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Taking time ‘off’

Whitney Young | Thursday, September 27, 2012

I still remember that awful point sometime during the fall of senior year when you start getting the dreaded question: “What are you doing after graduation?” It’s the worst thing to hear as you are trying to soak up the last football game, last dive in the fountain, last karaoke at Club 23 (R.I.P.), last SYR and last time getting something sticky all over your shoes at Finnegan’s.

When I was a senior, though, I did not fear the “what’s next” question because I had a plan. I knew I wanted to do some direct service work abroad. Then, I was going to get my master’s in public policy and go on to work in some government office where I’d make a name for myself as a creative young mind. Of course, I would eventually work my way into the west wing of the White House where I’d be the right hand gal for policy and speech writing for the president, who, naturally, would be Martin Sheen.

Despite the fact that Aaron Sorkin had personally scripted my future when I accepted the position to volunteer in East Africa, my “plan” still faced scrutiny. Concerned loved-ones wondered if I was making a mistake by taking two years “off.” Would I lose valuable time that would get me off the academic track? Would the extra time “off” set me back so by the time I got to the west wing I’d be too old and frail to keep up with all those walking meetings and fast-paced banter?

I talked a good game, but, in reality, I also questioned my decision. I wondered if I would be two years behind my peers in degrees and career achievements. Would the president think I spent two years being a lazy hippie?

Looking back, the choice to work in Uganda was the most fulfilling personal, spiritual and practical decision of my life. I could never fully explain how my time in East Africa changed and formed me. I could write countless Observer articles that describe how post-graduate service work is incredibly beneficial to spiritual and personal growth, urging every student to immediately sign up. I could compose an epic ballad about falling in love with East Africa. Instead, I’m going to tell you, despite my practical concerns, my “two years off” turned out to be the best “two years on” the path to my future career.

As it turns out, the GRE books I packed to “study” before heading to East Africa were unnecessary. Uganda changed my plan.

I met so many incredible people in East Africa. In particular, I met some incredible lawyers doing great work in land use, prisoners’ rights and labor rights. Moreover, I saw many opportunities where a law degree would help me engage in various human rights efforts more seriously.

So, I strayed from my path. Instead of taking the GRE, I loaded a crowded bus to Nairobi to take the LSAT. I didn’t have study-aids or special LSAT practice courses, just the newfound freedom of embarking on an unplanned journey. It was one of the craziest, best things I could have done.

The law schools to which I applied were excited about my time in Uganda. The opportunity to accept fully-funded-public-interest scholarships at various schools started popping up. In interviews for these schools and scholarships, I was never questioned about my grades, LSAT scores or previous work experience. All anyone wanted to hear about were Ugandan babies and what matoke tastes like.

As a second-year law student, I am currently rounding out a marathon of interviews. Employers from firms, the government and non-profit groups all want to hear about the same thing. None of them ask about my GPA or what my law review topic is, and most don’t even care where I interned last summer. The vast majority of questions revolve around my time in Uganda, and I’m sure that Uganda is the primary reason I was even invited to the interviews.

I encourage all graduating seniors looking ahead to seriously consider doing post-graduate service work. More than anything, you will come out on the other end a better, more complete and grateful human being. You will learn true compassion, empathy, understanding and how to be fully present to those around you. You will be more thoughtful and more open. You will be changed and you will be “ruined for life.”

But if practical, career-oriented concerns are holding you back, I want to assure you to push those doubts aside. Before going to East Africa, I thought I was taking a couple years “off.” In the end, boarding that flight to Entebbe did more than introduce me to a country and people that I fell madly in love with. It launched me forward on a fruitful academic and career path. And, one day, I think President Sheen will really respect that.

Whitney Young is a member of the Class of 2009.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.