Columns, Opinion

GANS: Fish Down Under envies carefree living

I have been worrying about finding a job for as long as I can remember. In fact, most millennials have.

We’re the generation that grew up during the Great Recession and watched as skyrocketing unemployment rates tore at the seams of our previously strong economy. We all had a parent or a friend’s parent who lost their job. We all knew a family who was struggling to make ends meet. And as a result, we all had that teacher who ever so subtly warned the liberal arts students that their career paths might not have a job at the end of the tunnel.

As I struggled my way through calculus and opted to take an easier-level physics class, I worried that I was falling behind my peers in the job race. At our college graduations in 2017, a year that felt distant at the time, would I be the unemployed liberal arts major with nothing to show but a diploma and some fun travel experiences?

Though the past eight years have brought some life back to the American economy and have pushed the unemployment rate back down, I still have the same fears. And with only one year until graduation, I can’t help but wonder: Did leaving the American journalism world for five months set me behind in the job race?

I considered this last weekend as I sat on the five-hour bus ride from Alice Springs to Uluru in the Northern Territory of Australia. As I looked around the 23-person tour bus, I considered the wide variety of people traveling with me. Most were in their 20s and 30s, and not one of them looked concerned that their job potential was on the line.

Was it an American mentality to live life just for the potential of a successful career?

Maybe.

“Maybe it’s a cultural thing,” said Lauren Simpson, a 22-year-old recent college graduate from the town of Wakefield in England. Simpson had been traveling with her friend, Charlotte Illingworth, for eight months following their university graduations. The tour through the Outback was the last week of their travels in Australia.

“Everyone does it back home, especially if you’ve been to [university],” Simpson said. “Some will just take the summer off whilst others go away longer. I think when you get brought up seeing other people do it, especially with social media, and how easy it is to do … it makes it more appealing to go travel.”

Simpson said she felt England’s education system had prepared her to attend college from the time she was five years old. Illingworth agreed, saying she had always dreamed of traveling to Australia.

Once they actually finished school and had their degrees, they had the time and flexibility to relax before deciding on their next steps.

“I have much more confidence in myself since traveling,” said Illingworth, 22. “I’m usually always self-doubting myself, but after moving to a new country 12,000 miles away from my home and family and setting up a new life over here … I have proved to myself that I have much more capabilities than I often give myself credit for.”

Another woman on my tour bus, Stefanie Vandenbauw, was also a recent graduate, but in her case, she had just graduated high school. Vandenbauw, 18, left her hometown on the border of Brussels in September to travel across Australia.

From what she’s seen and heard of American universities, Vandenbauw said U.S. students are under more pressure to get accepted to the best universities and move directly into that next part of their education. In Belgium, however, students have more of a choice.

When Vandenbauw graduated high school, she didn’t know what she wanted to study in college, so she decided to travel abroad for a few months instead. Ultimately, it made her a more confident English speaker and independent traveler.

All three women agreed — traveling was the right choice for them at a time when they reached a crossroad in their academic or professional careers and weren’t sure which road to choose. And for the most part, they didn’t feel that their choice to travel made them stand out from their peers. In fact, as Simpson pointed out, a lot of people do it.

I was only 14 years old when my English teacher asked me whether I was a “math and science person” or an “English and history person.” I remember him telling our class that answering that question was the first step to figuring out what we want to do with our lives.

By the time I was 15, my mom encouraged me to take my first journalism class. I was lucky enough to fall in love with it and find my career path. Just like that.

But most people aren’t as lucky. For most people, it takes a little soul-searching, a little seeing the world, a little finding the person you’re trying to be.

The way our American school systems are currently set up, this isn’t an acceptable choice. It’s no longer acceptable for anyone past the age of four to answer “mermaid” when an adult asks what they want to be when they grow up. Imagination and wanderlust are shaped and deformed until they fit into the perfect square box that is seen as American professionalism. Exploring the world is OK, of course, assuming you’re doing it through an organized study abroad program that will result in 16 credits going toward your eventual college degree.

But what ever happened to experiential education? What ever happened to learning through seeing?

Maybe it’s time Americans learn a little something from their European peers. Education is important, sure, and a strong career can often be the key to success.

But if you haven’t given yourself the chance to travel the world that you’re trying so hard to be a successful member of, what is even the point?

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