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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Capricious Class of '94 takes long and winding road

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 14, 2003

For all that the world can see one evening on Spanish Banks beach, Trevor Kinsey is a man without a care. He looks, at 26, like a slightly eccentric scientist. He is rumpled and boyish. His haircut can be described as accidental. He has a sunny smile.

He is walking on his hands before an audience of fellow graduates from Vancouver's Kitsilano Secondary School, members of the Kits class of '94. "I only learned how to do this two weeks ago," he tells them.

He falls over after two steps, gets up and tries again.

And falls again.

Mr. Kinsey, in fact, is stressed. In three days he will marry Trish Wong, 25. And after a year of brooding about what he is doing with his life, he has decided to abandon one career path and head back to university to start another.

He has a bachelor of science degree in physics from the University of British Columbia, a diploma in robotics from the B.C. Institute of Technology and a job at a UBC physics laboratory. And he has concluded that he is stagnating.

He is not being creative. He is babysitting machines, he said. "I want to be constructive and help people with their lives. Since I've been studying physics and robotics, I've put all this human stuff on the back burner and I realize it's important to me."

He intends to return to UBC in September to become a high-school physics teacher.

The audience for Mr. Kinsey's handstands know this story because, in one form or another, it is their story, too. It's also a familiar story to Margaret Pederson, their counsellor at Kitsilano Secondary School for five years, who arranged for the group — friends with one another in high school — to talk about their outward-bound journeys from Grade 12.

Ms. Pederson had no inkling that just about all of them would turn out to have boarded a slow boat to wherever it is they're going — especially the boys.

They're travelling along what education researchers prosaically label the "indirect path" through postsecondary education toward the world of work. They belong to the best-educated generation Canada has ever produced, but they're taking their time getting there. And the evidence, while patchy, suggests it's what Canadians in their 20s are doing in huge numbers.

Meandering. Searching. Being cautious. Deciding that they've wound up on the wrong path and changing directions. Being very, in a word, postmodern.

Many spoke in interviews about feeling overwhelmed by options, and at the same time not pressured to fit in, free to search for a future to fit their ideals. Many are confused by the message that they'll have multiple careers in their lifetimes. Many look at their work-stressed and job-drudged parents and say that isn't for them.

And a lot of them leave high school feeling lost, especially the boys. "The boys," said Ms. Pederson flatly, "don't think it through."

Ken Annandale, a former high-school principal and now a consultant to the Vancouver School Board, said that, since the 1990s, the indirect path has been "pretty consistent" and "closer to the norm than not."

Not surprisingly, this is contributing to a demographic change in the life stages young Canadians go through. Their average age to move out of their parents' home is up to 27. Fertility rates for young women are about half what their mothers' were at their age, and the average age of childbearing has climbed back to Second World War levels, when men were in military service.

Kitsilano Secondary is a 1,200-student high school on Vancouver's west side. The neighbourhood is home to professional and well-to-do business people as well as blue-collar workers and every gradient in between. It draws students from across the city because it is a French-immersion school.

Here are some of the stories from the Class of '94:

Dustin Quezada, 26, bearded and articulate, thought he knew everything he needed to know when he graduated from Kits. Life was his oyster, and he wanted to play — to party, drink beer, go to concerts, woo girls and play hockey with the guys. Hockey is his addiction.

He didn't apply to college or university. "I wasn't ready." He worked full-time for a year as a grocery clerk and then drove across Canada with two friends.

The following year he enrolled at Carleton University in Ottawa, intending to study journalism and become a hockey writer. He had fun. He had bad grades. He felt guilty about his mother and stepfather (his parents divorced when he was 2) paying his tuition and living costs. His father died at the end of the year. "I am sure there are manuals out there to tell you how to deal with that, but I haven't found them."

He dropped out.

"I regret that," he said. "It would have been nice to keep going."

He came home. Most of his male friends from Kits were drifting. "None of us was really forging ahead. The girls, most of our girlfriends from high school, they all went straight into university."

Why the difference? "I think women are little bit more motivated. They have to overcome" — he searched a moment for the word — "disadvantage. My ex-girlfriend figured women were better planners; they're better at time maintenance."

He recalled classmate Rachel Engler-Stringer, his date for the Kits graduation party, lecturing him and his male friends about goofing off.

Ms. Engler-Stringer, 26, an academic's daughter, is one year from completing her PhD in nutrition research at the University of Saskatchewan.

She writes in an e-mail: "I find it entertaining that men I graduated with said that I told them to get their ---- together (probably not the language they used, but let's be honest). That is certainly something I would have said back then."

Mr. Quezada recently quit work as a valet car-parker, a job he's held since 1999, "hustling around for rich people, hoping they'd fork out money," he said with distaste.

He earned a certificate in desktop publishing from BCIT. He's now halfway through a two-year journalism course at Vancouver's Langara College. He is getting good marks.

What happened? He and his guy friends, he said, started to wake up.

He wants to get married and have children. He wants to buy property outside Vancouver. He wants to buy a truck for his hockey and camping gear. "All my guy friends, we have the truck dream."

He now wishes he had taken life more seriously.

His generation, he said, faces fewer jobs and more competition. "Over all I think our generation does have to work harder." He said that if he'd stayed at Carleton, he could have been on track earlier. "I told my mum recently, 'You got to kick me in the ass a few more times.' "

Alda Ngo, 26, the effervescent Canadian-born daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, grew up on Vancouver's east side and came to Kitsilano Secondary for French. She and Mr. Kinsey became friends in Grade 9 social studies. Two years after graduation, they platonically shared an apartment until Ms. Ngo fell in love with Sean Fulton and asked Mr. Kinsey to move out so that Mr. Fulton — her musician husband since last August — could move in.

Ms. Ngo's parents were determined she would be a doctor. "I think even before I was conceived this was the plan for me," she said.

She, however, was having doubts in high school about a career in conventional medicine. She was attracted to the environmental movement and what she calls life's "moral alternative flavour."

She went straight from high school to UBC, but at the end of her first year began to rebel. "I couldn't tell if I was becoming a doctor because my parents wanted me to or because I wanted to."

She moved out of her family home, the first among her friends to do so. She found a bachelor apartment in Kitsilano (when Mr. Kinsey moved in, he slept on the balcony) and supported herself with student loans and by working with Mr. Kinsey at a daycare for teenagers with disabilities.

She went to Vietnam for three months to discover her cultural roots. "My parents really objected because I was taking time off from school, and a good Vietnamese girl just doesn't do that." But the experience, she said, left her "glowing."

She returned to university for two years, dutifully aiming herself at premedical studies, but found it competitive and impersonal. She then dropped out for another term — her "little anti-establishment phase," as she called it.

"It was very dramatic. I even wrote letters to my parents and told them I'm sorry but I think I've been lying to you; I don't want to be a doctor and I'm not in school this term. It was a very hard time." She went through several jobs in the restaurant industry ("I never made it to waitress"), started panicking, went back to UBC for her fourth year in biology rather than premed, and obtained her bachelor's degree.

In the end she did decide to become a licensed practitioner — of Chinese traditional medicine — and has one year left of a four-year program. "The holism of it resonates with me. It's the medicine they practise in Vietnam. I can talk to my grandma about it. I'm going to be a doctor after all."

Kevin Hunter, 26, plays hockey with Mr. Quezada three or four nights a week. He exudes confidence, talks a rapid-fire patter, has an Approach — with a capital A — to life. He arrives at a Broadway coffee shop wearing shorts and a baseball cap perched on his curly red hair.

He graduated from Kits having no idea what to do. He'd thought earlier about a career in law, but changed his mind, he said, after spending a day with a corporate lawyer. "It didn't strike me as very fulfilling."

"I'm a little bit pragmatic. If I think I know what I want then I go and do it. But if I don't really know then I'll hang back and think things over." He worked for a year as a waiter. He went to Japan for four months to earn a community-college hospitality certificate working at a ski resort.

One day on a train to Tokyo, he decided to study kinesiology. "My mum is in the fitness industry. It's almost like a genetic predisposition. I've been exercising in a gym my whole life."

He studied two years at Langara, transferred to the University of Victoria and spent the next four years getting a degree. His parents had retired in Victoria. He lived in a basement suite in their house. He worked part-time.

He graduated, came back to Vancouver and got a job in a sports medicine and orthotics store. He's now manager. He said he learns something new on the job every day; he said it's a fit with his education. And then he said: "Now I'm at the point of my life where I'm looking forward to nailing down specifically what it is I can see myself doing for the rest of my life. The second stage of my education."

What's wrong with his job?

"The financials," he said. "I only get paid about 25 grand a year, so it's disgraceful."

He said he is considering three options: a medical degree, a master's degree in physiotherapy or some other path into academia. He said he doesn't want a job like the one his father had as a Telus manager, something that's just a job. He wants to be fulfilled. He wants to be challenged.

Peter Zerbinos's parents own the Broadway Bakery in Kitsilano. His mother Pat's spinach pies, he said, have been rated the city's best by a Vancouver newspaper.

Mr. Zerbinos, 26, big, good-looking, athletically built, had no plan after high school. But everyone he knew was taking some postsecondary education, so he enrolled in Kwantlen University College in nearby Richmond and, he emphatically said, wasted a year and a half. "It was probably the worst mistake of my life. I wasn't into it. I wasn't getting good grades. I was wasting my parents' money."

He dropped out. He went to work in the bakery, but his father Jerry declared he wouldn't have his son following in his footsteps, working from 4 a.m. to 6 in the evening. He got a unionized job packing groceries at Stong's, the local supermarket, and within a short time was earning $20 an hour. "As a 21-year-old kid, it was pretty good money. I was living at home rent-free and I had all this cash. It was a good job — and you get stuck in it so easily." He stayed at Stong's for four years.

Then two summers ago he went travelling in Europe with a group of friends and, like Mr. Quezada, woke up.

"I decided I'd got to do something with my life. I can't work at Stong's forever."

He went back to community college to study human kinetics. Now, two years later with a record of good grades, he has applied to UBC to study to become a physical-education and history teacher. "I can't think of anything more I'd love to do," he said. "I'm pretty sure I'm going to get in."

Of course, some of the Class of '94 went straight like arrows. Like Ms. Engler-Stringer. And the Fassler twins, Nicos and Larissa, who rode the bus from West Vancouver with Trevor Kinsey every morning across the harbour to French immersion at Kits.

Larissa knew where she was going the moment she graduated: to Concordia University in Montreal to study art. She began having her own shows after university. She now lives in Berlin with her French husband and this year is doing further studies in London. Nicos was only slightly less decided than his sister. He went directly to university and got his bachelor's degree, but needed convincing he should be in law. He is now articling with Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney-General. He wants to do criminal litigation for the Crown.

Mr. Kinsey, thinking about his new career, said he is a tinkerer by nature.

He has an electronics lab in his and Trish's top-floor apartment and he is planning to build a device that will regulate the temperature by opening and closing windows.

His tinkering, he said, "will help me make interesting demos. Or lead a club after school hours." ROBTv Workopolis