Choosing one of the many career paths can be challenging for students. Recently, JT, a high school junior, stopped by my classroom looking troubled, so I asked him what was wrong. "Miss, I don't think I want to go to college," he said. "It's just not right for me, but it's all anyone talks about. I want to be an auto mechanic. Is there anything wrong with that? Who cares if I don't want to go to college?"
I agree with JT. There are many career paths, and teachers have to be ready to answer questions and provide guidance for students who don't want to pursue a college degree or who may not be ready for college. So what are their options?
We have a vocational school in our area, but because of my high school's excellent academic reputation and sports programs, we have students like JT, who enroll in our school when they'd rather pursue vocational interests after graduating. I encourage students to follow their passions, and I keep a list of the technical schools in the area where students can explore electrical work, coding, automotive repair, carpentry, and plumbing and heating.
There are many for-profit schools that take advantage of students, so I often talk to trade professionals for advice on the best way to pursue a career. Carl, an electrician and director of facilities for our district, told me the best way to become an electrician is to reach out to local electricians and work as an apprentice. "If students are willing to put the time in, they can become valuable to a professional very quickly," he said. My school also has strong internship programs, which can help forge these connections, but students and parents can also explore this option on their own.
Some students are interested in college but first want to earn money and serve their country by joining the military. My school has an Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program, which is designed to show students "the value of citizenship, service to the United States, personal responsibility, and a sense of accomplishment." Daniel, a member of our JROTC, plans to join the Marines after graduation. "There's a lot of turmoil and conflict in the world, and I want to honor the military oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution from all enemies—foreign and domestic," he said. "I'm looking forward to boot camp."
Gap years are often considered as opportunities for only wealthy, privileged students who are able to take time off to travel or volunteer. But more and more often, I see students like Nattali in my advanced placement literature class taking gap years. Nattali told me she chose not to attend college in the fall because she wants to travel and volunteer. "There's a lot about myself I have yet to learn," Nattali explained. "Since the age of 14, I've had a passion for traveling, and I want to explore as much as I can. People always tell me there will be more time to travel when I'm older, but time isn't promised. I want to take advantage of the time I have now before I dedicate myself to another four years of school."
I think the best advice you can give a student who wants to take a gap year is to apply to college first, get accepted, and then defer admittance. Students should also be aware they'll need to reapply for financial aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) the following year. In addition, it's important to note that colleges often view students who take gap years as more focused and mature.
One of the best post-high school programs I've encountered is called Year Up. Its goal is to close the "opportunity divide" by providing urban young adults with the skills, experience, and support that will empower them to reach their potential through professional careers in finance, sales, and information technology. This one-year intensive training program provides students with hands-on skill development, college coursework, corporate internships, and intense support. I'm amazed at the metamorphosis of former students who've graduated from Year Up—they're mature, hardworking, and career-driven, and many enter college upon completion. Check to see if Year Up is, or if similar programs are, in your area.
Many students simply have no idea what area to study, and attending college without direction can be financially disastrous. There are also those who have no money to pay for college. For these students, working is the best option. I worked for several years as a legal secretary before I realized I wanted to go back to college to earn my teaching degree. My friend Janet decided to work as a clerk in a real estate office. Several years later, she got her real estate license, and she now runs her own hugely successful real estate business. A former student, Kaysay, started work as a computer troubleshooter in an office. He went back to school to earn his associate's degree in information technology, and he's now the head of IT for a major health insurance company.
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There are many career paths to choose from, whether students join the workforce right out of high school or pursue an advanced degree. As teachers, our job is to provide them with guidance toward the path that fits them best.