Illustration by Amanda Alten

Against a backdrop of faux marble pillars and potted plants, an epic orchestral tune blares from speakers set up around the football field as the Cabrillo College class of 2012 files in to take their seats. Onlookers blow air horns and shout support from the stadium seating as students are called upon to receive their diplomas and formally end this stage of their education.

Some are in their 40s or 50s and dream of entering a new field or getting a better job than their previous one. Others are in their 20s, about to transfer to a university or enter the workforce for the first time in their lives.

“In 2012, over 18,000 students attended Cabrillo,” said Cabrillo’s vice president of instruction Renee Kilmer as she addressed the crowd. “The oldest student this year is 75 and the youngest is 19. One thousand and 34 of them are receiving their associate’s degrees, over 530 are receiving certificates, and over 500 have plans to transfer to a four-year university.”

Graduating from Cabrillo means different things for each of these students. With degrees and certifications offered in everything from journalism and business to landscape horticulture and fire technology, the class of 2012 is a varied group. Ultimately though, the vast majority plan to use the skills they’ve obtained at Cabrillo to pursue a career, a process that has become increasingly uncertain in the years following the financial crisis of 2008.

The economic outlook darkened again in early June when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released the May 2012 Jobs Report, which showed the worst month for jobs added this year. According to the report, the unemployment rate rose in May, going from 8.1 percent to 8.2 percent nationwide, and some analysts have voiced concerns that this may cast doubt on the meager recovery we’ve seen in the past few months.

Graduates, while well aware of the economic environment they’re about to enter, nevertheless remain hopeful.

“I’m about 60 percent confident on the economy, but I’m 99 percent confident in myself and that I can do it, especially with the skills I acquired here at Cabrillo,” said Gabby Avila, who graduated with an associate degree in international relations and plans to transfer to San Jose State University to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

“I think I’m more confident than my instructors are,” said Genoa Fox, who graduated with an associate of science degree in nursing and health science, an EKG certification and an associate degree in Spanish. “My instructors have basically been telling us not to get our hopes up but I say you’ve got to visualize it to do it, and I can see myself doing it.”

Fox hopes to get a job in a trauma emergency room intensive care unit, and eventually to become a flight nurse on an emergency response helicopter team. Fox’s experience has become common among students at Cabrillo and other higher education institutions, as instructors take pains not to get their students’ hopes up and stress taking practical classes as a fallback to ensure employment.

“Times are changing,” said Academic Senate head and history professor Michael Mangin. “You know, something that was so straightforward for most of my adult life like teaching, a lot of my history students would be very interested in teaching and my conversation with them now is a little different than it’s been for the last 20 or 25 years.”

Mangin said he now often advises students interested in history to take a few business or economics classes to augment their liberal arts education and make the prospect of employment a bit easier to come by.

A strictly practical path to the workforce might become even harder for some students to obtain next year though, as Cabrillo College is faced with the most extreme year of cuts since 2008 if the tax initiative on California’s November ballot doesn’t pass. If not, programs such as culinary arts, hospitality management, welding and others could find themselves on the chopping block.

“It is conceivable [that these programs and others will be cut],” Mangin said. “Especially if the November initiative doesn’t pass. My guess is that we’ve probably cut about 15 percent of where we were at four years ago, and we’re probably going to cut about another 8 or 10 percent if it doesn’t pass. Something’s gotta give.”