I Took 4 Years Off To Volunteer, Travel & Work Before College. Here's Why I Recommend It

August 20, 2020

I took four years off in between high school and college. Looking back, it was by far one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. College is so expensive, and while I had a desire to learn and hopefully attend higher education eventually, I was in no rush. I knew that through grade school, the best education I ever got was actually in my family’s travels and not in the classroom. We moved around constantly as a kid and teenager, so not only did that shape me into a very stir-crazy individual, but it also gave me an appreciation for new places. By the time I was eighteen, I knew that if I wanted to grow, I needed to see new things and meet new people. So while I wanted college eventually, I decided to wait. 

During those four years, I was finding my footing in the world. I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but it turned out that volunteers needed a degree. I wanted to be a flight attendant, but it turned out that I was too short and the quality of life seemed spotty in the field. At one point I even tried to join the Navy just to spread my wings and get started with my life, but due to some kidney and chronic issues, that was also a no-go.

college student

So I spent those years working hard. That included volunteering in the coastal jungles of Brazil as a teacher, working for celebrities in New York City (I had a family connection, so that was an adventure), getting started in the travel writing industry, starting a photography business, working as a tour guide on whale-watching expeditions, saving up money, traveling, selling paintings, and advocating for the planet and other beings. That may sound hectic to some people, but I had a blast with it all, and at the same time, I found what I wanted thanks to those things. I spent a lot of time googling opportunities and trying to learn from those who were doing things that I wanted to do. When I saw a writer that I admired, I looked into their blog posts about writing opportunities, or I looked at what events they recommended attending. When I saw someone was volunteering, traveling, or working in a cool line of work, I talked to them and wasn’t afraid to ask for advice. This resulted in me starting out as a freelancer, but I found my grounding with enough years under my belt and the understanding of what clicked with me. I read a lot and watched a documentary every other day during this time in order to educate myself. I wasn’t sure when or how I’d get to go to college, but I was content with where I was. I was learning and growing, and that’s all I wanted.

You don’t have to be in college to learn. People overlook so many educational opportunities daily. There are thousands of documentaries, books, articles, podcasts, and movies that all provide free education. I took advantage of all of these things. Combined with traveling, getting certificates online (for free—google what certificates people have that you admire, and work toward those), and doing a lot of volunteer work domestically (mainly through my own means of handing out dinners, downloading an app that helped me grocery shop for the blind, litter pick-ups, etc.), I was not only busy, but growing. I had to take initiative to progress, but it was so rewarding. I wouldn’t be who I am if I had gone from high school classrooms straight to college lecture halls. Society wants us to think that college is the only way to grow or be successful, but that’s not the case. College is rewarding and definitely beneficial, but the growing doesn’t start and stop there.

While the traditional route may be the choice for some, it definitely wasn’t for me, and I have the suspicion that many feel the same way but don’t know that there are other options. We shouldn’t have to choose between being inundated with homework and stuck in desks for all of our young lives, or never getting a degree at all. I believe very strongly that if more people took years off until they not only knew what they wanted, had time to grow up a little more, and could find a way to affordably do school, people would be happier and they’d get more out of their education.

I waited until I knew that school was what I actually wanted and found one that paid for my education. I wouldn’t be wasting money on a degree that I wasn’t passionate about either, because I’d already spent years in the workforce. I knew what degrees employers looked for, and I knew what I wanted by then. By the time I graduate college now, my high school graduating class will have three years of professional experience. I will have seven. That makes a difference in a competitive job market. And you don’t need to go to college to be happy, educated, or well-rounded. It can help with getting certain jobs, but experience and proven skill speaks louder than a piece of paper. 

Of course, college can be so enriching and educational when you’re there because you want to be there. Waiting to go to college has made me appreciate it, and I notice that I am more invested in my education than those who sit next to me in classes. I take advantage of every free lecture, and when I am picking what classes to take, I pick ones that teach things that I know I’ll need (but that also sound interesting—college shouldn’t be miserable). I spend the gaps in my classes studying, and it provides me with time to keep working in my field and go on adventures with my partner and friends. I chose to get a double major in Environmental Studies and Creative Writing and a concentration in Gender Studies, because I knew it would set me apart, and the subjects were things I was extremely passionate about. I’m sure that I wouldn’t have had as strong of a sense of self if I had gone straight to school, and I might not have chased what I’m passionate about at the expense of what’s practical or well-paying.

Let’s normalize chasing our passion in a healthy way. Let’s normalize the idea that you don’t start living when you go to college or check off certain boxes. What you do today, is what you’re doing with your life. If you’re not in college or doing what everyone else is doing, it still counts—you’re still valid. There are millions of ways to spend your life. Live a little. Work, travel, meet new people, find out what you want from life, eat good food, take dance lessons, take sustainability courses online—do your thing. But as the validity of higher education comes into serious question in the wake of COVID-19, now is a good chance to ask yourself whether you really want it. If yes, then dive in by all means. If not, that’s great too. 

Also by Emily: I Celebrate Pagan Holidays. Here’s Why You Should, Too

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Photo: Clay Banks via Unsplash

Emily Iris Degn
Emily Iris Degn is an environmental travel writer, editor, passionate eco-journalist, professional artist, and published eco-poet. She is from the San Juan Islands, but currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her incredible partner and beloved sea shell collection. You can find her in many spaces on Instagram: @emilyirisdegn @happyvegansfeed @emfallstoearth @emilydegnart OR at emilyirisdegn.com.


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