Ann Person graduates in May with a family social science degree from the University of Minnesota, but she worries about finding a job where she can exercise her passion for social justice. Her financial aid runs out at the end of May, and she needs health coverage.

She decided to wait out the bad economy by applying to AmeriCorps, which will provide both community service experience and money for graduate school.

"Being in school might be something I'll do until things get better," said Person, 25, of Minneapolis, who also has a degree in culinary arts. "I'm hoping by the time I'm done with grad school, things will get better."

With the national unemployment rate at 8.1 percent and Minnesota's at a seasonally adjusted 7.6 percent, many graduating seniors are putting off their entrance into the job market and applying to service organizations such as AmeriCorps, Teach for America and the Peace Corps instead.

AmeriCorps received 9,731 applications in February, up from the 3,159 applications submitted last year at the same time. And these are months where recruitment is historically low, said Sam Schuth, Minnesota director for the Corporation for National and Community Service, AmeriCorps' parent. The recession and President Obama's inauguration day call to service have led to a surge in volunteerism, Schuth added.

The Peace Corps reported a 37 percent increase in applications on Jan. 20 and Jan. 21 over the same period in 2008. Overall, Peace Corps applications increased 16 percent from 2007 to 2008. Teach for America saw a 42 percent increase in applicants from 2008 to 2009, mostly recent college graduates interested in serving urban and rural schools.

Tina Wagner, assistant director of career development at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, is seeing more students coming to her with job-related questions. Many are asking about community service organizations like AmeriCorps.

"AmeriCorps is a wonderful option," Wagner said. "It defers school loans, insurance is offered, and it continues the exploration of long-term career goals."

Volunteering can build viable skills for a resume, allowing graduates to network in new ways and find jobs in unlikely places, she said. "You have to be tenacious. Volunteering and networking are incredibly valuable in a difficult job market like this," Wagner said.

Grads are not being picky

University of Minnesota career services director Paul Timmins also has seen strong interest in alternative options to the career route, including community service organizations and graduate and professional programs. Students are so concerned about their prospects, some are having doubts about their choice of major. Others are choosing to stay in school, take a year off or live with their parents until the outlook improves.

"I don't feel good," Adam Rusinak, 23, said with a laugh. "But I don't regret my major or grad school choice." Rusinak is earning a master's degree in education from the University of Minnesota while living at home in Fridley with his parents. He plans to graduate in December and pursue education administration, but there have been times when he has had doubts about his major.

"I have a twin brother who majored in computer science. It's interesting to think about -- what if I did computer science?" Rusinak said. "What if I would have done a different major?"

Rusinak said there are a lot of jobs in education, but he is open to possibilities in other fields.

So is Amber Dullum, 22, a senior in public relations and marketing at St. Cloud State University. The Burnsville woman said she is not being selective about jobs. "At this point, I'll try to get into the job market as soon as I can. I'm not opposed to being a cashier at Target," she said.

Staci Tucker, 21, a business administration major at Winona State University, also said she is looking for work but isn't being picky. "I have student loans and health care to worry about," said Tucker, whose health insurance runs out at about the same time she has to start paying back some of her loans. She attended a job fair in February but came away concerned about how to differentiate herself amid a sea of students with essentially the same resume.

"There were massive amounts of students and not a lot of companies hiring," Tucker said.

Outlook challenging

It's not all doom and gloom: Job vacancies in all areas of health care have increased. Sales, architecture, engineering and law are reasonably healthy sectors in Minnesota. Communications professionals are in demand in health care, advertising and public relations. Accounting and auditing firms are hiring, though not as much as in years past. Financial analysts have a tougher road, and computer and mathematics fields are getting "clobbered," Casale said. But patience might pay off with the latter two professions.

"In 2001, we saw the same thing and it came back roaring," Casale said. "There are cyclical periods. If you can wait them out and get an entry-level position, you'll have more opportunities."

But some students are opting to stay in school and enhance their academic credentials. Hong Lee, 22, a political science major from Appleton, Wis., is set to graduate from the University of Minnesota next fall but plans either to go on to law school or earn some other graduate degree.

"I always thought undergraduate was just a stepping stone. It's good, but not good enough. Everyone has their bachelor's degree," said Lee. He plans to take the law school entrance exam in the fall and will apply to schools and graduate programs around Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"I would hope that there will be a turnaround," Lee said. "I hope there are some signs when I'm done with law or grad school that we're getting back to where we were before."

Ann Person also hopes to sit out the worst of the recession. If accepted for AmeriCorps, she would start in June and be eligible for financial aid of up to $5,000 for continued education in social work. If she isn't accepted, she said she'll head back -- reluctantly -- to restaurant work.

"It is a difficult time," Wagner said. "It will prove to be very challenging for new graduates. This is a much more challenging market."

Karrah Anderson is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.