How I sailed away from the college-at-all-costs track—and found my dream career

May 19, 2023, 3:49 PM UTC
Maddie Gillissie aboard a 131’ gaff-rigged schooner, where she did a hands-on, paid internship during high school before pursuing a career in marine engineering.
Courtesy of Big Picture Learning and Maddie Gillissie.

When I was a senior in high school, I spent three months sailing aboard SSV Harvey Gamage, a 131’ gaff-rigged schooner, up the East Coast from Florida to Maine. It was a magnificent tall ship but the conditions were rough, with someone sleeping a foot above and below me and no running water or electricity! I felt miserable at first and struggled to adapt, but it was worth it. The experience was part of a hands-on, paid internship I did in high school, affirming that I wanted to pursue a career in marine engineering, which I have.

Compared to my peers, however, I am the exception. According to the education nonprofit, American Student Assistance (ASA), only 47% of Gen Z participants said they had enough information to decide what path was best for them after high school.

From ninth to 11th grade, I attended a traditional school where I was pushed to prepare for getting into a “good” college. That meant taking as many AP classes as possible, getting the best grades, and studying for the SAT/ACTs. This was especially the case for kids like me who came from low-income families. College was the default, even though student debt has doubled over the past two decades.

Test and try careers in high school

I transferred to Big Picture Learning’s The Met High School in Providence, RI, during my senior year. This was not your average high school! It was created to give students hands-on experiences and skills training so they could make informed decisions about their lives. Depending on their interests, they could get training to become an electrician, cosmetologist, automotive mechanic, aviation engineer, etc.

Most of the students at my first high school didn’t have this opportunity. They went directly to college with a majority enrolled as “undecided.” Even today, facing thousands in tuition and loan debt, they still have no idea what they want to be.

Eliminate the stigma surrounding community college and trade school

In light of college costs and student debt, community colleges and trade schools are making positive headlines, yet both are tainted by stigma. Students don’t understand that these options can lead them to what they want to do after high school.

Too often, this college “expectation” is reinforced by guidance counselors who often assume every student is planning to go to a four-year college right after high school. What does that say to students who want to consider other options?

Let’s help Gen Zers make informed, confident decisions about life after high school

Here are tips to help Gen Zers find careers that reflect who they are and contribute to the world, meaningfully and successfully:

Pursue your passion. Growing up in Rhode Island, I was fascinated by the ocean but didn’t know anything about the maritime industry until my senior year in high school, which is why career exploration was so important to me. When I transferred to The Met, I took a marine engineering class and completed multiple internships on seagoing vessels. But the internship wasn’t handed to me; I had to find the courage to email the captain who taught an adult workforce program and ask if I could join, even though I was in high school. He agreed!

Say yes. The experience taught me that if there’s something you want to do, don’t ask for permission–do it. If you’re offered something and you’re not sure it’s exactly what you want or that you’re capable of doing it, say yes anyway. Look for mentors and tap them for what they know–and mentor others. Regardless of how old you are or your experience, there are people who can benefit from your interests and examples.

College doesn’t have to be either/or. When I was a senior, I applied to colleges and was accepted into many. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted from the experience, so I decided to follow my maritime dream first. I love the sea, I love sailing, but I also have a passion for innovating in education.

Now I know I’d like to find a way to combine all my interests which may mean pursuing a degree. But I’ll do it with more intention and focus–and make every hour and dollar count. 

We have to do better–and we can

I know we can do better to help students prepare for what comes after high school. I had the benefit of learning about free career exploration tools offered by ASA along with other resources that don’t come with price tags.

We need to expose kids beginning in middle school to a world of career possibilities that match their interests and passions. High schoolers should be encouraged to do internships that provide work-based learning opportunities before graduation. We need to celebrate students who decide to go to a trade school or a community college, get rid of the stigma, and help them figure out what they want to do before it’s too late.

Maddie Gillissie works as a program coordinator for B-Unbound, a Big Picture Learning initiative, with support from American Student Assistance, which connects youth to supportive adults who share their interests and is building a community of peers learning to navigate their way together. Her goal is to obtain a degree in educational psychology and a captain’s license. To date, she’s logged 190 days at sea, sailing the U.S. East Coast and in the Narragansett Bay.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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