Members of the high school class of 2009 are not letting the weakened economy get in the way of their dreams.
Ninety-five percent of local valedictorians who responded to a Chattanooga Times Free Press survey said that the economic climate has not altered their career plans. Eighty-two percent say the conditions have not affected their college choice.
"I've always wanted to be a writer or journalist, (but) I've had more than a few people tell me I should be a doctor instead," said Alexandria Wisner, valedictorian of Boyd-Buchanan School. "For the time being, I've decided to stay with going after the dream that I've always dreamed about. Starving artist or not, I'd rather be happy than rich."
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects jobs in health care and engineering will be among the fastest-growing occupations over the next few years. Forty percent of this year's valedictorians said they hope to pursue careers in those areas.
"I wanted to be a biomedical engineer or surgeon before the economic crisis," said Chelsey Smith, valedictorian at Girls Preparatory School. "I think a career should not be chosen simply for its economic value, but for the services it offers people."
Chelsey said she received good care from doctors when she underwent knee surgery and was inspired to help others.
One-third of the students surveyed have not picked or did not state a career path.
Success in college is the top priority for 55 percent of the students surveyed, with the other 45 percent concerned with money and career, national security, personal spirituality or a combination of the four.
"I think you need to take everything one step at a time," said Joseph Riley of McMinn Central High School. "If I do my best and excel in college, I will have prepared myself to succeed later in life as well."
Many valedictorians said they are nervous about how they will handle young adulthood.
"Now that my high school career is over, I'm frightened to think that I won't be able to live up to everyone's expectations," said Dusty Shrader, valedictorian of North Sand Mountain High School.
For some members of the class of 2009, senior year marked a first experience as voters. Forty-two percent said they have faith in President Barack Obama to solve the nation's economic problems.
"I believe he has the ability to turn our economic situation around if given time and support," said Alexandria Brown of Hamilton Heights Christian Academy. "He cannot do it alone. He entered this election knowing he had a huge responsibility. He is not working under the best conditions, but I believe he is taking the right steps to improve the country."
Forty percent said they do not have confidence in the president. Eighteen percent either abstained or said their beliefs were not in one man but in humanity as a whole or in a divine being.
Victor Hong, valedictorian for Collegedale Academy, said he does not agree with Mr. Obama's message of hope.
"The economic problems will not be solved with short-term makeshifts," Mr. Hong said. "For the nation's economy to get better, the world's economy has to be improved first. Obama can't do it by himself."
Brittany Hale of Grace Baptist Academy said no one person can reverse global conditions.
"(President Obama) is not Superman, and we as the American people should not expect him to work miracles," she said.
This year's crop of students is making the transition from high school to college in what has been called the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. But 60 percent said they see a better world, not a world in turmoil, when they look to the future.
"There is no point in being pessimistic," said McCallie School's Thomas Dugger. "We must all work toward progress, and I think that through combined human efforts we cannot do any backtracking. We can only do better if we set our minds to it."
Lauren Ziemer, valedictorian for Silverdale Academy, noted that her generation has been called "an idealistic generation."
"We see things the way they should be. If we can hold on to that while working together, I think we can make the world a better place," she said. "The future seems like it may be in trouble, but I think there will be strong leaders that will rise up from my generation to fix it."