More college grads taking a breather before the next step


Laurie Heckman worked as a whitewater rafting guide in Colorado. Steve Wiener has been crisscrossing the country in a large van, taking international tourists to see major cities and national parks.

Zach Carson bought a small bus, converted the engine to run on recycled vegetable oil and is touring the country promoting alternative fuels.

All are recent college graduates who intend to go on to graduate school, but not yet. Like a growing number of graduates, they are taking time away from school and the vigorous pursuit of a career. Some are looking for new experiences; others want to test potential careers or devote themselves to public service for a while; still others simply want to have a good time after the rigors of high school and college.

Career development professionals call this break the timeout or gap years, and the directors of career offices at a dozen major colleges and universities said more students are taking it than ever before. In response, the career offices have begun changing how they function.

"At some point, I'd like to do graduate school," said Carson, who graduated in May from the University of Vermont with a major in environmental studies and since then has driven 10,000 miles through 25 states in his converted bus, preaching the virtues of its vegetable-oil engine.

"But I've just finished 16 grades of school, and I haven't lived yet," he said. "I think the important thing is to always be learning. And when I get to the point that I need credentials, I'll go back to school."

Career counselors at the University of Vermont first noticed about two years ago a significant increase in the number of seniors eager to take a break after graduation, saying they were not ready to commit to graduate school or a career.

"Students are saying, `You know what, I've been working hard and I've been doing what people have told me to do for a long time. What if I just play for a time?'" said Pamela K. Gardner, director of career services at Vermont. "They want to find an adventure and have a good time, but they are also thoughtfully trying to find their place in the world."

"We've always seen students do this," Gardner said, "but it's become a more common occurrence, and it's more socially acceptable now."

At Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., many more seniors have applied for community service programs like the Peace Corps and Teach for America in the last two years. At Washington University in St. Louis; Harvard; the University of California, Los Angeles; Dartmouth; and the University of Colorado, counselors said that over the past five years or more, they have seen more seniors looking to take time off from the serious pursuit of their future. Most of these students work after graduation, but not at jobs that they see as part of their long-term careers.

"I tell students there is no rush here," said Linda N. Arra, the director of career services at Lafayette. "Career interests typically don't solidify until about the age of 25. All the research shows that. And yet we are asking students to think about careers pretty early in life."

Students who take a timeout are still a minority of graduates, career counselors said, and not every counselor said the number was expanding.

If students choose to do something different after college, graduate and professional schools usually do not hold it against them. "Most graduate and professional schools today would prefer that a student take the time to go away, have different experiences and then come back refocused," said Bill Wright-Swadel, director of career services at Harvard College.

There are three primary reasons students seek out alternatives to traditional career-building after college, said Mark Smith, assistant vice chancellor and director of the career center at Washington University. One is fatigue.

"I see our students immensely involved as undergraduates," Smith said. "They are taking overloads of classes, double majors, and then they are very involved in extracurricular life. A lot of them are coming out and they are just kind of worn out."

Other students, he said, are motivated by idealism to seek out community-service programs. Kathy L. Sims, director of UCLA's career center, said that every year about 60 new graduates of the university go to Japan to teach English for a year.

The third motivation is to test a possible career by working in a field for a few years before committing to graduate or professional school.

Cultural patterns have changed too, with fewer people getting married immediately after college and fewer taking jobs with companies at which they expect to work for their entire careers, said Lisa Severy, director of career services at the University of Colorado.

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