Grads look into gap year

By Jackie Pearce, News Correspondent

This year’s graduating class can do without reminders of their bleak career opportunities.
With constant coverage on cable networks and news headlines preaching the same dire statistics, the work options may be somewhat less than desirable.
But while 2009 is not the most opportune year to leap into the ‘real world,’ some seniors are getting creative with their post-graduation plans and looking elsewhere to expand their resumes.
One option some are exploring is known as a ‘gap year.’ The term was made popular by British teenagers who take a year off after high school before going to college. Some travel, some volunteer and others hold temporary jobs.
For American college seniors, the desire to put off a 9 to 5 job reels from the pressures of the last four or five years in school. Unsure of their future goals or feeling the age-old need to ‘soul search,’ the option is becoming more popular, experts say.
‘I think while we have a lot of students that are ‘work, work, work,’ a lot more want to have a balanced life,’ said Diane Ciarletta, associate director for Career Services at Northeastern. ‘We are seeing more and more students who want to take a gap year and just want to take a break. They’re looking to enrich themselves personally, which is something a gap year can do.’
Research from the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, which studies the transition for students from college to the work force, supports an increase in this movement, showing that more 20-somethings are holding off on a desk job now more than they were years ago. In 2005, the portion of students who chose ‘alternative paths,’ which include travel and volunteering after graduation, was less than 2 percent.’ It has since shot up to an estimated 8 or 9 percent in 2008, said Director Phillip Gardner, citing their annual Senior Destination Study.
Mike Mahoney, a recent Northeastern graduate, is one such student exploring this option.
Mahoney, who graduated in December with a degree in finance, was offered a full-time position with State Street Global Markets in London after completing his co-op with the company. But his British co-workers suggested he take a gap year.
‘They told me to take my time and not rush into a job,’ Mahoney said.’ ‘You graduate and go into a job and that’s your life for 30, 40 years. You need a buffer.’
Mahoney’s college experience is similar to that of most Northeastern students:’ seven semesters of classes, barely-there summer vacations and three co-ops. Ready for something a little more laid back, Mahoney set down tentative plans for a border-hopping trek.
‘I have basically just been traveling around South Africa and East Africa, checking out wildlife and local village life,’ Mahoney said in an e-mail to The News from Tanzania. ‘
He said he’s remaining flexible with his trip in terms of planning. This attitude arose after he was denied a visa to teach in South Africa, he said.
The second leg of his trip will be a bit less recreational. Mahoney said he plans to volunteer in Argentina, even though he has ‘no background whatsoever’ in Spanish.
The rest of his eight-month journey remains unplanned, Mahoney said.
‘I am adopting a ‘come what may’ attitude about life,’ Mahoney said.’ ‘I’m young and have no real responsibilities to anyone.’
Mahoney said some of his fellow December graduates can’t relate to his laid back outlook.
‘Most of my friends [who graduated with degrees in finance] are still looking for jobs or have settled for jobs they wouldn’t have considered a year ago,’ Mahoney said. ‘I couldn’t imagine being in an office, doing a job I hate.’
Instead, Mahoney will keep globetrotting until September, when he reclaims his job at State Street in London.
His voyage highlights how the ‘gap year’ acts as an umbrella term for a range of options, combining both a sense of travel and altruistic activities.
‘If it involves volunteering, world travel or any temporary change of direction, it is certainly a gap year,’ said Susan Griffith, author of ‘Your Gap Year,’ published in 2008.
Northeastern alumni are no strangers to the volunteer route. Ciarletta said last year Northeastern had their highest number of applicants for the Teach For America program, a two-year commitment to work with and instruct children in under-resourced schools.
‘This generation wants to have a work-life balance,’ Ciarletta said. ‘Not everyone, but the ones who want to have a gap year want to do something that will enrich their lives.’
Griffith said a portion of today’s college graduates are put off by the competitive job market and would rather spend their time altruistically.
‘Perhaps an increasing number of people are turning away from the workaholic, materialistic future mapped out for them, and want to give something back or do something worthwhile,’ Griffith said.
Alison Reggio, who graduated from Northeastern last May, applied for the Peace Corps’ youth development program.
She said she loves volunteering, was disenchanted by thoughts of graduate school and felt lucky to have grown up in the United States.
‘Most of all it’s going to be a growing experience for me and I’m not ready for a desk job,’ she said in an e-mail to The News from Azerbaijan, where she is teaching.
She recently started a two-year service commitment teaching at a school comprised largely of internally displaced peoples, or refugees within their own borders.
Reggio’s enlistment in the Peace Corps exemplifies a growing desire to ‘give back’ among Generation Y, Griffith said.
‘Many want to do something worthwhile, especially in the aftermath of disasters like the earthquake in China in 2008, the Burmese cyclone and, before that, the tsunami,’ Griffith said. ‘Global awareness on the discrepancies between rich and poor are increasing.’
This awareness is largely a result of the Internet, Griffith said. It has made working across the world a feasible option by increasing the scope of jobs graduates can look for, she said.
Finding positions like driving houseboats in Arizona or teaching English in Southeast Asia is becoming as common as looking for the first 9 to 5, she added.
‘Plainly, some students are just confused about where they want to take their life, and are turned off by the notion of a ‘desk job,” Griffith said. ‘They’re using this gap year to test their skills and figure out what they’re good at, and how to turn it into a career.’
Allison Holzer, a professional development coach, said she often counsels students who are considering the ‘alternate paths’ after graduation.
‘They might have a strong value for freedom or creativity and those types of things may not sit well within the traditional 9 to 5,’ Holzer said.
She said she encourages students to assess their interests and values and work these into whatever they do.
‘If you’re in school and it’s your senior year, and you are really valuing adventure right now, then you may want to try something different,’ Holzer said.
That’s what Megan Giroux did.
Sprawling out photos from her 10-month stint with AmeriCorps, she explained why she delayed graduate school and signed up for the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a branch of the domestic service organization AmeriCorps.’ It was a decision her parents didn’t fully approve of, she said.
But it was a choice that led her to California and across the hurricane-ravaged Gulf of Mexico. Her tasks, she said, often felt ‘like an episode of dirty jobs.” But ultimately, it was something Giroux didn’t regret, she said.
‘It was hands down the best decision I’ve ever made,’ said Giroux, who graduated from Northeastern in 2007.
The challenges of her time with AmeriCorps ‘- working with underprivileged children in Sacramento, fixing up mold-infested houses in New Orleans, living off $10 a day ‘- were what made it so rewarding, she said. ‘
Taking time off before continuing her education allowed Giroux to explore deeper within herself, focus her thoughts on the future and realize her strengths, she said.
‘What is that quote I love?’ Giroux asked herself. ‘Oh!’ It’s ‘find yourself in the service of others.’ It’s true because you come out so much better.’
Service opportunities are one option for 2009 graduates, as students contemplate their fate in the face of the current economic crisis.
The Collegiate Employment Research Institute’s November report, the most recently released data, shows a drop of 8 percent in job opportunities from last year. In 2006, the amount of job opportunities was expanding, Gardner said.
‘It was practically in the double digits, Gardner said.
That has changed.
He said the decline is just beginning.
‘It’s going to be worse by springtime and probably going to get worse after that,’ Gardner said.
He said because of the increased competition for jobs and the layoffs that are becoming commonplace, students will need to find a method of making themselves stand out from their fellow job applicants.
‘There’s going to be a lot of looking at NGO, non-profit, volunteer work, English as a second language,’ Gardner said.’ ‘They’re going to have to be creative on how they transition into the labor force.’
Ciarletta said Northeastern is taking steps to expand options for graduates. Graduating seniors and those who have graduated in the last five years can take advantage of the Double Husky Scholarship, which offers a 25 percent discount on graduate programs at Northeastern, she said.
Karl Haigler, author of the 2005 book ‘The Gap Year Advantage:’ Taking Time Off Abroad,’ recommended several websites for students looking to take a gap year. For students who want to travel internationally:’ Bunac.org, which helps travelers obtain visas, and fsdinternational.org, the Foundation for Sustainable Development, and the Peace Corps.’ For those looking to pursue opportunities stateside, there’s Teach for America, AmeriCorps, Coolworks.com, and for environmental jobs, eco.org and sca.org. ‘
Other useful information can be found at Yearoutgroup.org, planetgapyear.com and globalroutes.org.
Regardless of what type of experience a student chooses, a gap year gives college graduates the chance to step back, and postpone whatever traditional society says should come next, experts say. ‘
Holzer said these young adults are experimenting before they settle down, leading them to choose paths and careers that promote happiness above all.
‘They want to find what really excites them and maybe this is a generational separation from how their parents, the [baby boomers], viewed work,’ Holzer said.’ ‘Students today are saying they don’t want a job they dread doing or something that keeps them away from their family. They want to make it meaningful.’

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