So, Fresh Grads — Time To Slack Off? It Might Change Your Life

Luke Stedman of Australia rides a wave to win ...
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I liked this piece in The New York Times a lot, advocating some serious downtime post-graduation. But I wonder how many can afford it (student debt?):

After graduation, I spent five years wandering around doing nothing — or getting as close to it as I could manage. I was a cab driver, an obsessed moviegoer, a wanderer in the mountains of Colorado, a teacher at a crazy grand hippie school in Vermont, the manager of a movie house (who didn’t do much managing), a crewman on a ship and a doorman at a disco. The most memorable job of all, though, was a gig on the stage crew for a rock production company in Jersey City. We did our shows at Roosevelt Stadium, a grungy behemoth that could hold 60,000, counting seats on the grass. I humped amps out of the trucks and onto the stage; six or so hours later I humped them back. I did it for the Grateful Dead and Alice Cooper and the Allman Brothers and Crosby, Stills & Nash on the night that Richard Nixon resigned…

“So, what are you doing after graduation?” Thirty-five years later, a college teacher, I ask my students the old question. They aren’t inclined to dissimulate now. The culture is on their side when they tell me about law school and med school and higher degrees in journalism and business; or when they talk about a research grant in China or a well-paying gig teaching English in Japan.

I’m impressed, sure, but I’m worried about them too. Aren’t they deciding too soon? Shouldn’t they hang out a little, learn to take it slow?

I spent four months traveling alone through Europe when I was 20 and it changed me forever, as I knew (and hoped) that it would. I had no student debt (Canadian universities, today, are still only about $5,000 a year in tuition for citizens) and some savings and some assignments and some money from my Mom.

I had never been so lonely — or so adventurous. I began in Lisbon, traveled through Portugal, Spain, Italy and France. Workaholic even then, I sold 10 freelance stories to Canadian newspaper editors.

But I still had some wild moments, from being taken home by an odd Frenchman missing a few fingers to his wife and kids to the unbelievable hospitality of a German Reuters stringer in Barcelona who invited me into her home, alone with her kids, after barely an hour’s acquaintance. I learned to trust myself and others; when and how to ask for help (and when to tough it out); that being the only woman amid 55 men on Easter Sunday in Evora’s town square was very, very weird. (In rural Portugal, women were only acceptable, and remained unharassed in public when accompanied by their husband, father or child[ren.])

I still have powerful memories of that journey: writing a letter to John Cheever with a question about his collected short stories I was reading en-route (he wrote back); being really sick on a train going from Venice to Barcelona; suffering a major attack of hypoglycemia one night in Lisbon and, speaking no Portuguese, trying to buy aspirin; meeting a young couple heading home from France to Lisbon for their marriage that weekend.

They needed a wedding photographer — and I became it — wearing a lovely dress I had just bought in Florence a few days earlier. I still remember breakfasts around their mother’s table (yes, I stayed with them as well!) being asked why codfish at 8:00 a.m. wasn’t something I devoured eagerly.

I’m not sure what else I could possibly have done in those months that could possibly have provided such delicious and indelible memories. Such a long solo journey also proved my interest in European affairs and working on my own, skills that won me a life-changing Paris-based journalism fellowship barely five years later. Who knew?

I met a young man a few years ago who wandered, literally, for about seven years after dropping out of college. He worked all over the country doing odd jobs, for a while as a short order cook. His parents, wealthy and focused on material success, were horrified; his Mom, a church friend, made his intriguing peregrinations sound insane and misguided. When I finally met him, he was fun, funny, smart, warm and interesting — and, at 29, finally went back to (and graduated from) Cornell. Whew!

His younger sister had — natch — become a corporate lawyer, just like Dad. Guess who won all that family’s approval?

If you’re about to flee campus for the last time, what plans do you have for the summer — or next few months? Are you planning to do anything fun or quirky or go off traveling? Would your parents be horrified if you did?

Parents, how would you feel? Have any of you had such post-grad adventures?