THE BLOG

Filling in the "Gaps" of a College Education

05/14/2014 05:28 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2014

This piece originally appeared on The GW Hatchet.

For the class of 2014, graduation is so close we can almost envision ourselves in caps and gowns. It seems that the last four years have flown by, and leaving behind our college life to begin our next chapter feels exciting and bittersweet. But for some of us, that date is becoming increasingly more bitter than sweet as it approaches.

For four years, we've burdened ourselves with handsome loans to finance our undergraduate education, pulled all-nighters cramming for exams and presentations, and toiled countless hours interning. Finally, our coffee-fetching days are over! Now, the pressure is on to make that investment of money and time pay off.

We feel the weight of expectation from every direction - parents, competitive friends, people boasting on social media, the list goes on - to have secured a "good" job by the time we graduate. However, at some point we realize that despite all of the money we've spent, papers we've written, free labor we've supplied and networking connections we've made, not everyone is jumping to hire 22-year-olds with undergraduate degrees.

In fact, the unemployment rate for college graduates is still higher than the national average at 10.9 percent. And 48 percent of all employed U.S. college graduates today are working a job that does not require a college degree. Even more are in a job that, while it may require a degree, isn't in their field of interest.

This one of many reasons I implore more college seniors to seriously consider the idea of a gap year with a national service organization. The term "gap year" can have a negative connotation because it makes us think of inserting a gap in our lives, delaying, and possibly even derailing, our future plans in the process. But this thinking is dated and backward.

Gap years don't put gaps in our lives - they fill in the gaps left by our college education, making us more competitive in today's cutthroat job market.

When was the last time that you devoted your undivided energy to service? Led a team of mentors in an under-resourced school? Managed a project gutting and rebuilding homes after a hurricane?

These are the types of positions held by 80,000 AmeriCorps members nationwide. They definitely don't consider working 50 hours a week as "taking a year off," and neither should you.

During those long hours, AmeriCorps members work with and lead diverse teams of people, manage hands-on projects and become intimately aware of problems like poverty that face the communities they serve.

Take the AmeriCorps program, City Year, for example. In 25 cities across the U.S., more than 2,700 young people have committed to spend a year before, during, or after college in our nation's high-need public schools. By providing full-time tutoring, mentoring and positive engagement to students who are falling off-track, corps members help struggling students succeed and revitalize the whole school community.

I served with City Year New York during the 2012-2013 school year, and realize now how those long hours of leading tutoring lessons, planning school-wide events, and coaching students translate into marketable job skills. Skills like leadership and teamwork are exactly what recruiters bemoan a lack of in today's recruiting pool. And that makes sense: It's tough to learn those skills from a textbook.

Of course, heading to graduate school straight from undergrad is always an option. But few of us feel 100 percent certain of our career paths at this point, and being any less than completely sure isn't quite reason enough to rush to take out more loans to finance another degree that we may not even end up using. That's why a gap year is, for many students--and for me-- the smartest choice.

As college graduates, we have high ambitions for ourselves: Some of us would even say that we hope to change the world. Taking a gap year not only allows us to acquire the skills that we'll need to change the world, but it also allows the world to change us.

Not only does it make us more effective leaders, it allows us to lead with the perspective of those whom we spent a year serving, those who too often lack a voice in key national conversations. Class of 2014, let's give a year to better ourselves and our nation.