Challenge Success Stories

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Student? How a Gap Year & Community College Can Support Your Graduate's Path


1. 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."

2. 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.


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.

3. 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.  (see event slides)

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.

4. 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:  Financial aid actually makes a difference.

Community College cons: 

  • Lack of guidance counselor knowledge (especially for STEM). They may have no idea how to help a STEM major transfer efficiently.
  • Transferable credits dont always transfer, eg no upper division transfers.
  • Transferring credits may have no GPA weight at new school.

Gap year pros:

  • Great low risk time to start a company.
  • Freedom of choice
  • The curious may learn something that is not covered well by school.
  • Highly motivated visionaries may cast off the yoke of obedience.
  • May lead to avoiding college all together.

Gap year cons:

  • Not reasonable for everyone to expect this opportunity.
  • Often a trap for the poorly disciplined.
  • Sets up unrealistic expectations for those who usually follow the crowd.


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