Transcripts. Letters of recommendation. Freaking out over the relative merits of extracurricular activities. It’s August, and college application season is officially upon us, marking the final culmination of the high school experience. It seems as if the school of your choice will decide your success, wealth, and happiness for life. Not in actuality. But last year, that’s how it felt.
In the frenzy of late nights spent writing essays and meeting deadlines, I tried to ignore the part of me that knew it was wrong. I wasn’t excited for the next step. I didn’t dare admit it because college represented curiosity and exploration and determination, values I held in the highest regard. I didn’t dare admit it because as a straight-A, Midwestern student, I grew up in a narrative where going straight to college and working hard equaled success, while choosing otherwise was a waste of talent and time and energy. I didn’t dare admit it because I was afraid of the gap year stigma.
I had been taught to think critically about mathematical problem sets, historical figures of influence, and classical literature, to make connections between subjects and across disciplines. Why wasn’t I analyzing the way I lived my life? I wasn’t making the best choice for myself. I was following a choice that I saw as predetermined, taking a path simply because I had chosen to look no further.
And that was my tipping point.
Blindly following a predetermined path to enter the adult world is not how I want to live the one life I have. Other people will not choose my job, my life partner, or my happiness. I will. I choose to be the final determinant in the ownership of my life and to embrace the consequences that follow.
Now, I am confident in embracing my capacity to choose. I am confident because a bridge year is a validation, not a renunciation of my values. Curiosity is not held captive by institutions of higher education, nor should it be. It exists in discovering the subtleties of a foreign language, reading for sheer pleasure, and engaging strangers in conversation; in researching scientific reasons behind a sunrise and reading sacred texts of other religions. Choosing a bridge year does not mean sacrificing intelligence. It means pursuing it. Rather than following a path simply because it is, analyze and reshape the path to fit a purpose. Isn’t that the innate beauty of the human mind, our ability to choose?
At first I found it hard to verbalize why I was traveling to Senegal. It was a feeling I couldn’t quite put into words. I have found them. If you ask me why I chose Global Citizen Year, I will not give you vague generalities about finding my purpose. I will tell you this: I am a Midwestern girl who is passionate about the outdoors and chemistry and engineering; I want to interact with another culture and think critically about the beliefs and the values by which I will live my life; I plan to apprentice in environmental conservation; I aim to gain a more complete understanding of the issues I plan to study and devote a career to; I will go into my first year as an undergraduate filled with questions to be answered, not one burned out in an endless cycle of standardized testing. I will tell you this: I am continuing my education, not abandoning it.
To all of you entering your senior year, think about why you wake up in the morning. Live your life so at random moments, you have the feeling of promise and excitement usually only accompanied by copious amounts of coffee. If you cannot wait to enter university, do it; but if you don’t know why you’re continuing on except for the sole reason that everybody else is doing so, take a step back. What use is your education if you are not invested in it? What use are hours spent improving your rational thinking if you graduate university without an idea of what you want to do next, let alone what you care about?
Listen up. At age eighteen, you are not expected to know what you want to do with your life. You are not a package wrapped up in perfectly edited, Twitter-length paragraphs. The Common App does not decide your future. You do. Explore your interests. Get passionate about something. Speak out even if you’re afraid to. Stretch your comfort zone. Cultivate the mindset that learning does not stop with higher education, and then, then you will be daring to live by the axiom that each of us has the power to choose our own path in life.
Elise Marie Leise, Global Citizen Fellow 2018