I was terrified to take the year off after I graduated from my bachelor’s degree at Acadia University last year. I was rapidly approaching the age where I was expected to be a functioning adult. Beginning a job or a second degree at that point is pretty customary yet I was doing neither. I was tormented in fourth-year hearing my friends talk about medicine, law or graduate school but I had made the decision that I didn’t want to jump into another degree right away; I needed a little time off. I worked all summer and saved, took on a small loan from a generous family member and spent three months in Europe with a friend and a backpack stuffed with practical clothing.
My post-graduation trip taught me more about myself and about how the world works than my four-year undergraduate degree ever did. In university, your world tends to revolve around few buildings and a football field, all constructed to help you succeed. Traveling pushed me well out of my comfort zone and not studying or working for a few months allowed me to step back and reevaluate my plan to apply to journalism programs and then work for a lifestyle magazine. After traveling, I couldn’t help but feel like that plan didn’t match the person I had become.
This realization hit me in Chodov, a tiny town in the Czech Republic. Stuck for two hours at the train “station” (read: single platform) with various men walking out of the woods and across the tracks towards me at frighteningly consistent intervals, I was sure I was going to die, likely under one of their hands. And if that was so, was I really confident about the way I had planned spend my one precious life? I sat there trying to ignore the hazardous situation and realized that I had changed.
What changed me and gave me the confidence I needed were several people I met around my age who had plans to improve the world. I met a guy from India who was studying engineering in France with the hope of returning to his village to help build efficient buildings. I met a girl from Germany studying politics and planning to use her knowledge to change the stigma she said her country still carries from WWII. I met a Spanish woman who had moved to Zurich to become a science teacher and planned to return to her homeland to teach despite a desperate economy.
They were tackling the big problems of the world.
I realized that it would be so easy to be a journalist who writes articles about how to improve one’s lifestyle or the results of the Grammys. It would be much harder to write about the things that might be uncomfortable, like the current debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. With every country I had explored, my mind had been drawn to the same topic: how European countries were incorporating environmental sustainability into their societies. The United Kingdom had begun to gear their economy more towards local businesses and farms by having prominent displays and incentives for local products. Germany had made obvious efforts to transition to renewable energy, as exemplified by the thousands of wind turbines along the countryside. Austria had large and attractive fountains all over to fill up reusable water bottles. The environment was my big issue.
Now, I look at my friends who are furthering their educations or beginning careers not as though they are leaving me behind. Although the pressure to continue education after an undergraduate degree is always there, I think we—and I would never have said this last year—put too much emphasis on extended education and career advancement while forgetting that we barely know ourselves at age 22. A few months or a year of traveling after years of cramming and writing essays could allow us to get to know ourselves and each other before embarking on our careers. Although I’m not yet sure whether writing will be my way to change the world, I know that instead of journalism school I will apply to this fall to environmental master’s degree programs.
I’m glad I took the time off after graduation to realize what matters to me.