A dream and a degree: When times are tough, are they enough? | St. Louis Public Radio

A dream and a degree: When times are tough, are they enough?

Oct 17, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 17, 2008 - Brandon Walker opens his eyes to a drizzling, gray-skied Tuesday morning. Quiet fills his bedroom, but not his head.

Already, he's thinking, planning, dreaming about all that surely must come.

But then, the rain. I gotta go through that? Walker thinks. He's heading off to his weekly morning radio show at the campus station for the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Ah well, just part of life, he thinks.

Nothing can stop him anyhow.

Walker steps into jeans so long they pool at the feet of the 6-foot-6-inch 23-year-old. He pulls on an extra large, yellow Polo shirt, downs a glass of apple juice, slips into brown leather shoes and pulls a brush over his hair.

Four years after discovering his bass guitar of a voice was meant for radio, 68 days after graduating with a bachelor's in communications and a minor in media studies, after daily trips to a quiet computer lab at the Career Center, sent resumes and so much hope for his future it's hard to hold inside, Walker leaves his parent's University City house and heads back to campus.

Back to campus.

Some people don't even know he graduated, that he should be on air somewhere bigger than here. He's done what he was supposed to -- he got his college degree. People just need to hear him, he thinks.

Walker heads into the rain, still believing that a dream and a degree is enough.

THE VOICE OF ST. LOUIS

He steps past the glowing on-air light, into the station, up to the DJ booth in time for his show. Walker rests a black bag of music on the seat next to him. He rolls his chair up, slips headphones over his ears and leans in.

"Ey, ey, ey, ey... It's the one and only, the voice of St. Louis, this is Big B, man."

That's how he's known around here, Big B, and believe it, he is known.

Just not by the right people.

Before graduation, Walker imagined he'd have found a job in radio by this time. It's a tough business to get into, regardless of the economy. But he figured his skills would get him in the door.

The real work was finding what he was supposed to do.

College was an easy choice for the University City kid. Go to school or get a job, his parents said. His dad worked for Laclede Gas until retiring. His mom, also retired, worked as a nurse.

In 2003, Walker went to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff on a football scholarship. The next year he transferred to Millikin University in Decatur, Ill. Practices and games kept the defensive end busy, but so did the scene and the girls and other things that seemed important then. Walker was studying communications, and he failed a few classes.

That fall, a friend hosted a party, and Walker went along to help out. A huge crowd had gathered that night in a building on campus. Walker had the chance to step up to the microphone, and he took it.

Everything changed.

He wasn't nervous. He knew just what to say, and people listened.

"Ever since then, man, I found my passion."

Walker's friend helped him find an instructor, and after a week's training, he had his own show on 89.5 WJMU. His voice was perfect, Barry White-deep, like a quiet storm. Suddenly, people knew him. They respected him. And, he won't lie, he loved the attention.

"Big B was a comin' up DJ," he says.

Walker transferred to community college and got his associate's degree in broadcast in 2006. In 2007, he came to UMSL to get his bachelor's. He started his show at "The U" that year when the station opened.

And most Tuesdays, he still gets girls dancing outside the booth and inside the station's office. Young black and white women and men, an old white janitor, a buttoned up professor-type all pass, throwing up peace signs, heads nodding, mouths forming silent hellos.

People here love him.

But it's not enough.

GRAY ALL OVER

All the numbers, statistics and studies continue affirming the value of a college degree. In 2006, people with a bachelor's degree made $56,788 on average, according to a January report from the U.S. Census Bureau. People with high school diplomas only earned $31,071.

The National Association for Colleges and Employers reported in the spring that employers planned on hiring more new grads than the year before. Sounds great, but none of it takes the current economy into account. Walker has, though.

"That's the reason why a young black brother like myself struggles to find a j-o-b," he says.

He stops. It's not just him, he says. It's everybody now.

The job openings rate has declined since September of last year, and in August was 2.3 percent. That's the lowest level in nearly four years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On top of that, 9.5 million people are considered unemployed, and the number increased by 2.2 million in the last year.

Many companies have scaled their hiring plans back or stopped new hires completely, says Russ Signorino, vice president of research with the United Way of Greater St. Louis. "I've heard about a number of places keeping jobs open until they feel better about the economy." 

And that's a hard reality to face when you've just graduated, have a load of student debt and are expecting that degree to help land a job.

"It's a changing environment now," Signorino says.

A college degree used to all but guarantee a job, but now, he says, more and more people get advanced degrees. And blue-collar jobs are rarer because of so many layoffs. So when companies look to cut costs, jobs that used to be safe aren't anymore.

Ashland Tate, an UMSL student and the radio station's manager, will graduate this semester. He doesn't expect to find a job in his degree, media studies. One recent grad he knows did, and she started out at $7.50 an hour.

"We don't really plan on graduating with a degree and having that degree feed us," Tate says. "We have to be very creative with these degrees."

That's always been true, he says. "I just think it's even harder now."

Media is a tough industry to get into, agrees Emily Rapko McEneny, assistant director of career services at UMSL. She isn't sure yet what effect the economy has or will have on graduates. In the most recent voluntary survey of graduates from August 2007 to December 2007, 75 percent of students were employed. That number has remained steady since the school started the survey in 2003.

Rapko McEneny expects the next survey, in December of this year, to show slightly lower numbers of employed grads, but the trickle down often takes a little longer, she says.

Also, it typically takes grads between six and eight months to find work.

So after just a few months looking, Walker's still hopeful in his dream. He's done everything he should -- the internship, a tight resume, contacts, lots of job applications to stations in St. Louis, Miami, Texas, Atlanta, Phoenix, Boston and New York.

"It's just hard, that's all," he says.

But perhaps this is the hardest part -- most people never find out who they are, they never know what they should do.

"And I already found myself. I did what I was supposed to do. I went to school and I got my degree," Walker says. "But I want more."

IN THE MEANTIME

Students passing by the D.J. booth carry umbrellas, their shirts flecked with rain.

Walker doesn't like the weather, he tells his listeners.

"But you know what? It's not gonna faze nobody. ... We gonna go ahead, get some music started. ... Let's go ahead and get that money."

For two hours, the rhymes of M.I.A., Big Thug and T.I. boom through the student union, setting the rhythm for students headed toward futures of their own, crackling in the station's office, jumping the needles on the sound board in front of him.

In a few days, Walker will head to another job fair and spend more time at the middle computer in the Career Center. During the summer he decided to start grad school and will begin classes at Webster University later in the month, going after his masters in communications. Walker's radio show doesn't pay, and he counts on his parents for financial support.

He owes between $15,000 and $20,000 in student loans.

He's not sweating it, though. Next year, Walker says, he'll have that job, make money, save money, buy a car, get a place, pay off his student debt fast. At the very least, he'll find a job.

"I can't see myself being disappointed," he says. "Not at myself."

He slips his headphones on again, reaches for the beginner sound board. His long fingers adjust the levels.

"Ey, ey, ey, ey."

He scoots back and forth quickly as he talks about the station, new DJs and the future.

"In the meantime, I'm just, I'm here," Walker tells his listeners. "I'm definitely here."

Through the student union windows, the rain's let up. But the sky's still flat and gray.

Kristen Hare is a freelance journalist in Lake St. Louis.