By Donna Krache
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(CNN) -- In late summer of 2001, Joey Mancini had been talking to his mom about the events that shaped her generation: the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the first moon landing in 1969.
He was fascinated by people who could recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when their generation's "defining moment" occurred. He wondered what his generation's defining moment would be.
He got his answer on September 11, 2001.
"It shifted where I'm going and where we're going," said Mancini, who as a 16-year-old high school junior was in physics class in Herndon, Virginia, when he heard about the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.
Five years ago, Mancini and other members of the college Class of 2007 were high school juniors whose most pressing concerns were taking their SATs -- and finding out who was dating whom. Then came the September 11 terror attacks. Now as they stare down their final year in college and the approaching "real world," they are reflecting on the attacks and the impact on their young adult lives.
Mark Case, senior associate director of the Career Center at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, has worked in career counseling for 25 years and sees some changes in the current crop of upperclassmen.
As students discuss post-graduation plans with Case, he hears them talk more about taking time off to travel or spending the first couple of years after school doing what he calls "good work," such as teaching English in Asia or signing up with Teach for America, a national corps of recent grads who teach two years in urban and rural public schools.
Case also has seen a shift in academic majors since September 11, noting heightened student interest in the intelligence and security fields "in a world of insecurity."
"I've seen an uptick in international relations and government majors," he said. "There's a lot of interest to work in government to affect positive change."
Mancini, now a senior at the University of Virginia, is a case in point.
"I thought I'd be a bio-med engineering major as a junior in high school," he said, "But 9/11 drastically altered my course. ... It shifted the way I view the world."
Now working on a double major in government and English, Mancini has taken four semesters of Arabic and completed an internship at the State Department.
"I intend to be involved in public service, involved in government, somehow, some way," he said.
Other college seniors were affected by September 11 in different ways. Katie Eagan is a communications major at the University of Missouri-Columbia who wants to work in the corporate world. Before that day, she wanted to be a teacher. But experiencing the attacks as a student made her question what it would take to explain a similar tragedy to young kids.
"It steered me away from wanting to deal with children," she said.
Last year, Eagan studied abroad and said the memory of the attacks affected her experience. "I was scared," she said. "It definitely affected my travel and the places I was going."
She excluded Spain from her travel plans after the Madrid terror attack and says she is more cautious in her day-to-day routine.
Since September 11, students also have helped guide an academic shift on campus. Many colleges report a surge in enrollment in courses on Middle Eastern studies and religion, including Islamic studies. Demand has prompted some universities to launch post-graduate programs in Islamic studies. Georgetown University in Washington, for instance, announced its doctoral program in Islamic studies this year.
Nora Wolf, a senior at the College of William and Mary, said that after September 11, "I wanted to learn more about Islam. The reactions in the newspaper and on TV made me want to know what was going on for myself."
She was not alone. When she entered college, Wolf saw that many others shared her curiosity; the classes were hard to get into. The Islam course, she said, "was one of the best courses I have taken." The history major says she feels she knows more about Islam and uses what she has learned when she watches or reads the news.
University of Vermont senior Andy Jones didn't find himself shifting academic courses but says September 11 "definitely changed everyone." He was a high school junior in Connecticut on that day, and like many he "couldn't fathom what had happened."
Some of his friends chose to enter the military and are being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Jones considered joining the military as "the patriotic thing to do" but decided against it.
Instead, the geography/history double major says September 11 "spurred my interest in current events." Jones says he is online every day, scouring news sites for information. "I'm definitely more well-read and more aware of what's going on today around the world."
Like history-making events that marked previous generations, the attacks had varying effects -- in varying degrees -- on the lives of today's college seniors. Ask dozens of students and you'll get dozens of answers.
And while some bristle at the label "Generation 9/11," they do acknowledge that the tragedy unites them.
"Whenever you broach the subject of 9/11, everybody wants to talk about it," Mancini said. "We all felt like we had an enormous stake in what happened that day. It is a generation-binding event."
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