In May 2008 I sat amongst 1,000 fellow classmates on another wonderful day on the Marist College campus green. Unlike the other numerous epic experiences spent at this same location, I was torn apart with emotions, just like my 1,000 counterparts. We had just spent the last 4 years together in a relatively tight knit community, and now were being released to the world to pave our own individual paths. With the recession only a forethought, none of us doubted finding a job, but did we really want to? This can not be where the fun ends.
We sat through Vicky Mabry, a Dateline II correspondent, rattle off the usual “You can do it! You’re our future” speech that was generically being uttered at this exact time all across the country. Before we could all be droned to sleep by the predictable, Mabry slammed on the breaks and enlightened us on this grand international concept of “gap year,” a period of transition (usually between high school and university or university and the working force), in which a person will travel the world or work abroad.
Gap year is an opportunity for a person to find themselves, adventure, or discover other cultures before settling down with something permanent. These words by Mabry violently awakened me into my first clear thoughts since the emotional reality I was graduating set in weeks earlier. It was clear what I would do next. Four years prior, my friends and I threw around the idea of a cross-country trip after High School graduation.
Naturally, it was all talk because it is not the norm to take chances like that. I now brought the idea back into the mix, which was returned with negative sentiment about how everyone needed to find jobs. I was thrown aback. All I kept thinking was what Mabry had told us, that once we found jobs it would be hard to turn back and do this again. Our group of nearly ten strong four years ago ended in a three person party packing into a tiny rental car and spending three incredible weeks exploring America. As the trip dwindled down, the uneasy feeling I had pre-graduation returned. I knew from this trip I was not ready to settle for the traditional job. I was 22 years old. I have forty-three years until retirement.
Why would I want to begin a forty-three year stint behind a desk next week? Looking back I realized that in some ways life takes luck, and others it just falls on people who take the risks. I had applied to work for a travel agency in Florence, Italy back in April. It just so happened with two days left on our road trip and that terrible office fate breathing down my neck, I was offered the position. I am not saying that I would not have been offered the job had I not drove cross-country, but you never know.
In August, I got on a plane headed for Italy, knowing I was taking that stereotypical path Robert Frost once described, that none of my friends were taking. (Sidenote: It is funny how much that poem is hammered into our brains earlier in life, only to be brainwashed that it is to unsafe to go do something that deviates from the norm). In my case it was taking an unpaid internship in Italy as opposed to the typical office job in New York City. For four months I worked as a marketing intern and tour guide for a company called Bus2Alps. Bus2Alps specializes in guided, multiple-day tours predominantly for students studying abroad throughout Europe.
During the week I gained incredible first-hand insight and knowledge into the inner workings of marketing a smaller company. On the weekends, my job took me to vast corners of Europe, including Oktoberfest, Prague, Capri, and the Acropolis of Athens, all while living in the eccentric and chaotic culture of Italy. By the end of my four month stint, my offer was re-upped, and I returned to this wonderful life of adventure and experience, while my friends back home were being crushed into a black hole while toiling in a cubicle all day.
Armed with more responsibility and experience, I spent my next four months on this wonderland ride becoming more ingrained in the cultures I was experiencing. I spent the whole winter season snowboarding in the Swiss Alps, grabbing the opportunity to appreciate Swiss precision and engineering while realizing that despite being genuinely nice people, the Swiss are very much into their money and themselves. By spending four weeks in Greece with showing college students all the amazing sites we once learned about in elementary school history, I discovered that despite being the cradle of Western civilization, the Greek country is very primitive, barren, and lacks the feel of a world power. Still, the Greeks are the most genuinely nice and happiest people you could meet. Come May, my gap year was up. I had decided I would return to the United States and attend graduate school.
Since I still had coin in my bank account, I decided return home flying east, landing in Southeast Asia. Equipped with my experience, I felt no anxiety to spend two months in a vastly different land. My two months took me riding an elephant in Siem Reap, Cambodia, tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos, raving at the half-moon jungle party in Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand, road-tripping through the South Island of New Zealand, exploring the Great OceanRoad, the Blue Mountains, and Fraser Island of Australia, and hanging out on Fiji time.
Now, I do not come from a well-off family. I currently owe more than $50,000 in undergraduate student loans, well above average. Of all my friends, I am in one of the least stable financial positions from a family contribution perspective. I am one of the few who could not go to their parents for financial support in the event of some disaster. The point is, you do not need to be rich to take a chance and explore. I sold my car, washed dishes, worked manual labor and worked hard as a tour guide to fund this experience.
During my travels, I met dozens of other backpackers taking a year off, maybe 1 percent being from the United States. In other countries there is a sentiment that you cannot truly learn who you are and what you want to do until you have an experience like this. There are no five, ten, or twenty-five year goals. All they worry is if they are going to move onto Bangkok tomorrow or spend another day tubing in Vang Vieng. The misnomer that has been plaguing the United States youth is this notion that you go to high school, you go to college, and then you get a job, or pursue even higher education. There is no idea of the in between. No idea of taking time for yourself.
We have been so ingrained with how taking a year off might effect our career choices five, ten years from now that we are unwilling to take the risk and see what else could happen. We have the whole of our lives to worry about jobs and money. Now is the time to take off and explore, to lose yourself in the Himalayas, to discover yourself on a rickety Tuk-Tuk in Loas, to escape your fears whilst falling from 14,000 feet above the Swiss Alps. What better time to do it than now? There are ways around our perpetual fears on financing something like this. Work in a hostel in exchange for a bed to sleep in. Pick fruit in Australia to finance your way from Cairns to Melbourne.
I came back to the United States doubting if I really wanted to go to graduate school. Could I possibly learn the equivalent of what this last year has just brought me? As all things seem to come together when you take risks like this, I received a phone call from my employer in Italy when they heard I was no longer pursuing my Masters degree. My risk to go out and see the world paid off. Bus2Alps offered me a management position with a substantial pay if I returned to Florence. I initially went through all the usual drawbacks of leaving.
When it comes down to it, my friends and family will always be my friends and family regardless where in the world I am, if it does not work you can always start over, and you never know where these experiences will bring you. A year ago I thought I was going for an awesome four month experience. A year later I might be headed down my eventual career path. It is getting past the drawbacks that are not the societal norm in the United States.
A year ago I could have taken an office job, and have been unemployed when the recession hit months later. Instead, I have a great job in Italy that I truly enjoy. I feel far away from the black hole sucking my felling graduates in. When in Queenstown, New Zealand, I went bungy-jumping at the original commercial bungy-jumping spot in the world. In the introduction video A.J. Hackett (co-inventor of bungy-jumping), stated the beauty of bungy-jumping is being able to push yourself past your fears and anxiety, throw yourself off this ledge and trust you will survive.
When I stepped up to ledge and it was time to go my mind was clear and I jumped without any second-thoughts. I had been through a lot in the past year and had conquered my fears a long time ago. I had learned that without risk there is no reward, especially if that reward is an adrenaline pumping 150 foot freefall.
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