"I'm having a rough morning," she blurts out, belying her earlier declaration that she couldn't be happier.
A woman, her mother, comes out of nowhere, through the waves of black robed bodies, and gives the recent graduate an prolonged hug and whispers something in her ear.
Gardner is then beckoned to follow her mother to the University Center.
"I'll be there in a minute. Would you give me one minute?" Gardner says, gritting her teeth and turning her attention to the reporter. "I'm sorry. What is the question? What's next?"
What is next for this year's batch of University of Montana graduates? The national economy is healthy, the job market is thriving and the unemployment rate is the lowest in a quarter of a century. The jobs seem to be out there.
But for Montana grads, out there is just the problem, says one employment expert. Unless you think you can carve out your own niche in the Big Sky market, you should get ready to pack and top off that tank.
"Nationally, things are great. Business is booming, just not in Western Montana," says Jeanne Sinz, University of Montana's director of Career Services. "If people want to stay here, they have to be an entrepreneur and create the jobs themselves."
Most people who enter Sinz's office looking for employment are forced to move to the nearest big cities-Denver, Portland, Seattle-to make a living.
"It's too bad, but there are all kinds of opportunities if students are willing to leave," says Sinz. "And I'm seeing more students willing to leave to find employment."
But Gardner, a political science major who graduated with honors, is sticking around. She has a good summer job working for AmeriCorps and will be applying to law school next spring.
"I love it out here and want to stay. I lucked out with the job. Most of my friends are having a rough time of it and are taking jobs that they don't want to," she says.
Just then a van pulls up and a grin-filled face sticks out the passenger-side window.
"Hey Jen. You done?" the blissful friend queries.
"Awww yeah," she yells back as she shakes her diploma in the air. "All done."
In an informal survey conducted by the Independent, 10 of 38 students asked about their future are going the same route as Gardner-graduate school.
Almost half of those queried-16 of the graduates-say they have jobs lined up already. Of those, nine are master's recipients. And 10 of those with employment say they had to go outside the state to find work.
Only 9 of the 38 graduates, all bachelor's recipients, haven't made any plans yet, and three others plan on traveling east to find work.
"It's not that I don't want to look for a job now. I just don't want to be restricted by just having a B.A.," says Shasta Kilminster-Hadley, a French major. She will be shuffling off to the State University of New York at Buffalo soon to get her master's degree-a necessity in her field she says-and will worry about a job after that.
Sinz says students going to graduate school only in order to delay the inevitable rigors of a job search should reconsider.
"What I do not recommend is for students going to grad school just because they don't know what to do... as a default," says the veteran career counselor. "You really need to define a clear path for yourself."
Liberal studies major Ian Warner has a temporary job lined up for the summer and he's not worried about the future just yet.
"I'm going to be a ranch irrigator this summer and I haven't really thought what's after that yet," he says, as he too scans for missing loved ones. "I'm just glad to be done."
The University of Montana's 1997 graduate survey, far more scientific than the Independent's, found that 68 percent of last year's graduating class were employed full-time-a number that has held steady over the past several years.
And where are the best job opportunities?
"Anything relating to financial institutions, high-tech, natural resource management or health fields," says Sinz. "But really, your major is not all that important sometimes. Employers are going to ask, 'What can you do?' You need to learn as much as you can in school so you can do anything when you get out."
Communications graduate Scott Lilyquist says he has no post-commencement plans. Photo by Jeff Powers.