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They're just starting college, and they're already making history. They're the graduating Class of 2000, arriving as freshmen on college and university campuses across the nation this month and next.

They'll go down in the record books as the millennial class, however imprecise the label. Because the new millennium doesn't start until 2001, they're really the last of the old rather than the first of the new.Even so, Washington University in St. Louis celebrated the 1,324 freshmen who arrived last week as "the first class of the 21st century," said James McLeod, dean of students. Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton told them that as the Class of 2000, "much will be said and much will be written about your future because you will be the leaders of the new millennium."

Over the summer, the university mailed each member a Washington University Class of 2000 T-shirt on which the fist-size numbers dwarfed the letters.

Checking in late last week, few freshmen wore their shirts, the better to blend in perhaps. Rich Newitter of Rye Brook, N.Y., didn't mind standing out. The shirt, he said, was "the coolest thing that I had unpacked." The green-and-red design was fading into the white background, a sign of many washings.

"It's like a new era," Newitter said about being part of this epochal class. "Ever since seventh grade, we've been joking around that we're all going to be the Class of 2000."

Freshmen at other campuses were no less aware of their special place in time. Andrea Malone arrived at St. Louis University from Granite City feeling philosophical, "part of a new future, a new era."

Others were thinking about practicalities. Meaghan Juergens, a St. Louis U. freshman from south St. Louis County, was wondering: "What are they going to put on the class rings? Zeroes?"

Similarly, Joscelyn Langholt, a W.U. freshman from Cleveland, was pondering how she would fill in the blanks on application forms asking for her graduation date.

For still others, the horizon was the next few days rather than the next few years.

"I'm just thinking about next week when classes start," said SaraJane Osborn, of Sioux City, Iowa, a freshman at Webster University. "I'm not thinking about graduating yet."

Summer hung on tight and the sun beat down last week as the cars, vans and rental trailers pulled up to the dormitories. Parents, siblings and older students helped new collegians haul in their computers and televisions and weighty boxes filled with who knows what.

On every campus, hope, pride and optimism seemed to overtake any underlying anxiety. Edward McNally of Chicago believes the class of 2000 has special cause for optimism. He's president of the Millennium Society, founded by members of Yale University's Class of 1979 in anticipation of celebrating their 20th reunion in 1999.

McNally sees the world and the prospects for college graduates as much improved since his day. The Cold War has ended and democracy is on the rise, along with concern for the environment, he says. "We believe that the new global economy is good news for anybody who has talent, works hard and is ambitious," he said. "That formula has always been pretty successful for college graduates."

But as graduates of the '90s have been learning, that formula is no guarantee. And the Class of 2000 would do well to heed a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. It advised that lifetime jobs were out and that future career success would go to those "committed to continuous learning, adept at self-promotion and self-motivation, flexible and culturally aware."

Still, some career choices bode better success than others. The same study found the brightest prospects through 2005 for, among others, systems analysts, computer engineers, marketing and sales professionals, physical therapists, accountants, occupational therapists, geriatric social workers, medical records technicians, operations research analysts and special education teachers.

A small, random and entirely unscientific sample of freshmen in the St. Louis area last week found none of them planning to be any of those things. Rather, their career choices included physician, filmmaker, photographer, psychologist and a lot of undecideds, even about their college majors.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)