As part of “Higher Learning Week” at The Grindstone, we will be discussing the pros and cons of pursuing higher education as well as always feeling like our jobs are part of the school of life.
When asked to come up with a list of adjectives that describe myself, “American” isn’t necessarily at the top of the list. But when I travel to other countries, I become intensely aware of how much the country that I live in has affected my values, beliefs, and goals. While on a recent trip to Australia, a friend cautioned me against staying in a particular hostel: “it’s overrun with gap year kids,” he told me. The phrase made me wistful and envious. Gap year.
In many countries, it’s traditional for kids to take a one year break between high school and college. During that “gap year,” they do anything from travel to volunteer to get a job. After that, they go back to college, often with a better sense of what career they want to pursue or what subject they want to study. Seeing these 17 and 18 year old backpackers made me think back to when I was that age. If I’d told my parents that I wanted to spend a year doing some other stuff before starting college, they would have freaked out. American culture is go, go, go, succeed, succeed, succeed – taking a break is seen as a sign of weakness. Americans have less vacation time than almost any other first world country, not to mention longer work weeks. The trajectory is supposed to go high school -> college -> job or graduate school -> job -> job, with no variations. Saying “I’d like to spend the 18th year of my life backpacking around and maybe working in a cafe” in America is tantamount to saying “I’d like to drop out of society, not be productive, and waste my life.” We’re a country permanently in hyperdrive, even if we’re going in the wrong direction.
80 percent of American college freshmen show up with an undeclared major, and most will change majors at least once before graduating. With college costs constantly on the rise, changing majors can lead to expensive extra semesters. Not every college freshman has his or her life entirely figured out yet, and spending a year away from the pace and pressure of school can help a young adult find their true passion or test drive a career before having to commit to an expensive and time-consuming course of study.
Having a gap year is a way of saying that life is about more than just good grades or prepping for a career – it’s about having experiences. Unfortunately, America relies too heavily on the language of the work ethic, believing that anyone who opts for something other than a 9-to-5 life is lazy or lacking in ambition. A gap year is just a year, but it’s a period where young Americans could grow as individuals, explore their goals without making a financial investment, and learn about potential careers. But even though I didn’t do a gap year when I was a teenager, there’s no reason I can’t do one now. After all, I already have a backpack.