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Students Say Goodbye Wall Street, Hello Pre-Med

New America Media, News Report, Viji Sundaram Posted: Apr 22, 2009

Editors Note: Careers in high finance were once the top picks for ambitious young men and women, particularly from immigrant families. The current economic crisis is forcing many of them to turn to more stable careers such as medicine, finds a recent survey.

At 28, Nelson does not exude the confidence youd expect from someone whose bank balance statement reads $103,873.

Nelson, who didnt want his last name to be used lest it jeopardize his job chances, says that was his balance in 2008 before the implosion on Wall Street. Now its about half of that.

He will also tell you that his unemployment check is only $1,800 a month before taxes, when just a few years back, he says, I was making $105,000 a year as a research analyst on Wall Street. In the financial world, you can go from $50,000 a year to $2 million in under 10 years, he said.

Nelson didnt stay long enough to see if that would happen to him. He got laid off in 2004, at age 23, and returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he grew up. Then he began mining every opportunity he had, hoping to fatten his savings, working at such corporations as Gap Inc. and a Canadian bank. But last September, when Lehman Brothers crashed, Nelson decided it was best that he look at other options.

He is now taking pre-med courses at a community college in the Bay Area, planning to become a doctor. Why that profession?

Because Ill have at least an upper middle-class lifestyle for the rest of my life, Nelson said frankly. I grew up in Oakland. I knew what life was like on the other side of the tracks. I dont want to experience that again.

A California Young Adult Workforce Survey conducted recently with funding from The California Wellness Foundation suggests that youngsters now consider the health care sector to be the most likely place to find a good-paying job with benefits.

Eighty percent say it is likely that people could find a good job in the health care industry, with just under half, 49 percent, saying it is very likely.

The telephone survey was done jointly by Goodwin Simon Victoria Research and Fenton Communications to assess how younger people felt about the economy, job market and employment prospects, and to measure attitudes toward work in the health care fields.

Forty-four percent of respondents said they or someone in their family are more likely to consider working in the health care field than was the case before the current economic downslide.

Nineteen-year-old Kendra Davis is taking prerequisite courses in nursing at City College in San Francisco. Being a nurse, she says, will not only give her emotional satisfaction, it will offer her the financial stability she has not had in the past.

I dont like to be without money, Davis said.

The sweeping changes on Wall Street are taking the shine out of the world of finance for many youngsters like Nelson and making them rethink their career goals. The former high rollers in the finance sector have become the new face of unemployment.

The California Young Adult survey seems to bear this out. More than one-third of respondents of the survey, 36 percent, said that the current job market and economic situation is causing them to consider making a job change or career switch, while another three percent said they have already done so.

This is a sea change from the dot.com boom in the 1990s, when youngsters, especially those from immigrant families, saw the world of finance and high-tech as sectors that would earn them top dollar. Parents steered their children toward Silicon Valley or Wall Street. Now, it seems, they are letting them make up their own mind.

A lot of second-generation kids are drifting away from high-tech, observed Kalpana Mohan, whose husband is a computer scientist in Silicon Valley, and whose 19-year-old daughter is on the pre-med track.

Aken Desai said he decided to switch his major from business to medicine at the University of Michigan after he saw how quickly his friends were losing their enthusiasm for their jobs on Wall Street. They liked the money, but not the work, Desai, 23, said. I decided I wasnt going for that.

China-born Tony, 31, who did not want his last name used, worked for a few years in finance after earning a degree in managerial economics and computer information systems at U.C. Davis in 2001.

Coming from a family of modest means, he enjoyed the money he was able to pull in, but couldnt stand the long hours of monotonous work, not to mention the constant fear of being laid off.

I couldnt see myself doing that for a long time, Tony said.

So last year, Tony enrolled in the two-and-a-half year physical therapy program at Peralta Community College in Oakland. He believes that he is more temperamentally suited for that career because, he says, you have a greater connection with people and you can make fairly good money without looking at spreadsheets all day. In the Bay Area, you can even make a six-figure salary as a physical therapist, Tony said.

Sujal Parikh, a second-year med student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says that like his parents, he wanted to be in a career that was well regarded. He decided to pursue a career in medicine, he says, because of his "passion for social justice." And did income influence his decision at all?

Yes, he said. a career in medicine does offer financial stability.

Nelson isnt totally disenchanted with Wall Street, its turmoil notwithstanding. If it turns around, he said, he will more than likely go back to it and take another stab at making a million before I turn 40.

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