By The Associated Press, Associated Press
Athina Prassa in Athens mastered English in four years studying at a private university. It's a skill that may not help her much as she hunts for work while hard-right thugs roam her blighted neighborhood.
Lucy Nicholls in London graduated from fashion school brimming with optimism. It took just a week for real life to step in: She fell victim to a scam that left her broke and desperate for work.
Rafael Gonzalez del Castillo in Madrid has pulled countless all-nighters to win a degree in his passion, architecture, just as Spain's building bust has littered the country with abandoned buildings.
Moira Koffi in Paris left her widowed mom in Normandy for "bohemian life" at the Sorbonne. Now the communications grad is heading into the real world.
Lutz Henschel in Berlin graduated near the top of his class with a degree in electrical engineering in Europe's top economy. Since January he's sent out nearly 40 applications, and is still chasing his dream of working in renewable energies.
Meet AP's Class of 2012: five talented and vibrant university graduates who face a rocky future as they emerge from the cocoon of student life and head into the worst economic crisis Europe has seen since the end of World War II, one that threatens to engulf an entire generation.
They're excited. They're scared. They're full of hope. And full of uncertainty.
The Associated Press will follow them over the next 12 months as their lives unfold in the crisis — through text, photo and video dispatches, as well as webcam diaries and tweets straight from the graduates themselves. The tapestry of their lives will help illuminate the story of Europe's crisis itself, as their futures are shaped by the continent's soaring youth unemployment, corrosive debt, migration trends and aging population.
Europe's turmoil has profound implications for the future of young people everywhere. After all, the European Union is this interconnected world's biggest economy, and it's struggling badly.
Austerity is eroding an envied way of life. Long-cherished certainties about cradle-to-grave welfare are evaporating. As leaders scramble to extinguish one debt fire after another, the futures of ordinary people grow dimmer.
Europe's rapidly graying societies are creating even more of a burden on this generation of young people who are finding it so hard to carve out a future.
Those twin crises will challenge Lutz as he leaves his studies in Europe's strongest economy, even with its low youth unemployment rate of 8 percent.
They will haunt Lucy and Moira in Britain and France, where more than a fifth of all young people are unemployed.
Athina and Rafa worry they'll have to move abroad to survive. In Greece and Spain, youth unemployment is above 50 percent.
"I don't think this time is suitable for fulfilling your dreams," Athina says. "That can happen later."
This is the AP Class of 2012:
ATHINA PRASSA, 22
"Want to see my fridge?" Athina asks a visitor.
She's a natural optimist but it's hard to keep up the cheer as she gazes at the lonely milk carton and container of butter on empty shelves.
"There are days," she says, "where I forget what it's like to eat meat."
Athina left her family home on the island of Lemnos four years ago to study at the private Hellenic-American University in Athens. Her parents were able to pay for her studies but not much more. It meant she ended up in a crime-ridden neighborhood notorious for its extreme-right thugs, where she lives rent-free in an apartment owned by her godmother.
Her parents sent her 100 euros ($120) a week at first, then cut it back to half that when they couldn't afford more.
Now she's on her own.
"My parents can't send me money anymore to live here," she says. "I'm really scared about the future."
She longs to work in Athens but is worried the crisis will force her to leave Greece.
She says the hard times, brought on by years of profligate spending in Greece, have taught her some valuable lessons: "It's funny, but I think the crisis has turned me into a better person, because I definitely hate money right now. ... I see how people go crazy about money."