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Minding the Gap

Arts & Culture | November 23, 2015

Like many graduate students, Cody Valdes spends his days reading, writing, and TA-ing Tufts classes. He can be found in local cafes studying political philosophy for hours at a time and having conversations with students. But he’s different in one way: he isn’t earning a degree.

After Valdes graduated Tufts in 2013, he didn’t feel ready to dive into a career path. He felt that before he could enter the workforce, he needed to solidify his worldview. So he returned to Tufts to work as a TA and independently continue his education.

“It’s putting life on pause to think,” he said. “And to create the space to just dwell and write and form a character around your own beliefs.”

Valdes is just one of many college graduates who has chosen to take a pause between graduation and a career in order to accomplish other objectives. While Valdes is studying philosophy, others spend time after college volunteering, traveling, or working on projects of interest. But while a post-college gap can be instrumental in aiding personal development and contributing to the world, it can come at a cost. Taking a pause can drain precious time and money, and can cause a student’s momentum after graduation to fade away.

One of the most popular options for college graduates who do not dive directly into the workforce is the Peace Corps. In 2015, the Peace Corps reported they received almost 23,000 applications, which is a 32% increase from 2014. According to Dan Ingala, spokesperson for the Peace Corps’ Northeast office, 18 Tufts undergraduate alumni are currently serving 27-month periods around the world, and 546 Tufts alumni have served since the Peace Corps was established in 1961.

Boston Peace Corps recruiter Lori Dunn volunteered with the organization for 27 months, teaching English in Azerbaijan. Dunn says that her immersion in Azerbaijan shifted her values, which in turn shifted her career choice.

“What you want out of the world changes a little bit,” she said. “You might be willing to get paid a bit less for a cause that you’re more passionate about, in a way that maybe you’re not as willing to right when you graduate college.”

But there are many benefits to entering the workforce immediately after college. Before he graduated from Tufts in 2015, Vinny Amaru leveraged his previous internship at JP Morgan to secure a coveted spot as a full-time analyst. Amaru says JP Morgan recruiters look specifically for new graduates, so unless gap time is spent gaining experience at another bank, “you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.”

While he sees value in exploring the world before beginning a career, Amaru enjoys learning about other cultures by studying their economies, which he does on the job.

“While other people travel to experience the world, I can experience so much of the economic world at work, and that’s really cool to me.”

Amaru says he has grown by “taking a step into adulthood” and starting his career. He is learning how to work long hours, navigate a large company, and take on real world responsibilities that he did not have to worry about in college. Amaru says he has developed confidence and a sense of identity through pursuing the next step in his life—plus, he enjoys financial independence.

But some say that working toward a career and taking time off after school are not mutually exclusive.

In Valdes’ eyes, taking the time to develop a coherent worldview is a necessary step toward a career, and teaching students has been “an enormous period of growth.”

Ingala says that the Peace Corps offers hands-on experience in a wide variety of fields, including environmental development, health, technology, and agriculture. He says gaining experience in these fields can make volunteers marketable to employers and graduate programs when they return. He also notes that future employers know volunteer positions in the Peace Corps are competitive, and completion of the program speaks to employers about the volunteers’ character. “If you can manage the stress of having to put together your own teaching curriculum in the language that you’re learning, you can handle other conventional problems,” Ingala said.

In Dunn’s case, the same skills that enable her to be an effective consultant for Boston Nonprofits are the skills she learned from her experience in Azerbaijan.

Regardless of its potential advantages and disadvantages, gap time is a luxury that requires a great degree of financial flexibility. Individuals who graduate college with large debts or the need to financially support others are likely to find the option unfeasible. Valdes acknowledges that the time he’s taking to study independently is a luxury, and feels lucky to have the opportunity.

And despite feeling that he has grown significantly from taking extra time to examine the world around him, Valdes sees downsides.

“In a way,” he said, “I’ve been trying to have an out-of-body experience, to look at myself and say ‘what do I stand for?’ for two years, and the longer you do that the more your body actually becomes decrepit and ceases to be able to move.”

He knows he can’t figure everything out by stopping to think—eventually he will need to learn from action. It took time, but he can now envision himself earning a master’s degree and becoming an educator. By taking a pause, Valdes is learning how to move forward.

“If what I’ve done is I’ve veered off for two years into a dark forest and I’m about to come back onto the main trail, that’s okay in the big picture.”