AN ocean of ambiguity, the first year after college graduation can prove more emotionally trying than any term paper or test. There is no set path for making the transition out of college.
This is both freeing and terrifying. One could land a dream job, do a service year or spend six months filling out job applications without getting so much as an interview.
Upon graduating from Gonzaga University two years ago, I was in a state of uncertainty, wondering what to do with a degree in political science. I took the advice of a few older, wiser friends and spent a year wandering.
A month hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Four months cycling in South America. Two months cycling across the United States.
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While post-grad options abound, I urge people to travel after college. Outside of having the time of your life, consider the benefits.
First, if done with humility, traveling breeds empathy. It opens you to the cruelty and injustice in our world. For most American college graduates, such exposure is a valuable experience.
It’s easy to pity people who live in countries with water-sanitation issues. The issue becomes more real when you spend time in a place like Bolivia, taking great lengths to avoid unfiltered water, only to contract a stomach illness that lasts for five months.
Lessons of empathy are difficult to learn in a classroom. It’s one thing to read about the history of the Colombian drug trade. It’s another to meet a Colombian doctor who lost the majority of his childhood friends to drug violence.
Travel can also make you more innovative.
In his TED Talk “The Power of Time Off,” graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister argues that creative professionals can benefit from a sabbatical year. Every seven years Sagmeister shuts down his New York design firm and spends a year elsewhere. A year in Bali, for example, not only made him happier, but also brought creative inspiration for his next seven years of work.
Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs famously spent seven months in India before starting Apple. While bumming around Asia may not turn you into a CEO, exposure to different cultures can improve your long-term earning potential by making you a more creative person.
An extended trip allows time for reflection. It can help you step back during a pivotal transition. It can provide the time and space to discern what you want to do in life, both as a career and as a person. It offers the quiet to think clearly, away from the pressure of parents, the competitiveness of career fairs and the Facebook updates of peers who seemingly have life figured out. (Don’t worry, they don’t. Not even the ones attending medical school.)
I graduated college with vague notions of a vocation. After several months walking, cycling and thinking, I returned with a better sense of what I want to do and how I plan to do it.
A gap year might not be economically feasible for all graduates. I was fortunate enough to graduate with manageable student-loan debt and the option to briefly stay at my parent’s house upon returning home to Seattle broke.
Depending on where you go and what you do, traveling can be more affordable than you might think. A month on the Pacific Crest Trail cost me less than $300. One can live in Bolivia off $15 a day. At $450 a month, that’s less than rent costs for most Seattleites. A summer busing tables allowed me to buy a new bike and fund four months in South America.
Though it doesn’t come with a graduate degree or a job title, traveling with an open mind is an investment in your further education. If the opportunity presents itself, take the advice of the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
Nate Garberich has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Gonzaga University. He is working on a travel essay collection. Website: subparjournalism.com