Challenge Success Stories

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, STUDENT? How a Gap Year and Community College can support your graduate's path

Summary: Gap year, Community College, transfer student (graduated UCB at age 28)

Male student, went directly from HS to a film trade school, several years working part-time jobs to support himself while continuing film path; eventually dissatisfied and went to community college, transferred to UC Berkeley in Anthropology.

"Thanks for the opportunity to speak at your event. Here is a little more info about my path:

When I was in high school I was on track to go to college after graduation, but was a passenger in a life changing car accident that changed my path. I followed my wild dreams to move to LA at age 18 to attend a film trade school, The Los Angeles Film School. It was fun and made some movies, but was unprepared for life in terms of the knowledge and skills I possessed.

After LA Film School I was 19. I kicked around as a production assistant, running coffee and giving script notes to different production companies. It was fun work but hard hours and little room for promotion, not towards a creative job like I was hoping for at least. At the urging of my mom I took a few college courses at Santa Monica College as a production assistant. I took Film Theory and Archeology. I fell in love with school again and received two A’s. I enrolled next semester and repeated my success. I was ready to get on a liberal arts education.

But a call informing me I had been accepted to the American Film Institute as a Directing Fellow caused me to drop those plans and attend their MFA program. They let me in without a bachelor’s degree based on the merit of my creative work. It was two hard years of learning, both about myself and my craft. It was very intimidating to work with some of the best emerging filmmakers from around the world. I was a little fish in a vast ocean, but emerged a graduate, one of 23 directors in the class of 2009.

I sat in a temp employment office after graduating AFI. I was 23 and hopeful my years of studying my craft, the craft I dreamed of putting to great use, would help me find a job. After acing my typing tests, the temp agent told me she could find me part time work at $10/hr. I thought back to my AFI graduation when I told one of my favorite instructors that I was graduating with a Certificate of Completion instead of an MFA. She was very surprised and looked at me not with disapproval, but a soft disappointment I still carry with me.

I turned 24 and decided to take bar tending lessons at nights while continuing to work as a production assistant. My additional time at AFI did little to further my career prospects. A member of my anthropology study group connected me with a job as a bar back once I finished learning to mix drinks. When I showed up for my first day of work at the trendy Beverly Hills restaurant they handed me a rag and told me I was mistaken and I was being put on shift as a bus boy in the dining room.

It was in my third month of bussing tables as I cleaned the dried mustard off of my work jeans during my shift break that I realized I had more to offer. I was smart when I was younger, eager to take Latin and AP Biology. It was then I became determined to go back to school and finish. I enrolled in a full course load at LA City College studying Anthropology. I chose Anthropology since I fell in love with the first course I took at junior college years earlier. In hindsight I should have majored in Economics, but I wouldn’t trade what I now know, and the perspective I now have, for anything. Though I will have to get my MBA and attain additional computer programming training, so if you are looking for a fast way into a good paying career, take Anthropology as a minor.

I completed my junior college work with a 4.0 and received a full academic scholarship to Berkeley. I moved back up to my native Bay Area and finished my upper division work at Cal, where I started a non-profit educating at risk youth in the community. I was given a free education and a second change by Berkeley, and I felt it my duty and privilege to give back to other young people who may be considering stopping their formal education early or writing off a liberal arts education as a waste of time. 

I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Berkeley and led the processional for the Anthropology graduation as the undergraduate commencement speaker for the class of 2013. Because of my time working with the community, I met my current colleague, Andy, who hired me on as full time Cardinal Scholars employee right out of college. Now I find myself in a great job as a Program Coordinator, working as an education professional helping people around the country learn while developing content that engages and educates.

Where I will ultimately find myself for a career remains to be seen, but if I can part any advice to those seeking a vocational avenue: follow your vocational call, but remember that college will only give you the foundation with which to build on the vocational training. Without it the training becomes all one can rely on, not to mention a lack of ultimate understanding of the world and how things work. A college education has been the most valuable experience I have invested time into in my 28 years."

Summary: Gap year, Female, graduated Harvard, education

This person was a highly academic student who self-identified the need to take a gap year when she was a high school freshman.

1. Give me your job title:  Program Coordinator

The name is Cardinal Scholars, it was started by Stanford undergraduates and then sold to our parent company, Course Hero, Inc.  I joined almost a year and a half ago as Program Coordinator, I hire college students and place them in paid tutoring positions for K-12 students around the country!''

2. Please submit a list of pro's and con's related to taking a gap year.

Pros: Most importantly, I removed myself from the stressful atmosphere of academic life and gave myself time to exercise, think, read, journal, get bored, work a "menial labor" job, make friends outside my age group, contemplate career paths, study things I'd never had time to study before, and travel.  I lived abroad, volunteered, and learned how to live independently of my parents.  I learned how to entertain myself. I became okay with "being different" and not doing the same thing as everyone else in my peer group (going to college).  I gained some insight into my interests and career paths I might consider, and I definitely gained maturity.

Cons: I got really, really bored at times, and sometimes I was depressed without the structure that I'd been accustomed to for 18 years. I felt lazy by not being in school.  I held fairly boring jobs (in retail, restaurant, and data entry).  I went from being very social to having no friends living in the area (because they almost all went to college or were too busy, on a different schedule).  I started college a year older, but felt about five years older in terms of maturity and perspective, and didn't immediately "click" with my classmates at college. My parents had to help support me during a time when I wanted to be very independent, and that didn't feel great.

3. If you have any, list 1-3 of your favorite resources for your particular experience? Any important questions that should be asked?

Start googling "gap year" or "gap year programs" and build a spreadsheet of the most interesting sites!

Questions to ask when planning your gap year: how much money do you have to spend on your year? Do you want to live at home, travel, or live somewhere else in the US but not at home?  What skills do you want to work on (language, vocational, career, personal)? What are your parents' and your fears or hesitations?  How can you combine different activities or programs to get the most out of what you want? For example, I lived at home and worked for a while, held an internship briefly, and also traveled and volunteered. I both saved money and spent it, carefully.

For traveling programs: Where There Be Dragons (very expensive but highly customizable and one-of-a-kind experiences), Global Citizen Year, Transitions Abroad, Adventures Cross Country, Global Routes (this was my gap year program in Costa Rica), Carpe Diem.  I would google them and just start a spreadsheet of the ones that interest you.

Here is a NYT article that has more options: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/05/your-money/an-often-costly-year-to-bridge-the-gap-between-high-school-and-college.html?_r=0

US News article on 7 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Taking a Gap Year: http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/right-school/timeline/articles/2010/05/19/7-questions-to-ask-when-considering-a-gap-year

4. What is the best advice you can give parents about their students' post-high school paths?

Encourage your student to think outside the box. So much of high school is about "fitting in" and doing what you are "supposed to do."  Challenge your student to consider what they would want to do if no one was looking, or judging, or if they had any budget in the world...and then discuss with them ways to bring those dreams into reality by making compromises and careful investments. If you are concerned that your student will become a deadbeat by not going straight to college, require that they apply to schools and commit, then defer, before the gap year.  If you are concerned about cost, consider ways for your student to work for half the year, save up money, and then contribute to the cost of the rest of the year.  There are many ways to volunteer that do not require an arm and a leg to provide an interesting learning experience.

Summary: Community College, Female, graduated UC Davis, education

This was a highly academic student who suffered from an eating disorder and a family tragedy, forcing her to take the CC route.

  1. Job title: 6th grade English Language Arts teacher at Ronald McNair Academy in E. Palo Alto.
  2. Please submit a list of pro's and con's related to your path.
  3. If you have any, list 1-3 of your favorite resources for your particular experience?  Any important questions that should be asked?
    1. Other individuals who are in the same boat are good resources, 
    2. Flyers around campus (ads for extracurricular activities, beneficial programs, etc.), and 
    3. College visits - checking out the campus can completely alter your view of a campus!
  4. What is the best advice you can give parents about their students' post-high school paths?

Be supportive. LISTEN before giving advice. Often times students cannot even express their anxiety about their futures because they feel they have to already have it all together. Being a sounding board will bring much gratitude.

Summary: Community College, Male, graduated Embry Riddle Aeronautical University

This very self-motivated person dropped out of middle school and was mentored and self-taught.

Community College pros:  

  1. Financial aid actually makes a difference.

Community College cons: 

  1. Lack of guidance counselor knowledge (especially for STEM). They may have no idea how to help a STEM major transfer efficiently.

  2. Transferable credits don't always transfer, eg no upper division transfers.

  3. Transferring credits may have no GPA weight at new school.

Gap year pros:

  1. Great low risk time to start a company.

  2. Freedom of choice

  3. The curious may learn something that is not covered well by school.

  4. Highly motivated visionaries may cast off the yoke of obedience.

  5. May lead to avoiding college all together.

Gap year cons:

  1. Not reasonable for everyone to expect this opportunity.

  2. Often a trap for the poorly disciplined.

  3. Sets up unrealistic expectations for those who usually follow the crowd.


Military Service (Civilian & Enlisted)

Army Civilian Service

US Army Corp of Engineers 

Volunteer opportunities (unpaid)

Available District resources

Volunteer & Work Experience

For Students With Learning Issues

CSU accepts Davis Training Courses for dyslexia

Resources for Students with special needs/learning issues   (Parents Helping Parents)

Selecting a College for LD or ADHD students

Vocational Programs

ITT Technical Institute

Gap Year

The American GAP Association   (be sure to look at the Data & Gap year benefits)

10 Reasons to Take a Gap Year

Bridging the gap between high school and college, for a price

Adressing parental fears of a Gap year (also for school counselors)

7 Questions to Ask When Considering a Gap Year

Try Scholarships to pay for a Gap Year, Time Off from Colege

Community College

Assist.com  ASSIST is an online student-transfer information system that shows how course credits earned at one public California college or university can be applied when transferred to another.

Foothill-DeAnza to play big role in statewide online education system

Foothill College Honors Institute    is a program designed for students with a HS GPA of 3.5 or higher (or a CC GPA of 3.3) who wish to have a more focused academic experience (with added transfer benefits for select  universities)

Seven UC's offer TAGs for 2014 admissions (Transfer Agreement Guarantees)

Retaining Students in [Community College] Classes:  (although this is for teachers, it has good suggestions for students regarding the importance of making human connections  with professors and peers)

UC Berkely Transfer Data

Planning Your College Path

Guidance at Gunn - Many resources

Naviance at Gunn - Available through the ID Portal; You must set up a Family Connection through llang@pausd.org, then Go to Colleges/College Research/College Resources for more general information

Shmoop Career Guide (a great list of all the aspects to specific careers--salary, typical day, dangers, etc)

About.com College Admisstions

College Confidential

Fair Test Schools- More than 800 four-year colleges and universities do not use the SAT or ACT to admit substantial numbers of bachelor-degree applicants

Summer Planning a resource shared by Palo Alto High parents about assisting students with summer opportunities.

Rethinking College

Coursera, Udacity15 other recommended courses: Massively open online courses (MOOCs)

Is College Really for Everyone? - This article is from The Prospect, a website produced by a team of Wesleyan college and high school students dedicated to helping other students totally own the college admissions process. 

National Center for Education Statistics - Fast Facts offers interesting data on a range of educational issues, from early childhood to adult learning.

Only 27 percent of college grads have a job related to their major - 2013 Washington Post article about post- graduate employment

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz on TED:  Discusses how excessive choice can lead to paralysis, self-criticism, and discontent.

Workforce conditions by state -NCHEM offers data on a variety subjects, including state employment-migration trends, wages and earnings, percent employed by fields of study, labor demands.

Miscellaneous Resources (about navigating life, education, motivation, etc. with a micro-summary)

Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges, Loren Pope and Hilary Masell Oswald

David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell (a text and TED talk examining the struggle of underdogs versus favorites.) 

Drive, Daniel Pink   (This book attempts to bring bodies of motivation research into the business and education realms. Autonomy, mastery, and  purpose are his focus (and he's very funny).

Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Sir Ken Robinson (He's charming, insightful, and inspiring.)

How to Be a High School Superstar, Cal Newport  (An unfortunate title because it is partly about how to be efficient with your time such that you can focus on your outside interests or simply enjoy looking at the beautiful sky.)

How Schools Kill Creativity  Sir Ken Robinson

It All Turns on Affection, The 2012 Jefferson Lecture in Humanities by Wendell Berry; he speaks to the idea that a successful culture is built on a respect and affection for the local community and lands.

Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need, Daniel Pink   (A manga cartoon format of a young man who followed his father's safe career path. It didn't work too well!)

Mindset:  the new psychology of success, Carol S. Dweck (A pivotal book about research on the growth mindset versus a fixed mindset)

Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell    (This mainly talks about success in terms of all the variables that you don't really control--your birthday, your heritage, the economy, etc. It is very interesting and an easy read.)

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey (The author discusses how our paradigms of success should overlay the natural laws that are centered on character and principles--Fairness, integrity, honesty, human dignity, service/contribution, quality, and human potential).

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B-, Wendy Mogel