I thought there was only one option after high school: college. I felt like I would be a failure if I didn’t go straight to school, or at least, that’s the feeling that had been instilled in me.
I spent my first 18 years building up my academic profile to get into a prestigious school.
But as a senior in high school, I couldn’t find any schools that would give me the practical experience I desired. I started to care less about prestige and more about finding the right learning environment for what had come to interest me: international development. Compared to my peers – many of whom were applying to 15 or 20 schools each – I started to feel uncertain about my next steps.
Soon after starting my college applications, I learned there was a productive way to tap my growing desire to learn more about international development without going straight to college.
Thanks to some generous financial aid and my bewildered but supportive parents, I chose to take a gap year with Global Citizen Year. Through Global Citizen Year, I worked with the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment and the German International Development Cooperation in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
The year gave me firsthand experience with natural geography, cultural anthropology and economic development — all topics that I went on to study in college because I knew I needed the formal training to contextualize what I had learned from my experience in Ecuador. During my first year of college, I remember sitting in a geography class where the professor was talking about the Amazon and asked, “Who here knows what a liana (woody vine) is? Who has seen one?” In a lecture hall of 500 students, I was the only one who could raise my hand, and that’s when I knew learning doesn’t come in a one-size-fits-all format.
My gap year became the catalyst for the rest of my education, as it taught me how to make mistakes, ask better questions, become comfortable with the unknown and build the resiliency that the unexpected realities of life demand of you.
More than anything, my gap year taught me how to examine my personal interests at a specific moment in time and design a learning curriculum around them — even if it deviated from what everyone else was doing.
I still went on to a four-year university where the experiences from my gap year pushed me to be more intentional with my undergraduate degree. I was more curious about the world overall, and this desire to learn, paired with critical financial support, led me to explore internships ranging from government to media. By exploring a spectrum of industries that touch international development, this curiosity is what allowed me to ask for opportunities that didn’t yet exist and ultimately helped me find not one, but two dream jobs after college.
Looking back at my academic and professional journey, I didn’t go straight to college after high school, but I don’t feel like a failure.
While I’ve made many missteps, I made decisions that were right for me, not right for society. When I was applying to college, I didn’t have any resources that gave me permission to explore options outside of the traditional path. Thankfully, there are more tools and resources today. For example, Michael B. Horn and Bob Moesta’s book, Choosing College, explains the five reasons people go to college. Their research validates that too many students go to school without a clear understanding of their purpose. My hope is that resources like Choosing College will allow both kids and parents to move away from focusing on the “best” school and instead prioritize why they’re thinking about college in the first place.
This “why” is more important than ever. The latest research shows approximately one-third of students in bachelor’s degree programs change their major at least once, and 41.6% of college students report struggling with anxiety. There are 44.7 million student loan borrowers with a grand total of $1.56 trillion in student debt (as of February 2019). These statistics reflect what I saw in many of my peers. Students don’t know what they want to study and the pressure of determining their life’s path in four years is affecting their mental health.
Almost 20 million students planned to go to college or university in fall 2018. But was that the best choice for them?
I don’t have all the answers. And it’s ridiculous to think all 18-year-olds know the answer to the rest of their lives at high school graduation.
I hope that we take the pressure off the college decision process. It’s true that navigating that choice will affect our decision-making frameworks for the future. So, if you’re a high school senior, I don’t want to be yet another person telling you what to do. My plea is simply that you think deeply about the reasons that are right for you to pursue learning opportunities — not for your reputation, pride, friends, parents, teachers or school. Building the confidence to do that now may be the best decision you can make, regardless of where you end up.