Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.
Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

“What are you doing after you graduate?”

Whether fielding the dreaded question from curious friends, concerned parents, or well-meaning relatives — without a definite plan, giving an answer to this question is complicated. As over 2,300 UCSC seniors prepare for graduation in a little over a week, the topic on everyone’s minds is the future.

After graduation, students have the freedom to choose what to do with their lives, which is simultaneously liberating and disconcerting.  Graduation is right around the corner, along with a lot of uncertainty, but if there is ever a time to take risks and do something crazy, this is it. Many students are going abroad to take advantage of their newfound freedom in the attempt to avoid cubicle confinement for as long as possible.

Life After College

Stephanie Bouret, a fourth-year design major at UC Davis, has been spending the last couple of weeks researching and day dreaming about the future, when she admits she should be focusing on her final projects.  This is because, at the end of August, Bouret is embarking on a trip that will take her all of the way around the globe.

First, Bouret plans on spending ten days couch surfing in Zurich, Switzerland, before flying to Tanzania to volunteer in an orphanage for two and a half months.  Bouret always knew she wanted to go to Africa after graduation, and found a program through International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ), which places volunteers in any of 14 countries.

“I don’t even know where they are going to place me yet, I don’t really know what to expect, but that is kind of what interests me about it — not really knowing what I’m going to experience there, just a culture shock, more of a global perspective on things,” Bouret said.

Armed with her ‘round-the-world plane ticket and anti-malaria pills, Bouret is excited to travel by herself and become immersed in multiple different cultures.

Round-the-world plane tickets enable travelers to fly through up to 16 stops, including layovers, provided they visit at least two destinations in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and don’t backtrack along their journey. After Tanzania, Bouret plans to travel for at least a couple more weeks, or as long as the money she has carefully saved will hold out.

“I’m done with everything being really sheltered, and I really want to have my own experience,” she said. “You just have to take some risks in traveling and in life, and we’ll just see what happens.”

Despite Bouret’s excitement about facing the unknown, for many, anxiety is often paired with the possibility of adventure.

Margarita Azmitia, Ph.D., is a professor of developmental psychology at UC Santa Cruz. Part of her research has focused on the ways individuals adjust to major life transitions, such as the transition to adulthood.

“[Graduation] causes anxiety for a variety of reasons,” Azmitia said. “Anytime you make a transition — whether it is to adulthood or whether it is to junior high, you are going to have anxiety, because it is a new context. … You have to make decisions about what adulthood is going to look like for you, what kind of jobs you are thinking about, what kind of relationships — all of that is a little bit unsettling.”

Students about to graduate can use this time as an opportunity to learn about themselves and use their new experiences to help them decide what directions to take in the future. According to Azmitia, the jump from college into the real world is made easier by being flexible and open to change.

“This is the time when you don’t have [many] responsibilities, you don’t have a family, you don’t have a job that you have to stay at, so this time is a great opportunity to see other things. You probably won’t have this kind of opportunity again in your life,” she said. “You just have to be open to new experiences, and let things also emerge so that you can see new things. Most people don’t end up doing what they planned, at least initially, and that’s OK.”

April Goral is no stranger to students who are apprehensive about the future. The UCSC career center advisor for arts, humanities, and life and health sciences estimates that more than half of the students she sees on a daily basis have no idea what career path they would like to pursue. Goral helps to guide these students by listening closely to their interests and giving information about the various opportunities open to them.

Goral said that many students do not choose to go to graduate school immediately, and that there are benefits to trying out different options before deciding what to do in the long run.

“Graduate schools are about specialization, and, if a student doesn’t know what it is that they want to specialize in, then they need to go into the world of work and explore and find it out for themselves,” Goral said. “Many of the MBA programs prefer students who have had at least three years of work experience before applying. They want them to bring something to the table.”

For graduates able to travel, this can be a perfect challenge, and a way to learn to be fully independent. Goral said college graduates can further their education in locales other than the classroom, and that their recently discovered capabilities could help them land their dream jobs.

“One of the main traits that employers are looking for are team players, and the team players are not all going to be from the same geographic location or have the same kind of mentality,” she said. “Being flexible, being adaptable, that willingness, and the interaction that they have with a greater diverse population are wonderful skills that they would be bringing to any kind of position or toward grad school.”

“If there is any opportunity to travel abroad,” Goral added, “I tell students, why not?”

Off the Beaten Path

In 2008, the UC Experience Survey questioned seniors about their plans following graduation. Of the graduating students at UCSC, 30 percent planned to go to graduate school, while another 32 percent had plans to get full-time jobs — but what about the rest? Taking time off during a ‘gap year’ is a well-established custom in countries like Great Britain, and now many recent graduates are attempting to make it a trend in America.

Traveling is one of the best ways to become immersed in different cultures and new experiences.  Professor Azmitia said those who are unsure of their abilities to survive in the real world can benefit by going abroad.

“For students that are able to do something completely different, whether it is through traveling or trying your hand at something you have never done before, it is a really good experience to just really … figure out who you really are and see if you can really make it,” Azmitia said.

The main obstacle faced by students who want to travel is the expense involved. However, the Internet is full of opportunities to work in exchange for food and a place to stay.

Workaway.info, the website created by David Milward, is one option for students looking to travel and gain unique work experience while spending as little money as possible.  A first visit to the website featured volunteering in return for accommodations at either a bed and breakfast in the Australian outback or a yoga retreat in the Andalusia region of Spain.

“Everyone should have the opportunity to travel,” Milward said. “It opens your eyes to different cultures and lifestyles, you learn so much, not only about other countries … but about yourself and who you really are.”

Other international networking websites, like couchsurfing.com, allow travelers to find people in other countries who are willing to let them crash on their couch for free. In addition to a free place to stay, these locals will often show their guests around and help them to avoid notorious tourist traps while taking them to places off the beaten path.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is another organization based around the concept of work exchange.  With national WWOOF organizations in 50 countries, “WWOOFers” work with other eco-conscious locals on farms, in return for food and a place to stay.

Joshua Cowan, a fifth-year UCSC Oakes student, used WWOOF in New Zealand to get more out of his trip than the usual tourist experience.  For the last three months of his trip, Cowan traveled around New Zealand, sometimes staying at houses or hostels registered with the WWOOF network. His stays involved either helping in small, personal gardens or with various household projects.

“I saw it as a really cheap way to travel and also get to see what the Kiwi, or the New Zealand, culture was like,” Cowan said. “I saw it to really get that experience — what it’s actually like to live as a New Zealander.”

Embracing Culture Shock

Other recent graduates take the opportunity to visit or live in as many countries as possible, creating the new generation of global citizens. Some choose to teach English abroad as a way to live and work in different surroundings.  This enables the traveler to see a country from a much different perspective than they would gain from a short stay.

When Jordana Miller describes all of the places she has been, her enthusiasm for travel is infectious. She stayed in Costa Rica for a month with a friend who taught surfing for a living.  More recently, she returned from a trip to Mexico, and is leaving soon to travel to Israel through Taglit-Birthright Israel, a program that provides trips to Israel for Jewish young adults. After Israel, she plans on stopping off in Egypt before returning home.

After graduating from San Diego State in 2007 and finishing an internship, a friend convinced Miller to teach English in South Korea — she left a few weeks later. Miller originally committed to staying in South Korea for six months teaching students aged two to 14, but eventually decided to extend her stay to almost a year and a half.  Even though she said teaching was overwhelming at first, Miller learned a lot about herself in the process.

“The first week I felt like I couldn’t breathe because I was so overwhelmed – you literally just go and you figure it out,” Miller said. “The best  part of Korea were the people I met. Everyone that goes is a little bit crazy because you’ve gotta be a little bit crazy to just leave your life and go commit to living in Asia for a year.”

Now Miller can’t get enough of traveling. While teaching in South Korea, she was able to visit Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. She loved her experience and wholeheartedly recommends teaching abroad as a way to see another country.

“I would say even if you are just thinking about it and entertaining the idea, just do it,” Miller said. “Absolutely 100 percent do it, just go with yes. I was bit by the travel bug before Korea, but after Korea, it’s like a drug, I need to leave the country.  Anything that involves my passport, I’m there.”