Katia Pawlak/ Courtesy Photo

Three deep breaths is all it took. Three inhales followed by three exhales convinced Katia Pawlak that her impulse decision wasn’t a mistake. Just 24 hours earlier, she walked across the stage at graduation to receive her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Cal Poly. The next day, she nervously stood 1,651 miles away from San Luis Obispo in Sitka, Alaska with a searing cramp in her back from the three-and-a-half hour flight.

The next three months of her life would involve grueling work and wearying hours as a commercial fisherman on her uncle’s boat. It was just the beginning of her graduate gap year, or what Pawlak likes to call her
“adulting adventure.”

For students not working in the field immediately after receiving their degree, it’s possible to take a gap year, like Pawlak did. A gap year is when a student takes a year off to travel, volunteer or prepare for graduate school after graduating college and before beginning their career.

The tradition of taking a gap year was originally considered an option for high school graduates and began in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, according to the American Gap Association. By the 1980s, gap years appeared in America with the founding of the Center for Interim Programs. Interim is an independent gap year counseling organization that provides both high school and college graduates with resources about structured programs and volunteer organizations to enroll in during a gap year.

As the tradition became more widely accepted for American high school graduates, it transformed and became an option for college graduates who wanted to take a year off before diving into their careers.
Not much data has been collected on college graduates taking gap years, but they are becoming increasingly common, according to the American Gap Association.

Pawlak’s decision to take a gap year was partially whimsical and partially practical, she said. She has a background in counseling and clinical psychology, which led her to work with disabled and mentally ill people in the past.

“While it’s very rewarding, it’s usually very low-pay,” Pawlak said.

Working in commercial fishing, on the other hand, pays an average deckhand $30,000 during the summer. Pawlak hadn’t yet heard back from the program she currently teaches for when she decided to take her uncle up on his offer.

“Even if I didn’t get the job, it’d be a nice backup plan for finding a job afterwards having that money,” Pawlak said. “I decided that even if I hated this job, I’m making so much more and I’m outside, doing something different.”

Pawlak ended up liking most of the job and wants to go back, she said. Commercial fishing isn’t for everyone, but it’s a great option to make money, Pawlak said.

The benefits of a gap year

The career-counseling center is a place where fourth-and fifth-year students can seek guidance and advice on life outside of college. Travis Raynaud, interim career counselor for the College of Liberal Arts, spends his days helping students with everything from resume editing to post-grad job applications.

Gap years are almost always beneficial, Raynaud said. It gives students the time to better clarify their values and their interests, especially if they are considering going to graduate school after receiving their undergraduate degree, he said.

“There’s this misconception, and I hear it all the time, that if you stop and take a gap year, you’ll never go back to school. I always say, ‘School is like a bicycle. If you get off the bike, you don’t forget how to ride the bike,’” Raynaud said. “So if you take a year off to travel or to take a service year or to work in the field, you’re not only gaining more professional experience, you’re learning more about yourself.”

Taking a gap year gives other students the time to explore their career goals and learn more about themselves.

Ashley Nolivo, a University of California, Santa Barbara psychology graduate, backpacked through Europe after graduating a year earlier than expected in 2015. Nolivo met several English teachers during her year in Europe and found herself tempted to stay. She realized the solution was to work abroad and teach English herself.

“I wanted to see what it would be like to live across the world,” Nolivo said. “I was considering a career in education and teaching abroad was a really good way to both travel and gain relevant experience. I didn’t really want to jump right into grad school because I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I thought I would gain some clarity with teaching abroad.”

Nolivo now lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working at Satit Rangsit Bilingual School nine hours a day. She teaches a mostly American curriculum to 14 children at the K3 level, equivalent to American kindergarten.

Taking a gap year was the right decision for Nolivo, forcing her to step outside of her comfort zone and learn more about herself.

“It really depends on what type of person you are and where your passion lies,” Nolivo said. “Gap years are beneficial if your passion is traveling and seeing the world and gaining an international perspective. I don’t think for anyone they would necessarily be detrimental; it’s all perspective. It’s not for everyone, but it is for me and I love what I do.”

Volunteering

Instead of taking a gap year to travel abroad, others choose to work as volunteers to further their professional experiences or to try something new.

Psychology graduate Lizz Kolokowsky decided to volunteer for AmeriCorps after her women’s and gender studies professor Jane Lehr recommended the position to the entire class.

“I knew that I wanted to go to grad school, but I also knew that I wasn’t prepared, so I just wanted to do something that was helping others,” Kolokowsky said. “I’m passionate about diversity work and I am going to continue that route.”

Promoting Achievement and Student Success (PASS) AmeriCorps, the division Kolokowsky volunteers for, works with youth considered to be at-risk because of grades, behavior, truancy or gang activity, she said. Kolokowsky began the position after graduating in 2016. She mentors the students 45 hours per week to help them raise their grades, teach them how to communicate professionally and advocate for themselves in a
respectful manner.

Any stigma surrounding the gap year didn’t faze Kolokowsky. To her, it was the chance to boost her resume before applying to graduate school.

“I think it’s a benefit, especially for people who are planning to go to grad school,” Kolokowsky said. “A lot of my professors actually encouraged me to do a gap year, just because a lot of graduate schools are looking for more experience than just college.”

Some see the gap year as an escape from entering adulthood and others as an opportunity to grow individually, but it might just serve as both.

“If they’re unsure of a career field they want to go into, or if they’re unsure of whether they need to go to grad school, a gap year can give them some time to try out things,” Raynaud said. “There’s not going to be any detriment to taking a gap year, if anything you’re just going to learn more about yourself.”

Pawlak couldn’t agree more. After she finished the commercial fishing season with her uncle, she moved back to Spain, where she studied abroad. Now, Pawlak lives in Santiago de Compostela, where she teaches for the Ministry of Education and plans her next steps on a six-month basis. If all goes according to plan, Pawlak will stay in Spain and teach for another year.

“As for the future? I have no idea,” Pawlak said. “I had no idea that my life would turn out this way after graduation. But I’m pretty happy with what I have done. I don’t consider what I am doing a gap year anymore, just another chapter in my life.”

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