The Internet erupted last week after newly-minted Northeastern graduate Taylor Cotter shared her story, “A Struggle of Not Struggling,” with the Huffington Post. She wove the tale of her 22-year-life, writing about the internship that turned into a job, her new car, Boston apartment and recently registered 401k. Yet, despite her life falling swiftly into place, Cotter still wondered:
But what about that 10-cents-a-word life that I always wanted? What about New York City? What about freelancing, penning newspaper columns and urban adventures? What about the struggles that I see on Girls and the tales of credit card debt and ramen noodle dinners? Aren’t these the things that really make you 22?
Now, of course, Cotter received backlash, both by commenters and fellow publications. Critics called her naive — “just a lucky girl complaining about being lucky.” Others responded positively, however, admitting they understood where Cotter was coming from. Thought Catalog went as far as to write:
I get it. Cotter’s article was tone deaf to the struggles of a butt-load of people out there. But guess what? People are having all sort of different lives, all around you. And I’m sorry, but you’ll probably have to hear about them. It’s this weird Internet thing now that NO ONE is allowed to talk unless they’ve suffered immensely — or at least unless they have a worse life than you. And that’s complete bullshit and I’m tired of it.
Although most recent graduates would rather do away with the sodium-filled noodle dinners, Thought Catalog wasn’t too far off. What Cotter’s touching upon — albeit not clearly articulated — is what many call the “gap year.” A time to travel between life’s various stages. A time to, indeed, be 22 and enjoy the perks of post-college freedom.
When gearing up for graduation, some students put a constraint on themselves, repeating “you have three months to lock down a job.” Yet, others decide to ride the wave of uncertainty, filling up some hand-me-down knapsack and taking a year off for travel. So, if you secure a job right away, you’re ultimately kissing away uncertainty for stability. You’re kissing away the potential thrill and “urban adventures,” along with the life you assumed and pictured yourself having. Is it really so bad to wonder, “What if?”
In a country riddled with one trillion dollars of student loan debt, where one in two college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed, the complaints are understandable. If you want to leave a job, leave a job, but if you read Cotter’s column through the lens of a gap year, the piece makes sense. When else do you get the opportunity to be slightly irresponsible without the follow-on consequences? Cotter writes:
I suppose that I’m grateful that I can make all my car payments and start saving for retirement while most of my friends are living at home and working part-time jobs — but I often find myself lamenting the fact that I’m not living at home and not working a part-time job. From my perspective, these are just some of the life-changing, character-building experiences that I may never have.
And there are readers who agree.
Boston University alum Amanda Lee admits the six months she spent unemployed after graduation were some of the best memories she has had with her college friends, whom she traveled cross country with shortly after commencement on the money she received for graduating. “We drove from San Francisco, to LA and back up to Boston along the southern route, stopping in New Orleans and Texas, etcetera,” she says, admitting they still reminisce on that trip whenever they’re together.
“I definitely would not trade my gap time for the financial stability I would have had, had I started a job right after graduation,” Lee says.
Becca Ring took a gap year, as well, although hers came closer to the time between high school and college. Ring, who enrolled in Bard College, realized after one semester she was already accumulating loans “that seemed daunting to pay off.” If the next four years followed a similar suit, she also realized there would be no such thing as a “gap year.” So, after one semester, she left Bard.
“Over the last year, I’ve traveled Europe for two months,” Ring says “I’ve been to South Africa. I’ve worked for my cousin’s PR firm in Boston, Ring Communications. I’ve lived on my own, held a steady waitressing job for a year and have certainly experienced the ramen noodle nights Taylor Cotter yearns for.”
Although Ring will be attending Emerson this fall, she admits her gap year has both allowed her to experience the world in a way she may never be able to experience it again — “backpacking with no return ticket” — yet has also taught her about money management far before she had to accumulate the tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
“I am 20 and feel fully capable of living within whatever means life throws at me,” she says, claiming, “I truly believe everyone should take a gap year, whether it comes after high school or if they manage to defer loans for a year after college. We live in a high stress society with a tough economy, and if it’s possible to take a year for your sanity to travel and enjoy life while you’re young, I highly recommend it.”
Boston University senior Erik Bogaard recommends taking time off, as well, although he used his time off to help build his textbook marketplace myBookCrate. “I realized I just could not manage a full course load with the responsibility that comes with being a founder,” Bogaard says. “It was a really hard decision to leave school, however, I found comfort in knowing I would always be able to re-enter the classroom.”
Bogaard spent his year off working with advisors, networking with business professionals, and building myBookCrate’s own team of engineers, lawyers and campus representatives. While Bogaard admits he often thought about his friends “back in school, having a great time with each other,” he admits he learned a lot about starting a company that he never would have learned in the classroom.
“In most cases, a gap year — whether it is before or after someone graduates — provides an opportunity for young professionals to try new things and, most importantly, continue to learn and build upon what was taught in the classroom,” Bogaard says. He also knows, however, each graduates’ situation is different, depending on how fortunate they are to receive financial support from their family.
Sure, most college graduates don’t lament over not being able to eat ramen noodles, but there is this kind of exhilarating freedom behind graduating without having your life set completely in stone. Just remember that once you do have a job, you’re not stuck in shackles.
“The adventures don’t stop when you become an adult with a full-time job,” Lee says. “The freedom that comes with being a financially stable 20-something living in the city makes for a whole new adventure. Who says you stop being fun when you join the real world?