Job Hunting in Times of Instability: Pepperdine Great Recession Grads Reflect on Their Career Paths

Tiffany Brannon, a 2009 graduate, shared her struggle to find a stable career, finishing several undergraduate and graduate degrees in the process. Photo by Mary Margaret Davis
College graduate Tiffany Brannon dreamed of working at a publishing house after college.
Instead, she found herself as a restaurant hostess in Beverly Hills.
Brannon graduated in 2009 with a double major in English and Film Studies. Despite a glowing resume, including extracurriculars, internships, and the record for most international programs completed at Pepperdine, she could not find a job with her degrees.
As a Great Recession graduate, she is not alone in her experiences.
Many Pepperdine alumni who graduated from 2006 to 2010 recall entering the job market, armed with fresh degrees, in the midst of the Great Recession. The economic recession ushered some into unplanned graduate school, brought dream careers to a screeching halt for many, and forced others down a longer path to success. Many of these graduates believe they still feel the effects of the recession today.
David Smith, an Economics professor at Pepperdine’s Graziadio Business School, believes that recession alumni have reason to feel behind in their careers.
The Great Recession Impacts
The bursting of the housing bubble in 2005 caused the economic decline known as The Great Recession, according to Investopedia.com. A housing bubble is when house prices artificially increase to meet demand.
Banks were engaged in subprime lending, which means they sold too many mortgages with low lending requirements and high-interest rates to satisfy demand, then packaged and resold those mortgages to various investors, according to Balance.com. Mass defaults tumbled home prices, and the investments collapsed, leading to a financial crisis throughout the American job market.
By 2008, unemployment rates shot up to 13%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Smith believes that jobs became more competitive then, and many graduates were forced to consider going back to school or working in the service industry.
“Some students I know who wanted more of a traditional pathway [found] that was more challenging for them,” Smith said. “Some of them took jobs where they were more entry-level jobs, jobs that you would have seen going to a bachelor’s degree recipient were now going to a master’s degree recipient, and some of the bachelor’s degree recipients [weren’t] getting jobs at all. They had to think about going back to school or, you know, working in restaurants.”
A 2012 Rutgers study found that 26% of recession graduates worked part-time at the time of the survey, while 6% were unemployed and 6% were underemployed.
“It’s very difficult for those graduates to find good, full-time jobs,” Smith said. “They were what we call underemployed, where they have the skills and training at a higher level than the job they were employed.”
Out of 16 alumni interviewed, 11 believed the recession affected their ability to get a job or influenced their choice of career. Many recall working minimum wage jobs, sometimes two to three at a time, to support themselves.
Samantha Wehman, a 2009 Political Science graduate, moved back in with her parents after graduation, where she worked as a waitress, nannied and interned at a nonprofit.
“Everyone had to make [it] up,” Wehman said. “And some people, you know, got waitressing and bartending jobs or something to figure it out as they went.”
Like Wehman, many college graduates moved in with their parents during the recession. Among young adults in the 20 to 34 age range, 24% lived with their parents from 2007 to 2009, compared with 17% who lived with parents in 1980, according to a US2010 Project study conducted in 2012.
Jennifer Akamine Phillips, a 2006 Communication graduate, also worked as a waitress.
“I felt like I was really overqualified for that,” Phillips said. “But I felt really normal at the time because when I was working as a waitress at this restaurant, I was also working with a lot of other people who had master’s degrees.”
Brannon started hostessing when her initial dream to work at a publishing house or a major studio company evaporated. She had expected to be offered a job after her senior internship at NBC, and she believes that she would have been if it had not been for the recession.
“That company went bankrupt,” Brannon said. “They had to fire almost everybody, and even then, they ended up dissolving. So a lot of days, months of my life just kind of felt like it went in the garbage.”
Pursuing Graduate School
Of the 16 alumni interviewed, seven pursued higher education after graduating from Pepperdine. A Rutgers survey found that in 2012, one in five U.S. recession alumni were attending graduate or professional school. Yet many alumni did not plan on pursuing higher education.
Because the job market was abysmal, Jennifer Akamine Phillips chose to go to graduate school.

2006 alumna Jennifer Akamine Phillips with husband Landon Phillips, a 2008 alumnus. While Jennifer Akamine Phillips went to graduate school, Landon Phillips spent most of the recession freelancing. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Akamine Phillips
“I guess that was my backup plan, but it was also what I intended to do anyway,” Jennifer Akamine Phillips said. “So it’s just good timing, but I also did it knowing I just need to get through this recession.”
Brannon went to graduate school because she said she “could not get a job anywhere” with her undergraduate degrees. She returned to Pepperdine while working as a hostess and received her conflict management certificate at Pepperdine’s School of Law. Then she finished graduate school for her broadcast journalism degree at the University of Southern California Annenberg from 2011–2013.
After working as a radio host and doing red carpet interviews during her degree, she decided it would be difficult to succeed in the journalism industry in a competitive place like Los Angeles. So she decided to pursue her passion of religion and received a master of letters in Theology at St. Andrews in Scotland in 2013.
Two years after finishing her Theology degree, while she was doing freelance editing and hostessing part-time, Brannon found a promising ad on Craigslist. Laura Dunn, an actress, and model she’d met once before was looking for a creative director for her website to work out of Dunn’s home. Brannon applied, had an interview, and was hired.
“She liked that she knew me,” Brannon said. “She felt safe because it was going to be working out of her house. And so all of a sudden, I was the creative director of her website.”
Brannon worked at lauradunn.com, a personal website dedicated to health, fashion, and beauty targeted to women between 30 and 65 years old.
Brannon made decent money — nothing great, but enough to live off. With her now-steady income, she decided to go back to Pepperdine to pursue her doctorate in dispute resolution at the law school.
But after 18 months, Brannon was laid off due to financial reasons.
So Brannon began the ever-familiar job hunt again.
Pursuing a Different Career
Some alumni struggled to find a job in the career fields they had planned to pursue. Smith said many graduates altered their careers altogether because of the recession.
“There was a shifting in terms of students having to be more entrepreneurial,” Smith said. “And now there’s some benefit to that because students had to be scrappy, they had to offer their services in more of a gig framework.”
Many alumni became interested in starting new companies, working for more entrepreneurial organizations, and developing new skills to stand out against other job seekers, Smith said.
“I guess resilience is one way to think about it,” Smith said. “And [they gained] some positive behaviors that could serve them well in the long run.”
Cecily Breeding, a 2010 International Studies major and Multimedia Design minor who pursued advertising, believes she might not have gone into freelancing if it weren’t for the recession. Now Cecily Breeding is a freelance designer who often works with Pepperdine.
“A lot of companies were making layoffs … in their creative departments,” Cecily Breeding said. “And so maybe even subconsciously, it caused me to write off the prospect of working for an agency or something like that … because I just had that story in my head that that’s where the layoffs were happening.”
Julia Kwamya, a 2007 Economics major, is an alumna who went down an entirely different career path than she had planned. Because of her economics major, she thought that she would easily find a job in finance.
“It was the kind of major at the time where everyone was like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re totally going to get a job,’” Kwamya said. “Cut to 2008 and the recession is really hitting everyone.”
After graduating, she took several temporary positions in finance, hoping that some would offer her full-time positions at the end of her terms. None did.
She decided she could not succeed in the competitive market of economics and instead pursued music, which was her passion, although it was a “far cry” from what she felt she was supposed to do, Kwamya said.
“If I got hired at like, a [J.P. Morgan] or something like that right away, I might have been content with that at the time and thought that I had made it, you know?” Kwamya said. “But I really think the test of your will is [when] you don’t get things that you want.”
This March, Kwamya won a grant designed for female-led arts projects. The grant was for her upcoming pop music album, “Feel Good About Feeling Bad,” about the complications of life and healing, according to New York City’s government website.
After losing her job as a website creative director, Brannon, too, felt she was not in the career she should be. Although she had built a career in digital media, Brannon felt called to theology, so in 2017, she applied to both Oaks Christian School and Pepperdine University in various departments in hopes of pursuing her dreams. In a stroke of good fortune, she made her way to the final round of interviews for three job positions.
At Pepperdine, she’d hoped to be the new editor of The Pepperdine Law Review, the Pepperdine law school magazine. Brannon had friends who worked in the office where she interviewed, and she learned that the job search had narrowed down to her and another candidate, a woman who was 20 years older than Brannon and who had been with the same company for 16 years. This candidate, Brannon’s friends told her, had zero experience working on a digital platform or creating a digital publication.
“But because she had years and years of experience at one company, [Pepperdine] really valued that,” Brannon said.
Brannon’s longest employment had been the job she’d found on Craigslist.
She was also in the running for a position in the Office of the Chaplain. It was a Wednesday, Brannon remembers clearly, and she had just finished her final interview.
“I’d offer you the job,” Brannon recalled the interviewer telling her, “but I have this person I know, a friend who was supposed to send me their resume last week and hasn’t done it yet. So if they give it to me Friday, I’ll hire them.”
Brannon inwardly fumed. Another opportunity lost.
A Longer Path than Planned
Because of the recession, some graduates felt compelled to make career choices that eventually took them down a long path to success.
Wehman is one of these alumni. While working three jobs, Wehman also studied for the LSAT. In fall 2010, she began attending law school at the University of Texas, a move she doesn’t know she would have made if it had not been for the recession.
“I know that I at least had thought of going to law school,” Wehman said. “But I hadn’t really solidified plans for myself.”
Wehman originally considered becoming a civil rights attorney but found that she hated litigation and could not pay off the debts she accrued, so she went into big law instead, an industry that pays more, she said. Now Wehman works in corporate law at Schlumberger, an oilfields service company. She is satisfied with her choice; with a job that pays more money, she’s paid off her debts, and two years ago, she married and bought a house.
Garrett Coman, a 2009 economics graduate, shared similar sentiments. He had always loved economics and felt drawn to a career in finance, but because of the steadily falling economy, he attended medical school at the University of Utah instead.


2009 graduate Garrett Coman at his medical residency. With COVID-19, he faces more job insecurity than he previously expected. Photo courtesy of Coman
“My peers were getting such incredible jobs right after college,” Coman said. “If the economy was still going really strongly, that’s something I would have considered more seriously.”
Coman is finishing his residency in dermatology and will enter the job market with unemployment rates similar to, if not worse than, the Great Recession due to the economic impact of COVID-19, according to CNBC. In April 2020, the unemployment rate skyrocketed to more than 14% while the unemployment rate in 2009 was 10%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
“Most hospitals and outpatient clinics are on hiring freezes, and many have begun furloughing physicians,” Coman wrote in an email. “I had planned to stay on as faculty at the University of Utah, but the current hiring freeze is likely going to be in effect for an extended period of time. Dermatology positions are almost nonexistent right now.”
Coman said his student loan burden makes this time stressful for him. Even though he does not have the job security he expected from working in medicine, he does not regret his career decision.
“I truly love my career, which I feel fortunate to be able to say,” Coman wrote. “In a strict economic [or] financial sense, it is not worth the sacrifices it took to get here. However, a job that is fulfilling and enjoyable is more important to me than the accumulation of wealth. I will still make plenty of money to live comfortably.”
Unaffected Pepperdine Graduates
Although many alumni reported bleak job searches upon graduation, not all Pepperdine alumni struggled to begin their careers. Pepperdine graduates were slightly better off than other college graduates, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) data. The NACE gathered its data before setting industry standards for its surveys, however, so Pepperdine administrators warned that proper comparisons could not be made.
In 2008, 40% of Pepperdine’s graduating seniors were employed by graduation, compared to 26% of graduating seniors nationally. In 2009, 35% of Pepperdine seniors were employed by graduation, compared to 20% of graduating seniors nationally.
By 2012, one in two college graduates nationally were employed full time, according to the Rutgers survey.
Pepperdine Economics Professor Ronald Batchelder believes that Pepperdine graduates were not affected by the recession at all, and instead, the industrial sector took the hit.
“I didn’t see any situation where they weren’t getting good jobs,” Batchelder said. “The service sector of the economy, which is where college students go in terms of jobs, was not as significantly affected.”
Ryan Hagen, a 2010 International Studies and Political Science graduate, had been taking summer classes when the recession hit. He remembers watching CNN in his Towers dorm room one evening; on the screen, a clip of Jim Cramer condemned the economy and yelled, “Sell! Sell!”
Although he remembered thinking that Cramer was overreacting, Hagen quickly realized the weight of the recession. When he began his job hunt, he sent out resumes to “everywhere [he] could find.”
Hagen found his first job reporting at the San Bernardino Sun three months after he graduated and has worked there ever since. Although his road to employment was short, he recognizes that others did not share his experience.
“I know it had very real negative effects on a lot of people,” Hagen said. “It did work out OK for me. I landed in a career where I’m happy.”
2008 Economics graduate Gareth Moses also found employment soon after graduation in foreign exchange trading. Now he serves as the director of Standard Chartered FX Trading.
“I was lucky,” Moses said. “I had interned the summer before graduation and already had a job waiting post-graduation. A few Pepp grads had done similarly and secured jobs, but most had not.”
At Oaks Christian School, Brannon applied to be the spiritual life director; in this position, she would be the head of their Bible department. Brannon felt good about her resume — St. Andrews University was one of the top divinity schools in the world, and her master’s degree fit the job perfectly. She also knew one of the members to the board of directors.
The entire Bible department led the interview. The department consisted entirely of men in their mid-40s — men, Brannon noted, who only had bachelor’s degrees. But her interviews had gone well, and she advanced to the final round of hiring.
At the final interview, Brannon said she felt off. She felt confident in her answers, but she said she had a feeling that something wasn’t right.
Afterward, she received a call from her friend on the board.
“Good news is they loved you,” he told her.
The bad news was that the men had decided they would not respect or feel comfortable with a younger, more educated female as their supervisor.
“Well, I can’t put this in writing for you, but I want you to know I was in the board meeting and that’s what happened,” Brannon recalled the board member telling her.
Despite near success yet again, she found herself back on the hunt.
“These stories are crazy,” Brannon said. “I would get so frustrated, I would just start crying all the time.”
Pepperdine Preparedness?
In the shadows, the recession cast, some who graduated wondered if the education Pepperdine provided was worth the price tag. Kenny Felkel, a 2006 Philosophy and Political Science graduate, said he had no support from Pepperdine once he graduated.
“You exist in this bubble and they don’t let reality in,” Felkel, now the accounts receivable supervisor at Quest Nutrition said. “There’s [virtually] no alumni network. I’ve never met a single another person in my entire working life who went to Pepperdine because the alumni network is so pathetic.”
Bob Clark, executive director of Alumni Affairs, wrote in an email that Pepperdine’s small size is possibly a contributing factor to Felkel’s opinion.
“We have 140,000 alumni in our network,” Clark wrote. “If this alumnus/a is comparing us to USC and UCLA, which have very large alumni networks, I can understand the comment.”
President Andrew K. Benton started pouring resources into Alumni Affairs in 2009 — three years after Fellkel graduated. Benton later reorganized alumni leadership to better help with strategic planning. Today, Alumni Affairs has 26 staff members, “twice the size of other schools of our size,” Clark wrote.
In 2018, Alumni Services launched PeppConnect, a website that connects students and alumni to career and mentor opportunities. Clark wrote that only 5% of universities in the U.S. have this platform available to them, most of which are larger universities than Pepperdine.
PeppConnect also offers various online Alumni engagement events, including webinars. Additionally, Pepperdine offers its Career Center services to alumni for professional help in resume writing, mock interviews, and finding an internship or job.
Although he doesn’t regret his decision to attend Pepperdine, Felkel believes his education wasn’t worth the cost. Felkel said he had to change his entire career path to make ends meet and find any job he could get.
Felkel said if he had extra time and money when he graduated, he would have continued to pursue law; he’d worked entry-level jobs in corporate law upon finishing his bachelor’s, but he switched to a career in accounts receivable because it paid better. Taking a job based on income rather than passion felt much different than the service and leadership mission he had been taught at Pepperdine.
“Do I think [Pepperdine] needs to be a $200,000 investment?” Felkel said. “No, I don’t. So it’s a real double-edged sword that way because I wouldn’t trade my time at all. I mean, I made great friends, great adventures. I’ve learned a lot. But I don’t think I was at all prepared for what was to come.”
Brett Arnold, a 2010 Economics graduate, believes that resources like the alumni network were great programs, but he didn’t use them.
“I think that it would have been better had I taken advantage of the resources there at the school,” Arnold said. “I think that they have good programs there.”
Upon his graduation, Arnold took the first job he could find an assistant in the mortgage industry, which had nothing to do with his major. After being hit in a round of layoffs 10 months later, Arnold decided to take accounting classes at the University of California, San Diego. Now Arnold works in corporate accounting, a job he does not feel satisfied with.
“I often think about a career change, but with a mortgage, a wife and a son, I can’t just stop making money all of a sudden to start over at the bottom,” Arnold wrote in a follow-up email. “It’s a real challenge because it’s hard not to feel trapped in a current career once you get this deep into it, and this far along in life.”
Arnold wrote that if he could start over, he would consider careers in programming or cybersecurity.
2008 Advertising graduate Landon Phillips sees room for improvement in the way Pepperdine prepares its students for the real world.
“I think we get a lot of great ethical training,” Landon Phillips said. “But with the day-to-day stuff, I remember when I graduated still being blindsided and having some surprises that I wasn’t anticipating even minor stuff.”
After his graduation, Landon Phillips took an advertising job at a company he interned for his senior year. He was laid off after three years and did freelance work until he got a job at Pepperdine in 2012. Now he is the lead instructional designer and co-director of the Genesis Lab, a 3D printing and virtual reality hub in Payson Library.
Dusty Breeding, a 2010 Theology graduate who works in Pepperdine’s Campus Ministry, worked in nonprofit for a year after graduation. He has served as a campus and youth minister at Pepperdine for nine years. At the time of his graduation, he recalled many students evaluating the cost of loans.

2010 alumni Dusty and Cecily Breeding, husband and wife, in Kenya circa 2009. Both lived abroad after graduation. Photo courtesy of Cecily Breeding
“Students are now asking big questions like, Is this worth it?” Dusty Breeding said. “Is Pepperdine worth it? And that’s a question that Pepperdine has been forced to answer, and I think they’ve done a good job, but I think it’s a big question.”
A Stable Career for Brannon
In 2018, Brannon found luck at Reality LA, a church she had attended as a student. She applied for the position of a social media manager and was soon invited to an interview. But halfway through, her interviewer asked Brannon to wait. Three administration members walked into the room.
“We feel like … you wouldn’t be utilized as a social media manager,” they told her. Instead, she was offered a full-time, permanent role in the communications department.
“It was almost like a gift from God,” Brannon said.
Brannon now serves as the assistant director of communications for Reality LA. For the last two years, she’s reshaped the church’s marketing strategy and has grown its social media engagement by almost 50%.
Brannon has enjoyed her time at Reality LA, but she said her position is not where her heart is.
“It’s not what I dreamed I’d be doing,” Brannon said. “And that’s frustrating to me because I don’t feel like I’ve been fulfilled career-wise. Like, I had the good grades, I went to grad school and I did all the internships. I did all the extra courses and my resume is crazy.”
But, Brannon said, her resume has often held her back. In many of her job interviews, she was told that her resume was too diverse and that she was too overqualified for the positions she sought.
“I think overqualified is the No. 1 word that I heard in every job [interview],” Brannon said. “That was, oh, I wanted to scream every time.”
Long-term Effects on Recession Graduates
Unemployment decreased from 7.3% to 3.5% between 2008 and 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. Recession graduates who are now employed, however, believe that the recession has left lasting impacts on their lives. This includes effects on marriage, salaries, housing and family planning decisions.
While marriage rates have steadily declined since 1960, according to Pew Research Center, the U.S. Census Bureau found that the recession may have led couples to choose cohabitation over marriage. Between 2009 and 2010, there was a 13% increase in couples who shared a household outside of marriage. From 2008 to 2010, the percentage of one partner being employed and the other being unemployed increased from 8% to 15%.
Additionally, those who graduated during the recession typically do not make as high of a salary as those who graduated before. The 2012 Rutgers study found that those who graduated in the years 2006 and 2007 earned $3,000 more a year on average than those who graduated in 2009, 2010 and 2011 — after the start of the Great Recession.
Finally, economic recessions often lead to a drop in birth and fertility rates, according to Pew. A 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, which focused on birth and fertility rates from 2005 to 2012, reported a sharp drop in the nation’s fertility rate in the aftermath of the recession. The study found that per 1,000 women, there were 69.3 births annually from 2007 through 2010, compared to 63.2 births per 1,000 women in 2012. This drop is the result of many Americans feeling financially unprepared to support a child, the CDC concluded.
Arnold, who said he always felt he needed to be a provider for his family, said the recession amplified the feeling that he should put off kids until he felt successful.
“The recession made me more driven to ‘get to a certain place in my career’ before starting a family,” Arnold wrote. “I believe that mindset was made stronger because of the tough job market and crashes in the stock and housing markets as I was wrapping up at Pepperdine.”
Airan Scruby-Miller, a 2007 Journalism graduate who now works as a self-employed attorney, said she believes that decisions like housing were difficult to make during the recession.
“If my goal had been to live alone and pay rent in Los Angeles while working a job in my chosen field that I found satisfying and challenging, it would not have been possible,” Scruby-Miller said. “Lucky for me, I was just getting married and had a built-in ‘roommate’ with whom to share expenses in our tiny, one-bedroom apartment.”
Hope for Future Recession Graduates
Ten years after her graduation, Jennifer Akamine and Landon Phillips remember attending an alumni dinner at Pepperdine. Between bites, they found themselves in deep conversation with the strangers across the table about Pepperdine’s mission of purpose, service, and leadership.
“We were saying how it’s great they permanently instilled those values in us [for] … what we should pursue in work,” Jennifer Akamine Phillips, who now works as a communication professor for Pepperdine, said. “But one of the bad things that came from that was I also thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to make money … the purpose is more important than the money.’”
As she had struggled to find her footing in the world, she realized that money and purpose weren’t as black and white as she had believed.
“Whenever you graduate, obviously, [colleges] want you to go out into the world and do great things,” Jennifer Akamine Phillips said. “And you probably really feel empowered to do that. Especially being a small school. I think everyone’s always excited … everyone’s telling you how great you are and all those great things you’re gonna do in the world. So then you graduate, and that’s the expectation.”
But as she watched her peers graduate into the job market, many struggled to find the success they had expected.
“I know for a lot of my friends, it wasn’t just, ‘Hey, I’m going to intern in the White House,’ but they’re like, ‘I’m gonna go to the top,’” Jennifer Akamine Phillips said. “Everyone wanted big things, and for some, it happened. But for most people, it didn’t, and that’s OK. And I think for a little while, they were either unhappy or embarrassed, or they would pursue their dream, but they’re so unhappy, they would quit.”
Brannon shared this sense of embarrassment.
“It was embarrassing. I was embarrassed for two years of my life, at least,” Brannon said. “There’s that real sense of hopelessness that I think [is] really easy to have.”
But for 2020 graduates finishing school in the midst of a recession, Jennifer Akamine Phillips urged them to have patience with themselves.
“After you graduate, give yourself a little bit of grace,” Jennifer Akamine Phillips said. “Realize that you don’t have to fulfill this great expectation right away and that it is OK — that if it takes a little longer than you think it should — because eventually you’ll find it, and you’ll get there.”
Despite her fight for a satisfying career, Brannon urged others who may be in a similar situation not to give up hope.
“Don’t let anything take that hope away from you,” Brannon said. “You don’t know what God has in store for you. You don’t know what’s going to happen or what skills you could learn that could help other people.”
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Email Mary Margaret Davis: maggie.davis@pepperdine.edu