Like many of my friends, I did everything right through academia. In high school, I was editor of the student newspaper. I volunteered, played basketball, studied hard, and even interned with a news station at the local college. I wrote college essays that landed me acceptance at schools around America, and gained early admission at one of the top journalism programs in the country.
But when I started college in the fall of 2004, I still had no idea what I wanted to do. "You've always been a good writer," my dad nudged. Because I also loved sports, I settled on broadcast journalism and quickly set to work taking classes that would turn me into an NFL sideline reporter. It wasn't until halfway through my sophomore year that anyone thought it might be a good idea to tell me what it actually took to make my dream a reality.
Years of working in a small market covering Little League championships before I'd even be considered for work in a big city? That didn't sound appealing. I wanted to move to New York. I wanted to make a difference. And I wanted to do it now.
At the time, I was working to pay my way through college as a part-time wedding videographer when my boss brought up a major in public relations. His sister worked in PR, and he suggested that entering that field would allow me to jump in, move up, and start doing interesting work right away. It seemed like a no-brainer. I swapped focus and hit the ground running.
Then came my junior year. I landed my dream internship that summer in NYC, working in fashion PR and planning events like the MAXIM Hot 100 Party. The dream lasted approximately two hours before I realized that PR was not my calling.
When I went back to school that fall, I weighed my options. Should I switch majors again, which would add more time to my college career, not to mention my rapidly growing bundle of student loan debt? Not a chance. I'd put in too much time, energy, and money to start over, so I stuck with it, earned my degree, and set off to make a name for myself.
Soon the bills were piling up, and I clung tightly to the first job that offered me a paycheck. Because my degree and my internship were both in PR, I took a job working at a prestigious international firm, but I hated every minute of it.
As the months ticked by, the vicious cycle of working just to make ends meet kicked into high gear. Suddenly I had a whole adult life, but with none of the perks I'd imagined. The concept of doing something else seemed like a distant pipe dream. How could I possibly explore other career options when I could barely afford to pay off loans, eat, and make rent?
By the time I turned twenty-four, I was burnt out. I quit my job, threw my belongings into storage, and took off for a four-month tour of Europe. At the end of my trip, my credit cards were maxed out, I had no job, no apartment, and still no idea of what to do next. During a fourteen-hour layover at JFK on the way back to my parent's house in Ohio, I slept in the airport because I couldn't afford the twelve-dollar train fare into the city to stay with friends.
In short, things weren't looking too great. I decided maybe a change of scenery would help, and with my boyfriend at the time in tow, I drove across the country to Seattle where I spent my time pitching travel and food stories to editors. The upside? Editors were interested in my writing. The downside? None of them wanted to pay me.
Now, you don't have to have a degree in economics to know that money going out without more money coming in isn't exactly the recipe for success. I'd hit another dead end. When I reached the end of my rope on the West Coast, I went back to New York and reluctantly took a job working for a digital agency in SoHo.
By the time I turned twenty-eight, I was fed up. My peers and I sat around at dinner parties complaining about our jobs, griping about our bosses, and asking the same question: how did we all get here? When I started thinking more deeply about it, I realized it wasn't directly my fault that I didn't know how to identify my passion and pick the right career. The system itself was flawed. Schools teach us what they think we need to learn, but not necessarily, how to learn. Or, to take it a step further, how to learn about ourselves. As memory trainer Jim Kwik says, "There are no classes on how to think, how to be creative, how to focus, how to solve problems, how to read faster, how to remember things."
I became obsessed with why there wasn't a better way, and intrigued by the thought of what might happen if students had the opportunity to step off the treadmill. What would our culture look like if we encouraged young people to explore the world, or to have a profound life experience, before they dedicated countless hours and resources to earning a degree they may barely use?
I began researching programs that would allow young people to hit pause before launching right into the high-pressure world of post-secondary education. I wanted to know if anything existed that would give students this clarity, and if temporarily "opting out" would harm their future success.
It's in that research that I discovered the gap year. A concept born in the U.K., this is a period of time that can be filled with transformation and learning about oneself and the world. It can also help create a clearer sense of direction and meaning for students.
And it's not just woo-woo, feel good stories. In fact, researchers have found that gap year students excel in three core competencies not often seen in their peers who go straight to college:
- Leading and deciding
- Adapting and coping
- Supporting and cooperating
According to data from the American Gap Association, 77% of students who take gap years also report that their time off impacted their career direction and helped them to find purpose in their lives.
Now, I can't say for certain if my 18-year-old self would have found a better path had I taken a gap year. But I think taking time off to look inside myself, ask tough questions and see some new perspectives would have accelerated my journey to self-awareness and armed me with more confidence to tackle the challenges that inevitably came my way.
With the help of Aloft Hotels the American Gap Association and AT&T, I'm on a cross-country road trip to promote the gap year and educate more American families on the benefits of time away from formalized education. Follow along on gaptogreat.com.