I was going to be the first person in my family to do college “the right way,” meaning straight out of high school with a declared major and no breaks. Deciding to take this semester off and afterwards return to community college instead of the four-year institution I’d committed to felt like taking ten steps back and losing three turns in a real game of Life.
The road to that decision was made up entirely of mistakes. I’m not taking a gap semester because I hate school or am experiencing an existential crisis—I’m taking a gap semester because I took too long to figure out when my registration date was and then couldn’t nab good required classes before they filled up, and I also realized that having two different names is a pretty major life setback. It’s a long story. So my parents and I decided I’d take this semester to sort out bigger priorities instead, and then I suggested that when I do continue school it should be at community college. I’ll get an associate degree for a quarter of the cost while simultaneously bypassing all the core requirements of my original university.
They were fans of this new plan, and generally have never failed to be my biggest cheerleaders. I grew up wanting the be a fashion designer, an astronaut, a singer, a nurse, a detective, an A&R agent, a marine biologist, and an English professor before discovering that journalism is where my heart is. Even through all the doubt and existentialism, I never once thought there was something I was supposed to be doing to make them proud. “As long as you’re happy and can support yourself.” When I reflect, I know this gap isn’t the end of the world. I have my parents behind me, I miraculously landed an internship at a print music magazine, and I’ll still graduate a year early.
That didn’t stop me from keeping it a secret from everyone else until they asked, though.
We live in monochromatic America. Our society thrives off calendars, schedules, and timelines. It’s been collectively accepted that we have one life, and the time we have in it stops for no person and no slip-up. That’s why teetering off the track designed for young women with a dream absolutely plagued me. In retrospect, what harm could these six months do? I knew in my mind I was making the right choice, I knew that I was definitely going back to school, and even before I got my internship I was determined to use my time productively. All in all, I knew this was a temporary halt and that I refused to be lazy with it, but I still felt like I was disappointing someone.
Terms like “community college” and “gap semester” don’t initially produce images in our minds of people with drive and goals, and I think that’s where the weariness in being open about it came from. When I was in high school, a list of where everyone was going to school was emailed to us, and I remember comments like “Of course he’s going to community college” being made. When I told a friend about what was going on, she said “You’re going to be the smartest person at a dumb-people school.”
To be clear, it’s not so much about doubting people that come from less established schools—it’s more the fact that we have predetermined ideas of what a valuable or successful repertoire looks like. A competitive candidate can be so easily overlooked because they’re missing a degree on the education section of their resume. However, I still don’t think that means we should allow ourselves to be entrapped in what seems like the designated life sequence. Admittedly, being on a gap—whether it was by accident or not—ate me alive until I secured my internship. But the point is, it shouldn’t have. What I had to do was what was physically and spiritually right for me at the very moment. When I’m done with community college, the school I’m going back to is no NYU because I know that wouldn’t be right for me either. I used to feel guilty about that, like I could be doing more, but that guilt wasn’t coming from me. It was coming from being scared that I would be one of those people that you couldn’t see had drive and goals from the name of their school.
But talent is undeniable. Skill is undeniable. Individuality is undeniable. Most importantly, passion is undeniable. Guidelines are a convenient blueprint, but sometimes the best experiences are out of the way of them.