivan, at one point he was staying with a fellow Kenyon graduate in New York who read what she thought was one of his short stories. Sullivan explained that it was really a chapter in a novel. So his roommate put him in touch with a literary-agent friend, and that friend took on Sullivan.
And so two fledgling adults begin to find their footing. It may not be the deliberate and systematic networking that career counselors advocate. But it's not mere serendipity, either. Call it the Kenyon catalyst, some indefinable chemistry that turns chance encounters into new bonds.
Jillian Levine-Sisson, a drama major who graduated in 2004 and now lives in Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., isn't surprised that Kenyon graduates gravitate to one another.
"Kenyon is such an amazing, unique place, so focused on community," says Levine-Sisson, who is a teaching artist at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, works in the box office of the Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company, and has been assistant stage manager for a production at the Rorschach Theatre. "These people knew you in an incredibly impressionable period of your life. They watched you really, truly change and become more of the person you really are."
The bond seems to form even for people who never crossed paths at Kenyon or who graduated years apart. "If I meet Kenyon people I didn't know or who are even ten years older than me," says Levine-Sisson, "there's still a sense of 'Oh, O.K., you and I have an understanding of each other.'"
Like New York, the Washington, D.C., area is a hub of Kenyon social networking. There are half a dozen houses on W Street in the Glover Park neighborhood filled with Kenyon alums. Patrick Kozak '04 estimates that sixty or seventy students he went to college with now live in the nation's capital. He sees several every Wednesday night in the Adams Morgan neighborhood when the kickball team Kozak organized takes the field in their signature pink T-shirts. The team is made up of his sister's friends, Kenyon grads, and coworkers from his job at the American Institutes for Research. After the game, everyone heads to a nearby bar to hang out.
The kickball team is typical of how Kenyon subcommunities intersect with other groups. Anne Field '04 and Jen Judson '04 live in separate buildings in the same red-brick apartment complex in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington. Their apartments are separated by a grassy courtyard, which Judson likens to a quad at Kenyon. Although they move in the same Kenyon social circles, there are always new people involved.
"And the family grows," Judson says. Friends I have made outside of the Kenyon social circle are amazed that there are so many of us in Washington and that we all seem so close."
Gordon Umbarger, an English and drama major who graduated in 2004, lives with two Kenyon alums he didn't know until he moved to Washington. He says there's usually a mixture of Kenyon and non-Kenyon people at parties and other social events.
"Sometimes we have a hard time drifting the conversation away from only talking about Kenyon," admits Umbarger, who works in admissions for Kaplan Test Prep and is considering graduate school.
Shift the scene to the West Coast, where a distinctly California version of Kenyon social networking unfolds at Philz Coffee in San Francisco's Castro District.
It's a blissfully sunny day in late September, and a line of Philz devotees stretches out the door, each customer waiting patiently for an individually crafted cup of caffeine. Among the fans is Emily Williams '04. Her curly red hair is pulled back into a high ponytail, and her blue eyes radiate friendliness as she greets Jacob Jaber, the eponymous Phil's son, at his post behind the counter. Then, armed with a paper cup brimming with foam and a fresh mint leaf, Williams comes outside again and finds a free bench, where she meets up with her fellow Kenyon alum, Mike Cressner '05.
"There's such a large contingent of Kenyon alumni in San Francisco," says Cressner, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses.
"You run into them going out to dinner, doing almost anything."
Cressner, a political science major at the College, isn't exaggerating. Talking to Kenyon graduates about their Kenyon connections can require a flow chart. Williams met Cressner because he was friends with Anna Curtis '05. Curtis shared an apartment with Williams and Natalie Philpot '03 in San Francisco. But before they found the apartment, Williams and Philpot briefly lived with the mother of Abbey Simon '04. Abbey had sung with the Chasers at Kenyon, and another member of the a cappella group, Andy
Heroy '04, has also settled in San Francisco.
And that's just a few strands of the network.
"Moving to a city is daunting, but I was able to get in touch with people who knew the city," says Williams. "That's a nice base to have. It's very comforting."
Cressner credits Kenyon in a more general way with helping him adjust to life beyond Middle Path. "Kenyon forces you to be comfortable with yourself because it's such a tight-knit atmosphere," he says. "It made me put myself out there in my social life as well as in academics, dealing with the professors on a day-to-day basis, becoming comfortable dealing with people as friends. Moving to a new place where you don't know people can be very intimidating, but the Kenyon tradition transfers over."
The Kenyon sense of comfort doesn't inoculate graduates against every challenge, of course. Indeed, to the extent that the privileges of college life lull students into the notion that immediate fulfillment awaits them off the Hill, the realities of the working world can seem all the more harsh.
"I had one of the worst jobs of my life when I first moved here," says Williams, whose position in marketing didn't exactly answer the promise of her major in anthropology. "It was a two-hour commute. It just wasn't me. That was probably the low point. It's hard to go from being at the top at a place like Kenyon to being at the bottom. It's emotionally challenging."
Cressner, who is an assistant project manager at a nonprofit organization working to buy, develop, and operate affordable housing, adds: "When I moved to San Francisco, it really hit me. This is the real world, and your job dictates your schedule."
None of this surprises Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant in Washington, D.C., who has eighteen years of experience working with high-school and college students.
"Many recent college graduates, especially at schools like Kenyon, have an expectation that they're going to have a fulfilling job with a nice office and all the benefits," he says. "Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And they often find that someone else is getting the credit for their hard work, which is very upsetting to a number of elite college graduates."
Williams has since moved on to a job as a paralegal at a law firm specializing in environmental corporate defense.
"When I moved here, I didn't think I'd be working at a law firm, but there's going to be compromising," she says. "There's only one other person my age at the firm."
But she has found that there's a lot to be gained from a job, even one you don't necessarily want to do for the rest of your life. There's great mentoring at the firm, she says, and the attorneys she works with go out of their way to include her in the cases. Law school might be in her future, and she's gaining invaluable experience.
"Just because you don't have the ideal job," Williams says, "doesn't mean you can't learn something from it."
Meanwhile, she enjoys the peripheral pleasures associated with working in an office located near the Embarcadero that skirts San Francisco Bay. She loves taking the cable car to work and has made friends with many of the conductors. She has their cell phone numbers and if she's running late, they've been known to hold the car for a minute or two. She even gets invited to their parties. And she meets Mike Cressner for lunch all the time--it turns out that he works nearby, a Kenyon connection close at hand.
"San Francisco and Kenyon offer sort of a parallel experience," Williams says. "They're both the type of place that forces you to immerse yourself. The skills you build at Kenyon--where it's so interactive--force you to be self-motivated. Kenyon's one of those places where you create your own world. That helped a lot in coming to the city."
That, and the friendship of other graduates out there with you, post-Middle Path, creating worlds in that strange new land called life after college.
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