Midway through his college career at Northwest Nazarene University, Matt Stark realized he was headed down the wrong path.

It came to him while he was working as a counselor at a summer running camp. He was sitting around a campfire with his high school campers in a "good news circle"; they were talking about all the good things they were thankful for in the past week.

"I realized that a lot of the good things that happened to them, I had somehow influenced, I had been involved," Stark recalled. "I was helping them get pumped about running, pumped about being part of a team, pumped about being friends with each other. I thought, 'I love this. How can I do this forever? How can I make this my life?'"

Stark, who grew up in Meridian, met a lot of resistance when he announced his plan to become a teacher. After all, he had already completed most of his classes for a business degree — and he had always talked about becoming an entrepreneur.

What's more, switching to education would require him to stay in college an extra year and pay more for tuition.

But he'd felt a calling.

"Something just changed for me. I realized I'd be crazy if I continued in business," he said. "It was a life-changing decision."

Stark completed his student teaching last fall, and walked during graduation Saturday.

Unlike his fellow classmates, Stark isn't worried about finding a job. He already has one. During Christmas break last year, the principal at Lone Star Middle School hired him on as the sixth-grade world history teacher. He also gets to coach running.

"It's been an awesome transition from classroom studies to student teaching to real-world application," he said.

While Stark counts himself lucky to have found a job, he also stressed that there are lots of opportunities for graduates who take advantage of the personal connections they've forged in college.

For him, he visited eight different schools as a student teacher, and he considered all the people he worked with as potential employers.

He has also kept in touch with his professors, who have offered him guidance.

"Present yourself as who you are. Be proud of the skills you have and don't be afraid to show those off," he said.

Ryan Mangum, from Battle Ground, Wash., studied psychology with emphases in neuroscience and and science-practicioner.

Plans: He will attend Fuller Theological Seminary in the graduate program in psychology; he plans to earn his PhD in clinical psychology and work as a psychologist.

Best college memory: Before Mangum could become a resident assistant in the dormitories his sophomore year, he had to undergo an “initiation.” One freezing night in February, he and the other new resident assistants were roused from their beds and trucked to Boise. “They left us in our sleepwear at the Capitol with bikes. It was 4 a.m. and we were supposed to get back by 7 a.m. The best part of the story is that one guy didn't know how to ride a bike," Mangum said. After half an hour, the older RAs returned. Realizing the recruits weren't making any progress, they allowed them to ride the bikes to the Boise State Campus instead.

Outlook on future: "For me personally, I haven't had to address the reality of finding a job. I'm still continuing in school for six more years. But talking to some of my peers, it's frightening. School is a whirlwind until graduation. A lot of people are just realizing, 'Oh gosh, I need to make this work.' A lot of students don't know what they're going to do. It's definitely scary. You need to tap into the people you know. Professors are willing to go to bat for students."

Chandra Salisbury, from Nampa, is a graduate student in clinical counseling

Plans: She hopes to get a job with a local mental health clinic, and eventually work with military families. Salisbury's husband was deployed to Iraq in 2004-2005 with the National Guard, and she understands the needs of military families.

Best college memory: Salisbury worked with soldiers and families of the Idaho National Guard's 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team returning from Iraq last year. She joined 40 other counseling students from NNU, who worked with a total of 2,000 service members and families.

Outlook on future: "There have always been times when different industries were hit. My husband and I have been through difficult times. He did a lot of high-tech sales with different companies and was laid off. We rebounded and reinvented ourselves and went on. I went into the counseling field to serve and help people. I'll be able to help people in whatever way I can regardless of the economy."

Andrew Olsen, from Missoula, Mont., studied biology with a focus on ecology and biodiversity.

Plans: He will work with an environmental consulting firm in Buffalo, Wyo., monitoring bird activity in oil and natural gas fields; he has been hired on for three months, but the job could lead to permanent work.

Best college memory: Olsen studied abroad for a semester in Costa Rica, where he conducted field research in the rain forest. One day, his group came upon a tapir, a rare ungulate that resembles a pig. "It's the kind of thing you only see in National Geographic, and he just right there asleep in a mud hole. He had no idea we were even there," Olsen recalled.

Outlook on future: "I'm really hopeful and optimistic. Times are tough for everybody, but I think things are going to turn around. I put in a great amount of effort to find a job, and it paid off. If you really work hard and aren't too picky, you can find a job."

Gretchen Smith, from Eagle, studied curriculum and instruction in the graduate school.

Plans: She is an established in career third grade teacher at Mill Creek Elementary School in Middleton; with her additional education she would like to mentor pre-service teachers and work with gifted-and-talented students.

Best college memory: Smith worked for a year researching and writing her thesis, which determined the effectiveness of computer gaming for teaching mathematics. She concluded that computer games are generally not effective. She considers writing the thesis a major achievement in her career and life.

Outlook on future: "I have a different perspective from most students. I'm 45 and hopeful. It seems things in the economy are turning around. Education is still behind on that; educators will be the last to feel the relief of things turning. But as a teacher, I am an optimist. I just see so much potential though I think it's harder for young people. You have to have a niche that you really excel at," she said.

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