NEW YORK -- Since graduating from Ithaca College in May, Nathan Grant has searched high and low for steady work.
After spending the summer renting kayaks at a local campground, Grant moved back in with his parents in Little Egg Harbor, N.J.
In mid-September, Grant first read about Occupy Wall Street online. He said he felt a deep connection to the movement early on, motivated to join it not only because of his struggle to find a job, but also because of the $90,000 in student loan debt that now hangs like an albatross around his neck.
A little over a week ago, Grant, 22, moved into lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park. He has yet to return home.
"I got a degree so I wouldn't be in this position," said Grant, who has worn the same gray beanie and gray hoodie all week long. His student loans are currently in deferment, though interest continues to accrue. "Like a lot of the people now living in this park, I've had the toughest time finding work."
Private college students and recent graduates living in the New York area have gravitated toward Zuccotti Park to join a community where they feel comfortable airing their frustrations and making their demands known.
For students attending private colleges, fears about being able to finance their costly degrees are a particular burden. An annual study released earlier this week by the College Board found that average costs at private colleges have continued to climb. The College Board reported that tuition and fees at private colleges had risen 4.5 percent to $28,500 a year.
Many college students have flocked to the Occupy Wall Street movement in recent weeks, citing rising amounts of student loan debt and increasing rates of joblessness. Nationwide, an estimated 150 campuses have staged walkouts -- with Occupy Colleges, a student-led grassroots coalition, planning additional teach-ins during the middle of next week.
Nate Barchus, a 23-year-old recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, counts himself among the "overeducated and underemployed."
Barchus, who stood sweeping the Occupy Wall Street library early Friday morning, is about $25,000 in debt.
Earlier this fall, he first heard about the protests on Facebook and soon arrived in Manhattan, where he had hoped to find work.
"I came here for a job search and was so demoralized by the lack of meaningful jobs that I figured this was a more valuable use of my time," said Barchus, who, despite the frigid weekend forecast, plans to remain camped out in the park indefinitely.
Last weekend, Sara Bachman paid a three-day visit to Zuccotti Park during her fall break at Middlebury College.
Bachman, a 20-year-old environmental studies and religion major, grew up near Portland, Maine, in an upper-middle-class home. Her mother is a school nurse and her father is an emergency room physician. Come graduation day, Bachman said she faces between $30,000 and $40,000 in student loan debt.
While her school participated in a campus-wide solidarity protest a few weeks back, Bachman wanted to see Occupy Wall Street with her own eyes.
Alongside two other Middlebury students, Bachman plopped her backpack and sleeping bag down on an unoccupied stretch of concrete in Zuccotti Park and prepared to spend Saturday night.
Though Bachman returned to Vermont in time for Wednesday's classes, she said the sense of community and passion she discovered among the fellow protesters not only filled her with a sense of hopefulness about the future, but is likely to fuel her return later this year.
When Grant heard about Occupy Wall Street, he also felt compelled to experience it firsthand.
By his own admission, Grant grew up poor. He's the first person in his family to graduate from college. His mother looks after an elderly woman and his father wraps meat at a local grocery store.
Grant made the hour-and-a-half trip into Manhattan in the back of a van owned by his brother's boss. Though he'd only visited Manhattan two or three times before, he walked from Pennsylvania Station on 34th Street to Zuccotti Park.
Since Grant initially planned to stay only a week, he brought along just a few changes of clothes, some cologne, deodorant, toothpaste, a toothbrush and a tent. The first night, he said he nearly froze to death without a sleeping bag. In order to last the winter, Grant has realized he'll have to acquire some heavy-duty outdoor gear.
So far, Grant said he has yet to meet many other recent graduates or current students living in the park.
"Everyone says this a youth movement, but I don't see that many youth," said Grant, who eventually wants to go back to school to become an elementary school teacher but refuses to take on more debt until he's paid off his undergraduate loans. "But where is everyone?"
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