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NPR's exploring the American dream this summer - what that means, why it's important. By nature, young people can be idealistic and in many ways epitomize the spirit of the dream. But with the recent recession, surveys find a profound pessimism among young adults. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has this profile of one woman's fledgling steps to follow her dream.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Growing up near Philadelphia, Michelle Holshue's dream was to serve those in need. And in 2007, applying to nursing school at the University of Pennsylvania seemed like a smart move. The joke was that hospital executives would stop her on the street and beg her to work for them. Then, of course, the economy tanked. For a time, Holshue was an Ivy League grad on unemployment and food stamps.

MICHELLE HOLSHUE: But I made it work. I learned to cook really well on a tight budget, which is a skill that's served me ever since.

LUDDEN: Holshue found her footing, has held several jobs, and moved recently for a one-year fellowship at a public health association in Washington, D.C.

HOLSHUE: Who's hungry?

(SOUNDBITE OF CAN OPENING)

LUDDEN: She has her own apartment - and two cats - in Virginia, an hour's commute from her job. And at 30 years old, Holshue exemplifies a key tenet of the American dream.

HOLSHUE: My dad never finished high school. So, in that sense, you know, I am doing better than my parents did.

LUDDEN: She's making more money early on than her parents make after decades of working. Her dad's a school bus driver, her mom, a teacher. And yet, like so many college graduates now, Holshue feels her life will be constrained for decades to come because of student loan debt. She opens a thick binder of documents.

HOLSHUE: And this isn't all of them. I think at last count there was something like 20 different loans...

LUDDEN: Twenty loans totaling $140,000 dollars, for both her bachelor's and nursing degrees. Holshue says she's in debt more than her parents ever were when they bought a house. In fact, her monthly student loan payment of $1,100 is nearly as much as her rent.

HOLSHUE: The first of the month I might have $100 to live on for two weeks, which doesn't even pay my transportation cost.

LUDDEN: Holshue says she used to tease her dad, calling him cheap for buying in bulk. Now, she's right there with him, a stack of coupons clipped to a refrigerator magnet, a closet full of toilet paper. Despite all this, she says she often has to put food on a credit card. So is she living her dream?

HOLSHUE: I would say that I am, but it's really hard. Like, living the dream isn't supposed to be so hard.

CLIFF ZUKIN: Part of the American dream is that if you work hard, and you get an education and you apply yourself, you'll be successful.

LUDDEN: And yet, Cliff Zukin of Rutgers University says a third of recent college graduates do not believe that's true for them. Surveying those who graduated between 2006 and 2011, Zukin finds more than half say their generation as a whole will not be as successful as the one before.

ZUKIN: When we asked them to think about their own success relative to their parents, in terms of financial success, they're a little bit more positive. But even here, we have half of those who are graduating from a four-year college who don't think they're going to be as successful as their parents were.

LUDDEN: According to her stack of documents, Michelle Holshue expects to be paying off her student loans until 2034 when she'll be in her 50s. Like many in the Rutgers survey, she does not see owning a home in the near future, if ever. And much to her mother's consternation, Holshue doesn't see how she'll be able to afford children. Still, Holshue says she doesn't regret going to college, or her career choices.

MICHELLE HOLSHUE: Even if I was a nurse working in a different specialty, I could definitely make a lot more money. But because I wanted to help people who need the most help, I think I've made a lot of sacrifices.

LUDDEN: And of course, she says, sacrifice is part of the American dream, too. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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