Grad Guide 2007
Not a Delay, But a Detour
Thursday, April 19, 2007; 10:16 AM
Four years ago, standing on the brink of college graduation, I felt more dread than joy.
Sure, I would toss my cap in the air like everyone else, but only to slow what I was certain would come next: As soon as that cap hit the grass, the dorm door would lock with a click, health insurance would vanish and sinister skyscrapers would assemble around me, heralding my exit from collegiate Eden and entrance to the Real World.
My understanding of adult life may have been as crude as a cartoon, but I did know one thing about this "real world": I couldn't join. Not yet. How could I pen myself up in a cubicle when the world was so huge, so foreign, so prime for roving? I sent resumes everywhere from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Johannesburg, ready to seize any offer that came back. A few did, but the "unpaid" theme was problematic. So I waited and waited -- and bought a black cap.
Finally, just weeks before graduation, a fellowship grant came through. I packed two suitcases and moved to Havana. It was in this seize-the-day spirit that I wrote "Delaying the Real World" (Running Press, 2005), compiling the stories of cruise ship dancers, Peace Corps volunteers and ski bums -- all told, more than 100 young adventurers who represented a gutsy generational trend.
While it was easy to track down peers willing to share tales and tips, editing them down was not. People who make unconventional choices tend to rave about the road less traveled. I know; the book's editor begged me to cut my use of exclamation points by a third.
Now, at the ripe old age of 25, I'm curious what has become of Delaying's poster children. Did the unbeaten path feed them straight onto the corporate superhighway? Was the Peace Corps guy -- gulp -- in a cubicle? The park ranger -- gasp -- pushing a stroller in suburbia? To find out, I dug up some e-mail addresses and awaited a barrage of replies. To make sure I got a full mouthful from the original cast, I posed a question that cuts straight to the heart of all life decisions: "Any regrets?"
The grad school folks replied soonest. "You caught me at a perfect moment," gushed one guy I hadn't heard from since he was researching and motorcycling in Taiwan. "I was just searching for a procrastination vehicle." Now earning a Ph.D. in Sociology and Economics, the motorcycle guy now drives a car with four wheels, but continues to study the migration issues that first intrigued him in Asia.
The bird guy sent a similar update, though his arrived via Manitoba, Canada. I gawked at the word "Winnipeg," thinking "frigid." But it made sense. This was the bird guy, after all: the college grad who moved to West Africa to track grey-necked rockfowls and adopt a chimpanzee. Naturally he'd end up studying the effects of global warming on sea birds -- even if it meant hauling his belongings to Canada.
As the grad school replies poured in from labs and libraries across the country, I found myself muttering the same thing: "Of course you are." How fitting that the ESL teacher in rural China would study human rights theory. And what else would the Peace Boat crew member drop anchor for but an International Relations program?
I heard the loudest "of course" when I considered why none of these twentysomethings rushed into the real world four years ago. They had uncommon -- if not quirky -- curiosities. While it takes a while to find a field of study (not to mention a graduate program) to match, it takes even longer to make yourself the perfect match. If you're a bird man, you need a year in Equatorial New Guinea, binoculars, and a lucky sighting of picathartes oreas.
Next, I heard from people with actual jobs -- card-carrying members of the real world. Or so I thought, though few of their jobs sounded like labor. The former whitewater rafting guide boasted of his sales manager post at a kayaking company: "Between skiing, biking, and kayaking, I probably have some kind of helmet on most days of the year."
The guy who taught in Greece confessed that he now held a desk job -- as assistant editor at a glossy travel magazine. The girl who herded goats on farm in France? Yes, she'd finally come home to find work -- at the French Alliance in Manhattan.